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Rutabaga Plant: Growing Swedes In The Garden

The rutabaga plant is severely underrated and is something you should plant rutabagas in your garden! It’s related to the turnip but is usually sweeter and won’t taste like a radish as turnips sometimes can. They like cool weather and can be grown in the spring and fall in most parts of the US.

What can you do with rutabagas, you ask? You can cook the roots as you would a potato—mashed, roasted, hasselback, or spiralized into a veggie noodle. They can be eaten raw in a salad or blended into a soup. The leaves are good to eat, too, tasting much like turnip greens, so you can enjoy the entire plant.

Rutabagas are relatively easy to grow and don’t require much room in the garden, so they’re great for new gardeners or those growing in small spaces. If the conditions are right, you can store rutabagas in the ground with a hefty layer of mulch and pull them out when you need them throughout winter. Talk about convenience!

Whether you’re new to rutabagas or have heard of them before, let’s get into the details so you can plant seeds and grow this versatile root in your garden.

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Quick Care Guide

Rutabaga plant
A young rutabaga plant doesn’t look like much when it starts out. Source: mom2rays
Common Name(s)Rutabaga, swede, neeps, Swedish turnip, table turnip
Scientific NameBrassica napus var. napobrassica
Days to Harvest80-100
LightFull sun, partial shade
Water1 inch per week
SoilAverage soil; pH 6.0-7.0
FertilizerOptional; high nitrogen in the beginning and 10-10-10 as it matures
PestsAphids, cabbage loopers, cutworms, flea beetles, root maggots, slugs, wireworms
DiseasesAlternaria leaf spot, anthracnose, black leg, black rot, clubroot, root knot, white rust, white spot

All About The Rutabaga Plant

Purple topped rutabaga roots
Like turnips, some rutabaga plant types produce a purple-topped root. Source: Farmanac

Brassica napus var. napobrassica, commonly called the rutabaga, swede, Russian turnip in Northern Europe, or if you’re in the northern parts of North America, table turnip or Swedish turnips, is a cross between the turnip and wild cabbage. The leaves of these Russian turnips are covered with prickly hairs. Rutabagas are fairly turnip-shaped, although they’re a bit more cylindrical toward the bottom of the root. Although there are some purple varieties, they’re more likely to be brown or yellow rather than a turnip’s typical purple and white. Mature garden grown rutabagas tend to be about the size of a grapefruit, and they will develop small yellow flowers if you allow them to go to seed.

It’s believed that rutabagas came to be in the 17th century near the Czech Republic. It became popular in the US in the early 1900s when it started to be used as a food source for livestock. However, it was too much work to grow it, so farmers stopped using it. The idea came back in the 1970s when farmers realized it was a good forage crop, meaning they could throw rutabaga seed out for the livestock and let the plants grow themselves.

It’s not just for livestock, though! You can sautee the greens or use young leaves in salads, or make some rutabaga root fries, au gratin rutabagas, or roast the roots with vegetables and garnish with rutabaga leaves.

Planting Rutabaga

Growing rutabagas requires cool weather when they mature since heat will turn them bitter. If you live in a warm climate, you’ll get the best results with a fall crop. You could probably get a spring crop if you time it right and are extra careful! Cool climates can easily have spring and fall crops, but early freezing temperatures may make fall crops a bit tricky.

To plant in the fall, count back 90 days from the first average fall frost since rutabagas need 80-100 days to mature. You can plant rutabaga seeds for a spring planting as soon as the ground isn’t frozen.

Rutabagas grow best when they receive full sun and cool weather, so consider this when you’re picking out a spot for your rutabaga patch. They aren’t picky about how they are grown, so you can put plants in the ground after the first frost, in a raised bed, or in a container. They don’t transplant well, so directly sow where you want to go about growing rutabagas. 

If you choose to grow these plants in a container, give them plenty of room to grow to their full potential. A container that’s 10-12 inches deep with a similar diameter will be ideal, although you could go just a bit smaller if you need to.

To plant rutabaga seeds, place up to three seeds in a shallow hole. If you’re planting in a row, space the plants about 2 inches apart. Rows should be about 2 feet apart. Once the seedlings emerge, thin rutabagas, so there is only one seedling per hole. It should take about ten days for you to grow rutabaga seedlings.

