By Matt Gibson
The turnip is a root vegetable that is native to Europe and belongs to the mustard family. It is commonly cultivated for culinary purposes and has played a major role in the human diet since ancient times, specifically in Greece and Rome. In Germany, during World War 1, turnips became the primary food source for the nation when meat and potatoes were hard to come by. Turnips have a slightly sweet flavor combined with a sharp peppery bite, similar to radishes.
Turnips are a good source of dietary fiber, potassium, and vitamin C. Turnip greens have more nutrients than the root and can be eaten fresh or cooked and consumed like collards or spinach. Turnip greens are a good source of minerals, like copper, iron, manganese, and calcium, as well as vitamins B6, E, K, A and C.
Turnips are fairly easy to grow and care for. A cool weather vegetable hardy to USDA zones two through nine, turnips can be planted in the spring for a summer harvest, or in the late summer for an autumn harvest. Slightly hairy, deep-green leaves blanket thick, pale green stems on plants which grow 12 to 18 inches high and roughly six to eight inches wide when mature. The root of the plant forms an extended oval with toothed or wavy edges. The majority of the roots are white or yellow, but the tops, which are exposed to the sun, turn various shades of green or purple.
Varieties of Turnips
There are hundreds of varieties of turnips and well over thirty varieties of which are available to gardeners today. In ancient Greece and Rome, turnips were either broad-bottomed or globular, but throughout the turning of centuries, new types of turnips emerged. Some were elongated like a carrot, while others appeared in a wide range of colors. There were pure white turnips, turnips with purple or red shoulders, turnips with flesh colored in various shades of white, yellow, golden, orange, or pale yellow with red veins in it. Some turnips are spicy and slightly bitter, like a radish, while others were crisp, smooth, and creamy, almost like an apple, but less sweet.
The most common type of turnip is the purple-topped turnip. Purple-topped varieties have primarily white skin and rosy-purple tops. They have a mild, slightly-sweet flavor, and both the greens and the root become more mildly flavored when they’re cooked.
Scarlet turnips are less common, but might be found at specialty food stores, natural grocers, and farmer’s markets, but you rarely see them at most mainstream supermarkets. They look somewhat like large bright red radishes. Scarlet varieties typically have white flesh with occasional red splotches. They are generally sweet, juicy, and crisp.
Baby turnips are specialty varieties. They come in white, gold, pink, and purple-topped. Around one inch in diameter, most baby turnips can be eaten whole, leaf and all. Baby turnips need to be eaten just after harvesting, as they do not preserve well at all.
Instead of giving you every single variety, we’ve picked out the best of each type of turnip and conveniently grouped them based on useful categories, such as early harvest turnips, colorful turnips, all-white turnips, turnip plants that produce the best turnip greens, and standard turnips. This list should help you decide which cultivar or cultivars you want to start growing in your vegetable garden this season.
Royal Globe – This spicy, round baseball-sized turnip variety is purple on top and white on the bottom, with all-white flesh.
Top Star – See below.
Royal Crown – The Royal Crown is a sweet, mild cultivar and a hybrid strain that produces four to five inch in diameter white bulbs with flattened roots and purple splotches on top.
Purple Top White Globe – These spicy purple top turnips mature in 50 to 55 days, resulting in a four to six inch round root that is white with a purple top.
Manchester Market – One of the best tasting turnip varieties, Manchester Market has a peppery flavor and edible root and leaves. The plant develops a creamy-white globe-shaped turnip with a bright green top. Matures to tennis ball size.
Scarlet Queen – This hybrid cultivar has smooth white flesh and bright red skin. Ready for harvest in just 40-45 days, the Scarlet Queen develops bulbs that are slightly flat and ideal for adding some loud colors to a salad.
Golden Ball – Matures in 40-45 days, the Golden Ball grows to five or six inches in diameter and flaunts golden yellow flesh and skin, as well as a slightly-sweet almond-like flavor. For a milder flavor, harvest when three to four inches in diameter.
Gilfeather – A heirloom hybrid cross between turnip and rutabaga that matures in 70-75 days. The outer skin is brown with green undertones. Its white flesh tastes slightly sweet, and reminiscent of a potato.
Red Round – Ready for harvest in 40-45 days, the Red Round cultivar grows to the size of a tennis ball and tastes delicious, crispy, and slightly sweet. Great for soups, stews and curry dishes.
