Not many gardeners grow rutabagas. In truth, rutabagas have never really caught on in the U.S. Maybe that's because we're impatient and rutabagas take three to four months to mature, while their smaller cousin, the turnip, can be grown in half that time. More likely, it's because we have bad memories of them being overcooked 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.
Rutabagas are large oval or slightly elongated bulbs with 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 four petals that form a cross and give them their designation as cruciferous vegetables.
Rutabagas, Swedes, Yellow turnips
Full sun to Partial Shade.
Rutabaga plants grow about 12 to 24" (h) x 8 to 12" (w). The bulbs can get the size of a softball, or larger. That's often what you find in the grocery store. However, they are best when harvested smaller, at three to five inches in diameter.
When to Harvest
The greens can be harvested any time after they reach four inches tall. If you don't harm the top of the bulb, the greens will continue to regrow.
You can start harvesting the bulbs when they are at least three inches in diameter. Larger bulbs tend to get tough.
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.
- Altasweet - Mild, less peppery flavor. (90 to 100 days)
- American Purple Top - Popularly grown variety with large bulbs. (90 to 100 days)
- Laurentian - Very uniform, sweet bulbs. Heirloom (90 to 120 days)
- Pike - Similar to ‛Laurentian', but a little hardier. (100 to 120 days )
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, soufflés, and even pies. They are also excellent as a side dish when mashed or baked like fries. And, of course, they are wonderful roasted and great in soup.
Rutabagas are crunchy and juicy raw. Slice, cube, or grate them into all kinds of dishes and snacks. The bulbs can be stored in the refrigerator or any cool, dark place for months. Remove the leaves before storing them.
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 a half-inch deep.
Plants will need to be thinned when they are about three to four inches tall, so the bulbs will have room to fill out. You can toss the thinned greens into a salad or stir-fry.
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.
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 six 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.