Once the first true leaves have emerged, thin them to be 8 inches apart. Rutabaga foliage is edible, so you can toss extra seedlings into a salad or add the plants to your compost bin.

Care

Rutabaga leaves
As they mature, rutabaga leaves will shield the forming root bulb from the sun. Source: Michael Caspar

It’s easy to grow rutabagas when you understand their needs. If you can give them sun, keep them watered, and watch out for pests, you’ll be harvesting rutabagas in no time!

Sun and Temperature

Rutabagas prefer full sun, at least 6 hours of direct sunlight. They will do okay with partial shade, usually 3-6 hours of direct light. If you have limited sunlight, an appropriate-sized container will allow you to move the rutabaga around to get as much sunlight as possible.

Rutabagas grow well in USDA zones 3-9. The ideal temperature range is nicely chilled at 50-65°F (10-18.3°C), so growing them in the spring and after the first fall frost is ideal in many zones. Rutabagas need to have these cool temperatures right as they mature, so in some warmer climates, you can plant them in May and harvest them in the fall when the weather is perfect.

Even though they prefer cool temperatures, rutabagas are pretty tolerant of cold and hot weather, however, they have limitations. Exposure to light frost is known to promote a sweeter  flavor of rutabaga roots, but freezing temperatures will kill the plant. On the other hand, temperatures consistently over 80°F (26.6°F) in early summer or late summer can cause cracking or skinny roots and make the flavor bitter or cause the plant to bolt. So leave rutabagas in the ground over summer.

If you’re struggling with unpredictable weather or a short growing season, use floating row covers and mulch in your planting beds to keep your roots happy.

Water and Humidity

Like other root vegetables, rutabagas require plenty of water for good root development. Aim to give them about an inch of water each week. If you’re not sure when they need water, stick your finger in the ground about two inches deep. If it’s dry, it’s time to water!

Water at the base of the plants so the roots can receive as much water as possible. You can stop watering when the top two inches of soil are wet. You won’t have to water as much when it rains, so check the soil frequently during the days following a shower to see if your rutabagas are thirsty again.

Rutabaga roots need consistent moisture, so they aren’t drought tolerant. Dry spells can turn the roots woody or bitter, so it’s important to keep the soil moist. Make sure you have well-drained soil because standing water isn’t good for them, either.

Soil

This root vegetable isn’t too picky about its soil. Clay, sand, loam—it doesn’t matter too much as long as it drains well and has enough nutrients available. Sandy soil will require more water since it drains easily, while clay soil doesn’t drain well and may be difficult to deal with in the long run.

The soil pH you should aim for should be between 6.0-7.0. It prefers neutral soil but can tolerate slightly acidic soil up to 5.5. As for soil nutrients, poor soils may require compost or fertilizer, but it won’t take much to make your rutabagas happy.

Fertilizing

If your soil is healthy and full of nutrients and organic matter from the beginning, you won’t need much fertilizer other than periodically adding a fresh layer of composted manure throughout the season. If your soil has room for improvement, then expect to need to supply some nutrients.

Rutabagas don’t require much fertilizer, so you can use a general-purpose fertilizer with an NPK of 10-10-10. Apply some right at the planting time, and add some again in four weeks. Your plants may benefit from some nitrogen-heavy fertilizer one month after planting but too much nitrogen will dampen your harvest. Look for something that has an NPK of 46-0-0 or something similar, depending on the size of your growing area or planting row.

Organic fertilizer is recommended because it’s less likely to burn your plants and is safer for the environment. However, you can use whatever you have available. You can also use composted manure (not fresh) or aged compost as needed to give your roots a little boost throughout the growing season. 

Pruning

Pruning isn’t required, but you may want to pick young leaves to saute. Be careful only to take a few leaves per plant, though, so the plant can have enough leaves left to keep growing.

Propagation

Rutabagas can only be propagated by seed. Allow them to grow until they produce small yellow flowers and seed pods. Once the seed pods dry, you can open them up, and you’ll have plenty of seeds for next year!

Harvesting and Storing

Golden rutabagas
Many rutabaga plant types produce beige to orangish roots. Source: wikioticsIan

Harvesting and storing rutabagas will require checking the temperature daily, but you’re probably already doing that anyway! It’s a simple process once you know what to expect, and you’ll find that storing them is pretty easy.

Harvesting

Remember, don’t wait too long when it’s time to harvest rutabagas. Hot temperatures at the end of spring and cold weather at the end of fall can affect root growth or make the taste and texture unpleasant.

