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How to grow rutabagas

Top- freshly harvested rutabaga, bottom- roasted rutabaga with onions, carrots and beets.
wikimedia commons and bottom-Gloria Cabda-Leman- FlixR

Rutabagas are a very old garden vegetable but few people grow them anymore. That may change as rutabagas have become popular with fancy chefs lately and the root vegetable is enjoying a new popularity. Rutabagas are an easy crop to grow and if you want to try some of the fancy new dishes featuring rutabaga you can grow your own.

Rutabaga (Brassica napus), has some similarity to turnips in looks, but they don’t taste like turnips. Rutabagas are sweeter than turnips in taste and they are one of the most nutritious members of the cabbage family. Some theorize they are a natural cross between turnips and cabbage but they are probably just a selection from the cabbage family as Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower are. That means people selected some plants over the ages for their sweeter, larger roots.

Rutabagas have tan or tan and purple roots that are round or oval in shape. Mature roots are 4-6 inches in diameter. The inner flesh of the root is firm, crisp and usually golden in color. The roots are sweeter after a light frost or some cold weather. The young leaves of some rutabagas may be purple. Rutabaga leaves can be eaten like turnip greens when young.

How to plant rutabaga

Some common varieties of rutabagas are Joan, Tweed, and Lauretian. Rutabaga seed can be planted in early spring or in July for a fall crop. They require 90-100 days to maturity. The best tasting rutabagas mature in cool weather so spring crops can be tricky. Light frost will not hurt them once they are up and growing but they germinate best when the soil has warmed to 50-60 degrees F. If you get these conditions about 90 days before hot weather normally hits your area you can spring plant.

For many gardeners waiting until July to plant rutabaga or even early August will produce a better crop. You could plant them where you have removed early crops like lettuce and peas. They will germinate quickly in warm soil but mature and sweeten in the cooler days of fall. You do need to start them 90 or more days before your average hard freeze.

Rutabagas like fertile, well drained, loose soil. A soil pH of 6 is optimal but they adapt to most soils. Rutabaga seed should be planted in full sun and the seeds spaced about 2 inches apart. Cover seed with 1-2 inches of soil. Thin plants to 6-8” apart as they grow. Rutabagas need regular moisture so water the crop if it gets dry.

Rutabaga roots can be harvested as soon as they are big enough to eat, young roots are the most tender, or dug just before a hard freeze. You can harvest and eat some while leaving the rest in the ground but make sure to dig them before a hard freeze. Rutabagas will store for a long time in a cool place.

A problem with rutabagas common to many root crops is root maggots. Make sure to rotate the area where rutabagas are planted in the garden each year. Harvesting the roots when they are young and small helps prevent root maggots. Slugs, aphids and flea beetles will sometimes attack the rutabaga leaves but they seldom harm growth unless they are very numerous. If these pests have troubled you in the past cover the rutabagas with floating row covers as soon as they emerge from the ground.

If you want to save rutabaga seeds you will have to grow the plants a second year. If your soil doesn’t freeze you can simply leave a few in the ground and let them sprout and go to seed the next year. If your soil freezes over the winter it is best to save a few of the nicest and largest roots in a cool dark place until spring. Then re-plant them in the garden. The roots should sprout and send up flower stalks. The roots will get larger the second year and while you could safely eat them you won’t want to as they are woody and tough after flowering.

Collect the rutabaga seeds when the pods are dry and store them in a dark, dry spot. Clean, dry small jars with a label telling you what seed is in them work well.

Using rutabaga in cooking

Rutabaga can be sliced and eaten fresh for a crunchy, sweet appetizer. There is no need to peel them just wash well and slice. They are often cooked in soups and stews in place of or with potatoes. Rutabaga can be cooked and mashed like potatoes. A mashed rutabaga dish with sour cream and dill is popular in trendy restaurants. Rutabaga pieces can also be fried and taste like fried sweet potatoes. Traditional pasties and meat pies often use rutabagas in them.

If you have the space in your garden, try growing some rutabagas this year. They will reward you with many tasty meals.

Here are some additional articles you may want to read.

Are poppies legal to grow in the garden?

How to grow Oca

How to identify 10 common garden weeds.

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