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How to Grow Rutabaga

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Growing Rutabagas

Rutabagas take a long time to mature, but they will store well into winter.

Photo: © Marie Iannotti

Overview:

Overview: Rutabagas have never really caught on in the U.S. Maybe that's because we're impatient and rutabagas take 3 - 4 months to mature, while their smaller cousin, the turnip, can be grown in half that time. But more likely it's because we have bad memories of them being over cooked into an unappetizing mush. Rutabagas are beautiful pale gold roots with a peppery cabbage flavor that sweetens as it cooks. The kale-like greens are also delicious.

Rutabagas, or swedes, are in the mustard family and are a cross between turnips and cabbage. Since they grow well in cool weather and can be harvested well into winter, they tend to be popular in northern countries. Another name for them is Swedish Turnips or swedes.

Description:

Rutabagas are large oval or slightly elongated bulbs with a firm yellow flesh.
  • Leaves: Leaves are similar in appearance to turnips, but thicker, like a cabbage or kale leaf.

  • Flowers: Rutabagas have the typical small, yellow Brassica flower, with 4 petals that form a cross and give them their designation as cruciferous vegetables.

Botanical Name:

Brassica napus

Common Name:

Rutabagas, Swedes, Yellow turnips

Exposure:

Full sun to Partial Shade.

USDA Hardiness Zones

Rutabagas are biennials grown as an annual crop. They may go to seed in their first year, if they were planted early in the spring.

Mature Size:

12 - 24" (h) x 8 - 12" (w)

When to Harvest:

The greens can be harvested anytime after they reach 4 inches tall. If you don't harm the top of the bulb, the greens will continue to regrow.

Rutabagas are sweetened by a little frost. You can dig them in the fall (or late winter in warmer climates) or you can leave them in the ground with a thick layer of straw mulch and harvest as needed. They should be about 3 - 5 inches in diameter. Larger bulbs tend to get tough.

Suggested Varieties:

  • Altasweet - Mild, less peppery flavor. (90 - 100 days)

  • American Purple Top Popularly grown variety with large bulbs. (90 - 100 days)

  • Laurentian - Very uniform, sweet bulbs. Heirloom (90 - 120 days)

  • Pike - Similar to ‛Laurentian', but a little hardier. (100 - 120 days )

Using Rutabagas:

Although rutabagas are related to turnips, they have a different flavor altogether. Rutabagas are sweeter and almost buttery when cooked. You can use them for baked dishes, like casseroles, souffles and even pies. They are also excellent as a side dish when mashed or baked like fries. And, of course, they are wonderful roasted.

Rutabagas are crunch and juicy raw. Slice, cube or grate then into all kinds of dishes and snacks. I like to grate them into my cole slaw, along with cabbage, for a more complex flavor.

The bulbs can be stored in the refrigerator or any cool, dark place for months. Remove the leaves before storing.

Growing Tips:

Soil: Rutabagas prefer a slightly acidic soil pH in the range of 6.0 to 6.5. Good soil fertility will help them grow throughout their long season and make sure the soil is well-draining, so the bulbs don't rot.

Planting:Rutabagas are direct seeded in the late spring, after danger of frost, so that they will mature in the fall. In warm climates, they are usually seeded in the fall and grown over winter. They will not sweeten if they mature during hot weather. Plant seeds about ½ inch deep.

Plants will need to be thinned when they are about 3 - 4 inches tall, so the bulbs will have room to fill out. You can toss the thinned greens into a salad or stir fry.

Maintenance:

At least an inch of water per week is vital for good root development, more during particularly hot, dry weather. Rutabagas that grow in dry conditions are prone to cracking and won't develop their sweetness.

If you start with soil that is rich in organic matter you won't need any additional fertilizer. A side dressing of compost, mid-season, will give them the boost they'll need to get through to fall.

Pests & Problems:

Diseases: Rutabagas are less bothered by pests than most Brassica plants, but you should still rotate your growing areas. The main disease that ruins crops is clubroot. If your plants get clubroot, it is recommended you wait 6 years to grow any Brassica in that area.

Insects: There are several insects, such as flea beetles, that will chew on and damage the leaves. If you plan to use the greens, a row cover will protect them.

Root maggots cause more of a problem because they damage the bulbs. The row covers will help with these, as well, by preventing the moths from laying their eggs on the leaves.

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