The ideal time to harvest rutabagas is when the diameter is 3-5 inches, and the temperatures are 50-65°F (10-18.3°C). A night of light frost may sweeten the flavor, so you may want to take a chance to see what happens once you’re comfortable. 

If you live in a cold area climate and winter approaches before your rutabagas are ready for harvesting, harvest the leaves so there are only 2-3 inches apart from the ground, and then cover the area with a generous layer of mulch. This will allow you to extend the growing season just a little longer.

Dig up the entire rutabaga roots lightly like you would turnip roots by either using your hands or a trowel. Be careful not to damage the root so you can properly store it.

Storing

Rutabaga varieties, like other root vegetables, are pretty easy to store for long periods without the need for canning. The best way to store them is in a dry root cellar above 32°F (0°C). 

If you don’t have a cellar, consider keeping them in the ground! Remove the foliage and leave rutabagas in a thick layer of mulch. Dig them up when you’re ready to use them. This method won’t work everywhere since freezing temperatures will ruin them. Consider testing this storage method with just one rutabaga to see if it works in your zone.

You can also store them in the freezer or cover them in a coat of paraffin wax and store them in a cool, dry place like a pantry. The wax method can ruin the root if it’s not executed correctly, so you might want to practice it before committing!

Troubleshooting

Rutabaga, turnips, and parsnips
Rutabagas grow well with other root crops like parsnips and turnips. Source: Baha’i Views

Rutabagas aren’t immune to disease problems and pest problems, so you’ll need to keep an eye out for signs that your plants need help. You can easily keep most problems at bay with a few preventative measures.

Growing Problems

Rutabagas aren’t prone to many problems outside of pests and diseases. Cracked roots are usually a sign of inconsistent water or dry soil. A blockage may cause poor bulb formation in the soil or clubroot, which we’ll talk about in a minute. If your rutabagas are struggling, cut the foliage back to 2-3 inches, water consistently, and you should see them perk up again.

Pests

Aphids are a common garden pest that you’re almost guaranteed to see each year! They suck out sap from leaves, so you’ll see wilting or curling. Simply spray them off with water or use neem oil to get rid of them. Plant flowers to attract beneficial insects, like ladybugs because they love an aphid buffet.

Flea beetles, loopers, and slugs will chew up the leaves of your rutabagas. Remove them by hand when possible or use insecticidal soap. You can also use pesticides to kill them. 

Root maggots and wireworms will chew up mature and developing roots ruining a harvest. Use row covers and diatomaceous earth around newly planted seedlings to prevent them from making their home in your garden. Beneficial nematodes like Heterorhabditis bacteriophora (Hb) can be applied to the soil to kill them once they’ve already invaded.

Diseases

Many diseases can’t be reversed, so prevention will be your key to success. Apply fungicides early in the season to prevent diseases such as Alternaria leaf spot, Anthracnose, black rot, white rust, and other fungal infections. Once your plants are infected, you’ll have to remove infected tissue to prevent the spread of the disease. Products such as copper fungicide can be effective preventatives against some of these diseases.

Root-knot is caused by root-knot nematodes that aren’t beneficial (Shall we say, detrimental nematodes?). You can prevent them by rotating your crops each year. Since rutabagas are in the brassica family, avoid planting them where you previously had other brassicas like broccoli, brussels sprouts, or turnips. Planting marigolds can help deter these nematodes, and there are products called nematicides you can treat the soil with. However, remember that nematicides will also destroy your beneficial nematode population, so use those sparingly.

Clubroot affects brassicas and infects soils. It causes deformed roots that will cause plants to wilt and die. Crop rotation is the best way to avoid this disease, and you should be sure to remove all roots when you remove the plant.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How long does it take for a rutabaga to grow?

A: Much like other brassicas that are root vegetables, rutabagas usually take 80-100 days to grow.

Q: Are rutabagas easy to grow?

A: They’re easy to grow if you have the timing right! They need cooler climates, and warm spring temperatures or freezing fall temperatures can negatively affect them.

Q: Is rutabaga perennial?

A: Rutabagas are biennials that will produce flowers and seeds in their second year. You can harvest and eat the root in the first year.

Q: How tall do rutabaga plants grow?

A: Rutabagas can grow to be up to 1 foot.


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