Hidabeni – Matures in 40-45 days, this bright red Japanese cultivar is slightly flattened with white flesh and a mild flavor.
Orange Jelly – A subtle bitter almond flavor and a bright orange to salmon-colored skin and yellow flesh help to identify the Orange Jelly turnip variety. It produces fully matured turnips in 45 to 65 days but can also be harvested early in just 35 to 40 days if desired.
Sweet Scarlet Bell – Another brightly-colored variety, the Sweet Scarlet Bell is known for its dark-purple to pink-colored three to four inch diameter bulbs. The white inner flesh tastes very similar to a radish, but sweeter. Ready to harvest in 45 to 50 days after sowing, this cultivar is good raw or cooked.
Tokyo Cross – Tokyo Cross is a hybrid turnip variety that was awarded with the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. This all-white turnip grows a three to six inch globe with a sweet, subtle flavor and crispy flesh. Can be planted twice per year in both the fall and spring. Well suited to container gardening.
White Lady – This mild-flavored, all-white, hybrid turnip variety is ready for harvest in just 30 to 35 days. Both its two to three inch diameter bulbs and its tender greens can be added to recipes.
Oasis – One of the most highly coveted turnip varieties, this Japanese hybrid forms four to five inch in diameter, globe-shaped bulbs. The taste of the bulbs are described as sweet, melon-like, and juicy. Great raw or cooked, Oasis turnips are ready to harvest 50-55 days after sowing.
White Knight – The White Knight cultivar forms a late-producing, flattened, oblong, all-white globe.
White Egg – Forming all-white four to five inch egg-shaped root bulbs, this juicy variety is tender, sweet, and crisp. The White Egg variety is an excellent addition to soups and stews.
Nozawana – See Below.
Komachi – This slow bolting, all-white, Japanese, hybrid variety is great for eating raw. Its bulb grows to two to three inches in diameter in 40-45 days but is better when harvested when it is only one to two inches in diameter instead, for improved flavor.
Hakurei – Revered amongst chefs around the world for its quick maturation time and decadently sweet flavor. Hakurei is considered the sweetest of all turnip varieties. This all-white turnip should be harvested at 30 to 45 days. Bulbs are usually two to three inches in diameter. Excellent when consumed raw and cooked paired with its own greens.
Just Right – The first hybrid turnip to keep its quality in large sizes earned this variety an All American Selection honor. The globes of this all-white variety reach five to six inches in diameter and take 60 to 70 days to fully mature. Bulbs can be eaten raw in salads, pickled, or tossed into soups, stews, or stir-fries.
Elongated, Carrot-Like Turnips
Hinona Kabu – A long, slender, carrot-shaped Japanese turnip, Hinona Kabu turnips grow to 10-12 inches long. The turnip is white on the bottom and purple on the top. It matures in 40-45 days.
Shogoin – One of the oldest Japanese varieties, Shogoin produces six to eight-inch wide, elongated, globe-shaped roots, and delicious green tops. The Shogoin cultivar can reach 18 to 20 inches tall. Harvest the greens in 30 to 35 days and the roots in 55 to 70 days.
Turnips For Greens
Nozawana – A Japanese turnip variety that is typically cultivated for its tasty, long, dark-green leaves. Its bulb is also edible, and has its best flavor when harvested before reaching maturity, which it typically reaches in 30 to 40 days. The bulb’s flesh is mild and well suited to pickling, steaming, or stir-frying.
All Top – One of the few turnip varieties that is grown only for its tops.
Top Star – Though the root of the Top Star variety is not typically eaten, this variety is grown for producing turnip greens instead of root bulbs, it is still technically a standard turnip, as the root is white with a purple top. Their tall, lobed dark green leaves can be harvested anytime after they reach four to five inches in length, but will reach their full size in 30-35 days. Top Star turnip greens can be used in stir-fries, and soups, or tossed into salads raw.
Seven Top – One of the handful of turnip cultivars that are grown only for its tops.
Topper – The Topper cultivar is a prolific turnip green producer with large yields available for harvesting in just one month after sowing.
Shogoin – See above.
Early Harvest Turnips
Market Express – A very early producing variety, the Market Express has pure white roots.
Hakurei – See above.
Tokyo Cross – See above.
Just Right – See above.
