Growing Rutabagas in the Home Garden

The rutabaga or Swede turnip is thought to have originated in the Middle Ages. It is a cross between the cabbage and the turnip. While the rutabaga resembles the turnip, there are distinct differences. The rutabaga has smooth, waxy, blue-green foliage. The thickened root of most varieties is yellow-fleshed. Most turnips are white- fleshed and have rough, hairy leaves.

The rutabaga is a cool, long-season crop. It performs best when planted in summer for a fall crop. Sow seed at a depth of 1/4 to 1/2 inch from June 15 to July 15 in Iowa. Rows should be spaced 18 to 24 inches apart. After germination, thin rutabagas to 6 inches apart.

'American Purple Top' and 'Laurentian' are suggested rutabaga varieties for home gardens. Both varieties produce globe-shaped, light yellow roots with purple tops. Their flesh is yellow.

Rutabagas require 1 to 1 1/2 inches of water per week (either from rain or irrigation) during the growing season. Water weekly during dry weather. Control weeds in the area with frequent, shallow (less than 2 inches deep) cultivation.

The rutabaga can be harvested when the roots reach 2 or 3 inches in diameter. However, it's best to harvest rutabagas when the roots are 4 to 5 inches in diameter and the plants have been exposed to several light frosts. Light frosts sweeten the flavor of the roots. The foliage may also be harvested for greens. Rutabagas require approximately 90 to 110 days from planting until harvest. A 10-foot row should produce 8 to 10 pounds of rutabagas. Prior to storage, trim off the foliage to within 1 inch of the crown with a sharp knife. Rutabagas can be stored for 2 to 4 months at a temperature of 32 to 35 F and a relative humidity of 90 to 95 percent. Rutabagas can also be heavily mulched in the garden in late fall and harvested until the ground freezes in winter.

This article originally appeared in the June 22, 2001 issue, p. 78.

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