Growing Great Rutabagas

This turnip cousin can provide you with a stock of root veggies to eat winter-long if you pay attention to these simple planting tips.

by Jesse Frost
PHOTO: Penn State/Flickr

Whether you’re looking to grow rutabagas because of their cancer-fighting compounds, because you enjoy them mashed like potatoes, or simply because you seem to fail at growing them season after to season and just need to nail it for once, there is some good news: Rutabagas aren’t hard to grow, but you have to follow the rules.

Rutabagas are essentially long-season turnips. They take a full extra month to grow, but they’ll reward you with sweetness and flavor. They store better than your average turnip—up to six month under the right conditions—so they make a great contribution to your late winter meals in addition to your fall market table.

Selecting Rutabaga Varieties

The rutabaga variety called Joan is arguably the most popular heirloom variety on the market, though Seed Savers Exchange also sells a white, albino rutabaga called Macomber that is excellent. Consider Laurentian rutabagas for high yield or Helenor for uniformity. Baker Creek offers a variety called Purple Top—the greens of which are a backcountry favorite in my part of Kentucky—while Southern Exposure Seed Exchange offers three other unique heirlooms worth trying. Plant several varieties to see which work best for your soil and market.

Soil Preparation

Like most turnips, rutabagas prefer well-drained soil high in organic matter. Be sure to prepare the beds well with an inch or so of compost and a good preemptive cultivation before planting. Because rutabagas will be in the ground for a long time, thus pinned against both cold- and warm-weather weeds, be sure to prepare the beds as best you can beforehand. According to Johnny’s Selected Seeds, rutabagas prefer a soil pH of 6.4 to 6.8 for highest performance and flavor.

Planting Rutabagas

For most areas, spring planting of rutabagas is not recommended because they tend to become woody in the summer heat. Some areas of the south can overwinter rutabagas, though growing for a fall harvest is still generally preferred.

Rutabagas should be planted 90 to 110 days before the intended harvest. So if you hope to harvest your rutabagas in the beginning of November, they should be in the ground no later than the beginning of August—July is better in most areas. If direct seeding, sow seeds at about an inch apart and thin to about 6 inches. If transplanting, set plants with 6 inches between each. Rows should be 1½ to 2 feet apart.

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Rutabagas are semi-slow to germinate, slow growing and susceptible to weed pressure, so be sure to prepare your beds well beforehand. This may involve irrigating, waiting several days and raking before you seed or or transplant. Once seedlings come up, cultivate after every rain to contain weed pressure. This will ensure healthier, more productive plants, a larger yield and a marked reduction in the amount of time spent digging around to find the roots come harvest.

Companion Planting

Because crops of the same family tend to share pests and diseases—not to mention minerals and micronutrients—keep rutabagas away from areas where you’ve grown other brassicas recently. Rutabagas have been known to grow well after or with onions, peas or beans. And according to Louise Riotte in her classic book Carrots Love Tomatoes (Storey Publishing, 1998), hairy vetch seems to make a good companion for the turnip family. Consider a winter/spring cover crop of vetch in any bed you may be planting rutabagas.

Rutabaga Pests And Diseases

The primary pests for rutabagas include flea beetles, cabbage moths, harlequin beetles and cabbage root maggots. Moles, voles, rabbits and deer may also nibble. Row cover is almost always the most effective deterrent for any of those pests, but maintaining healthy soil and following a solid crop rotation plan will help keep the crop ahead of most invasions. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) can be applied, though always avoid adding any pesticide—biological or not—for as long as you can to minimize collateral damage: the killing of beneficial insects.

Rutabagas are not overly susceptible to disease problems unless crop rotations are not strictly adhered to or fertility and drainage are inadequate. Rootnot, white spot and club root are common diseases that may occur. If these are seen, remove the infected plants from the garden and preferably from the farm. Planting in an area with good ventilation, while taking care not to overwater, will help keep plants disease-free.

Harvesting Rutabagas

Rutabagas gain their classic sweetness after a couple frosts so try not to harvest until the plants have had a good chill or three. Cut the greens off entirely, and then move to storage.

Storing Rutabagas

Store rutabagas at 32 degrees F and high humidity for up to six months. Remember that one bad apple, er turnip, spoils the whole bunch, so regularly cull any rutabagas that rot throughout the winter.

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