Baby Bunch Turnips – Only one to two inches in diameter at full maturity, this miniature group of cultivars are available in white, and with purple, gold, and pink tops.
Sweet Baby Turnips – Also known as Tokyo turnips, this baby turnip variety produces pretty, tender little globes with spicy, bitter green tops which can be consumed raw all at once. Sweet Baby Turnips are a spring and early summer turnip with tender flesh and shiny, delicate skin.
Growing Conditions for Turnips
A cool weather vegetable, turnips grow best in the spring and fall. Turnips will thrive in full sun exposure but will tolerate some shade. Ideal soil conditions include a slightly acidic pH range between 6.0 and 6.5, a well-draining medium, and lots of organic matter in the soil. Like most root vegetables, turnips require a steady supply of water to thrive. At least one inch of water per week is essential for developing healthy roots. Since turnips grow so quickly, there is no need to provide them with fertilizer as long as there is plenty of organic matter in the soil.
How to Plant Turnips
Prior to planting, amend your beds with plenty of compost and well-rotted manure. Amend heavy, clay-based soil with sand or gypsum to improve drainage and air circulation. Two to three weeks before the last average frost date in the spring, plant your turnip seeds for a late spring harvest. For an autumn harvest, sow your seeds in the late summer or early fall. Turnips prefer temperatures between 40 and 75 degrees F.
As turnips do not transplant well due to their long, delicate taproot, seeds must be sown directly into the garden. Plant seeds one half-inch deep and one inch apart in rows spaced one to two feet apart. Thin down to the healthiest seedlings spaced every four to six inches. Thin seedlings for turnip plants that are being cultivated to harvest turnip greens to every two to three inches apart.
Turnips are well suited to container gardening and most turnip varieties can be grown in wide containers that are at least eight inches deep. Bush beans and various varieties of peas make excellent companion plants for turnips.
Care for Turnips
Turnip care is fairly simple. They just need to be given at least one inch of water per week. The soil they are in should stay moist, but not soggy, like the texture of a wrung-out sponge. Plenty of water will help ensure the production of healthy roots. No fertilizer is required as long as there is plenty of organic matter in the soil.
How to Propagate Turnips
Propagation by division does not work well with turnips, and they do not respond well to transplanting, so the way to propagate turnips is by planting them by seed.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Turnips
Turnips have the same weaknesses and adversaries in the garden as the rest of the plants in the Brassica family, including root-knot, clubroot, turnip mosaic virus, leaf spot, scab, anthracnose, white rust, and rhizoctonia rot. The best method for avoiding problems with your turnip crops is to practice vigilant crop rotation, never planting any Brassica plant in the same location for more than two years in a row. If you have issues with clubroot, you need to wait six years between growing Brassica plants in the same area.
Insect issues include turnip aphids, flea beetles, root maggots and wireworms. Aphids and flea beetles cause damage to the leaves of the turnip plant, while root maggots and wireworms damage the bulbs. Place row covers over your plants to help keep pests off the foliage of your plants. Practice careful crop rotation to help lower the chances of root maggots and wireworms.
How to Harvest Turnips
Harvest your turnip greens anytime after they grow to four inches tall. If you keep from cutting into the top of the bulb, the greens will continue to produce for multiple harvests. Turnip bulbs are most flavorful and tender when they are harvested early, when they are still small and soft. For most varieties, this means around two to three inches in diameter.
Older turnips that have been left in the ground too long begin to turn tough and woody in texture. Fall planted turnips can be left in the ground and harvested during the winter, as the plant goes into dormancy and stops growing. Laying out a layer of mulch will help to keep the soil from freezing. The flavor of most turnip varieties is improved by exposure to cold weather.
How to Store Turnips
Eat tender new turnips that were just harvested raw, wedge them for crudite or chop them into salads. Larger turnips can be cooked using several different methods. You can bake them, toss them into a stew, or roast them. Older turnips that have grown slightly woody can still be put to use for mashing or added to soups and stews.
For storing, remove leaves as soon as possible so that they do not continue to draw energy and nutrients from the turnip bulbs. Store bulbs in the refrigerator or any cool, dark location for months.
Turnips and turnip greens can also be blanched and frozen to use throughout the year. Alternatively, turnips can be roasted prior to being frozen.
Turnips are healthy, tasty, and very easy to grow. There is no reason why you shouldn’t devote some space in your garden to growing turnips.
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