Turnips are root vegetables in the cabbage family that are spicy and crunchy when raw, and sweet and earthy when cooked. Turnips that mature in cool weather are the sweetest of all, but this crop can be grown for both spring and fall harvest. If you want to grow turnips in your garden, here is everything you need to know.
You can also download my How Do I Grow Turnips? one-sheet and keep the free resource handy for your reference.
Turnips are of the species Brassica rapa, which also includes broccoli rabe, napa cabbage and bok choy. Like all Brassicas, turnips are cold-hardy. Under green foliage, turnip taproots are white, purple, red or bi-color.
Turnips can be served raw in a salad or with dip, and there are so many ways to cook turnip roots. They can be roasted, boiled or pickled. Mashed turnips can be enjoyed alone or blended with mashed potatoes. Steamed young turnips are tender and sweet. In addition to cooking the roots, you can saute the turnip greens to get even more out of your harvest.
Where, When & How to Plant Turnips
Turnips require full sun and fertile soil to reach their full potential. Pick a spot that receives six to eight hours of direct sunlight daily, at a minimum, and amend the soil with plenty of compost. Compost will improve soil fertility while also helping sandy soil to hold moisture and clay soil to drain readily.
Turnips will grow their largest in loose soil. Turn the soil to a depth of eight inches and remove any rocks that could obstruct the growth of the turnips.
The soil pH should be somewhere between 6.0 and 7.5, which is slightly acidic to slightly alkaline. A soil test will let you know the pH level and how to adjust it, if necessary.
Use pathogen-free seed from a trusted source. Turnip seed can remain viable for four or five years if stored in ideal conditions.
As root vegetables, turnips do not take well to being transplanted. Direct sow seeds in the garden three weeks before the last frost date for your area for a spring harvest. For a staggered fall harvest, sow seeds every week or two into a deeply watered garden bed during the last two weeks of August and throughout the month of September.
Sow one seed per 2 inches in rows 18 inches apart, to account for the top growth. Once seedlings grow to a couple of inches tall, thin the plants to one every 4 to 6 inches to allow them to grow to their full potential.
Turnips seeds can germinate in soil that is as cool as 40°F, but the optimal soil temperature for turnip germination is between 60° and 105°. You can check the temperature with an inexpensive soil thermometer. In the optimal range, the seeds should sprout in four to seven days.
When deciding what varieties of turnips to grow in your garden, consider which are suited to your local growing conditions and whether your priority is turnip roots or turnip greens. If you want roots but are growing a variety that was bred to provide abundant greens, you could be disappointed.
Alamo is a variety that is grown for its greens. The baby leaves will regrow for multiple harvests. Alamo tolerates aphids and mosaic virus and has moderate bolt resistance. Leaves can be harvested in as soon as 33 days.
Amelie is a bolt-resistant hybrid turnip with sweet and crisp white roots that grow 2 to 3 inches in diameter. The tops can also be harvested. Amelie can be sown for spring or fall harvest. It matures in 50 to 80 days.
Hakurei is a hybrid turnip with white roots that mature in just 38 days. Both the roots and the tops may be eaten raw.
Just Right is a hybrid all-white, semi-globe large turnip intended for fall or winter harvest. It is prone to bolting so it should not be sown in the spring. It matures in 70 days.
Nagasaki Akari Kabu is a purple turnip that originated in Japan. The roots are intended for eating fresh or pickled. This variety is ready to harvest in 50 days.
Purple Top White Globe is a traditional American turnip and popular in the Southern United States especially. The taproots grow white below the soil and purple above. Harvest at 3 to 4 inches in diameter. The leaves are also good for cooking. It matures in 50 days.
Royal Crown is a hybrid turnip with sweet and mild roots that retain their quality up to 4 inches in size. It can be grown in spring or fall and used for its greens or its roots. It matures in 50 days.
Scarlet Queen is a red turnip intended for salad. Harvest when the taproots are 2 to 3 inches in diameter. It matures in 43 days.
White Lady is a hybrid turnip that is good for spring or fall crops because it matures in just 35 days. The white roots are crisp and sweet.
Turnips will germinate best in deeply watered soil. When growing, the roots need consistent moisture. Apply 1 inch of water a week if Mother Nature hasn’t done the job for you. In very sandy, fast-draining soil, apply up to 2 inches of water a week. A drip irrigation system works great for turnips to ensure the ground never completely dries while the roots are developing.
You can broadcast fertilizer over the planting bed before sowing turnips, but if you are amending with compost, fertilizer should be unnecessary at that stage. The time to side-dress with a low-nitrogen or balanced fertilizer is once the turnip seedlings have put on their first true leaves.
If you are growing turnips for the roots, avoid ever using a high-nitrogen fertilizer. The jolt of nitrogen can cause the top to grow vigorously at the expense of the taproot. Look for a granular organic vegetable fertilizer with an NPK ratio of 5-10-10 or so. NPK stands for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and the N number should be equal to or less than the next two numbers.
If you only intend to harvest the greens and not the roots, then you can confidently use a nitrogen-rich liquid organic fertilizer such as fish emulsion, but sparingly. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. More fertilizer does not equal better, and too much can be detrimental.
Turnip Pests & Diseases
To avoid many turnip pest issues and to prevent diseases spread by those pests, apply floating row cover over your turnips at planting time. Row cover is a physical barrier that will allow light and water through while preventing pests from landing on your turnips and laying their eggs.
Armyworms are moth larvae that have a taste for turnip greens. Handpick eggs before they can hatch and remove the caterpillars, which may be green or black and gray. Bt is an organic control for moth and butterfly larvae that is safe around humans and pets and will not harm other wildlife.
Cabbage aphids are sap-sucking insects that attack the turnip foliage. They are small and gray, but when their population proliferates, they can stunt or kill a turnip plant. Aphids are also vectors of turnip diseases, such as mosaic virus. Keep aphids off turnips with row cover. If you do find aphids on your plants, control them with a sharp blast of water. Once they are knocked down this way, they won’t be able to get back on the plants. Lady beetles, green lacewings and syrphid flies are all beneficial insects that prey on aphids. Refrain from using pesticides that will kill these beneficial predators.
Cabbage root maggots are fly larvae. Affected plants will wilt and have stunted growth. Put row cover in place before the flies have the opportunity to lay their eggs. Paper collars can also protect turnips from root maggot damage.
Cabbage worms are moth larvae that will eat turnip greens. They can be handpicked or controlled with Bt. Installing row cover early can stop cabbage worms from ever becoming a problem.
Flea beetles are chewing insects. They are tiny black or bronze jumping leaf beetles, just an 8th of an inch long. Floating row cover can keep flea beetles at bay. Another strategy is to plant a trap crop of radishes, which flea beetles prefer over turnips.
Slugs and snails enjoy turnip greens. Slugs and snails can be handpicked, though it can be hard to spot them all. For a severe infestation, a bait like Sluggo, which contains iron phosphate, is a safe, organic option.
Wireworms are click beetle larvae that can spend between one and six years in soil before they emerge as adults. They are between a half-inch and 3 inches long and can kill turnip seedlings and damage plants that are further along in their development. If you suspect your garden has a wireworm issue, put a potato piece 4 inches deep in the soil and mark it. After a week, dig up the potato and inspect it for wireworms. You can’t do anything about wireworms as turnips are growing, but in the weeks prior to planting time, you can turn the soil several times to expose the wireworms to birds.
Turnips can be affected by various plant diseases, including mosaic virus, black rot, downy mildew, Alternaria black spot, and turnip crinkle virus, to name a few. Aside from keeping pathogen-transmitting pests off plants, the best prevention for turnip diseases is crop rotation. If you plant Brassicas in the same spot for several years, Brassica pathogens will build up in the soil. Instead, wait four years before planting cabbage family crops in the same spot again.
If you plan to harvest turnip greens, begin cutting leaves once they are 6 inches long. The longer they are left grow, the more bitter the greens will be. Leave an inch behind, and the greens will grow back, giving multiple harvests from the same plant. Once the plants have bolted (gone to seed) the leaves will be quite bitter and unappetizing.
Because the top of the turnip root pops out of the soil, you can easily gauge how big a turnip is. Most varieties will be ready to harvest when the diameter has reached 2 to 4 inches. Pay attention to the size at maturity for the specific varieties that you are growing. If you leave a turnip in the ground for too long, it may grow larger but it will also lose its flavor and become pithy. It’s better to harvest roots early rather than late.
To harvest a turnip, grab it by the foliage firmly where the stem is attached to the root and pull up while twisting. For less resistance, water the turnip bed deeply a day prior to harvesting; right before harvesting, loosen the surrounding soil with a trowel.
In the spring, don’t delay harvesting. You’ll want them all out of the ground before the arriving summer heat stimulates bolting. In the fall, there is more flexibility. Turnips that have experienced a few touches of frost will be sweeter as the cold causes the starches in the taproot to turn to sugars, so there is an incentive to leave them in the ground past their maturity date as long as that variety is not prone to becoming pithy.
Turnips should be harvested before the ground freezes, but you can delay freezing with an application of 2 inches of loose organic mulch such as shredded leaves or straw. If you live in an area where the ground does not freeze, you can use your garden as your refrigerator and pull up turnips all winter.
To store turnip roots, cut off all but a half-inch of the foliage at the top and cut off the thin part of the root at the bottom. Store them in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for up to two weeks. They can also be canned with a pressure canner. If eating the greens, place them in a bowl of cool water and agitate them to get the dirt off. Enjoy them immediately or shake off the water and store them in zip-lock bags in the fridge.
What are your secrets to growing turnips successfully? Let us know in the comments below.
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Links & Resources
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
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