Days to germination: 7 to 10 days
Days to harvest: 80 to 100 days
Light requirements: Full sun or slight shading
Water requirements: Regular and frequent watering
Soil: Fertile and loose soil
Container: Not ideal, but possible in large containers
The rutabaga is a large root vegetable, not all that common in North American gardens though it is a popular vegetable in some parts of Europe and Scandinavia.
Rutabagas are often confused with turnips, particularly since rutabagas are sometimes called yellow turnips or winter turnips. They are not turnips, and their growing habits are different. Don’t assume the terms are interchangeable, and make sure you purchase the right seeds for the vegetable you actually want to grow. To add to the confusion, rutabagas are also called swedes.
The leaves of the rutabaga can be used in salads or cooked as an edible green, but its the root that most people grow rutabagas for. The hard root is much like a potato but softens up nicely when baked or boiled. It tastes very similar to cooked turnip.
The orange or yellow flesh reflects the high levels of vitamins A and C in the root. Rutabaga is also a good source of various B vitamins and calcium.
Starting from Seed
Rutabaga produce the best roots in cool weather, so you want to take advantage of the cooler autumn weather for your crops. They take too long to grow for a spring harvest. Gardeners usually time their seed sowing in terms of the first winter frost at the end of the growing season, rather than worrying about the last frost in early spring. You’ll want to sow your seeds outdoors about 3 months before you expect to see frost again. The intent is to plan for maturity after the first few frosty nights.
Once you’ve figured out the best time to plant, you’ll want to get your seeds started in the garden. Eventually each rutabaga will need 8 to 10 inches of space between them, so you can either plant your seeds individually at this spacing, or sow them more thickly in a row for later thinning after they sprout. Seeds should only be half an inch under the soil when you plant them.
Before you plant, dig up the soil to loosen it well and remove any rocks. Your plants’ roots will be misshapen if they can’t grow freely.
Rutabaga seeds are usually planted much later in the season than other plants (even as late as mid summer) so there is no need to start your plants early indoors. They don’t transplant all that great anyway. Just sow your seeds out into the garden.
You should water your plants regularly and often, or the roots can split due to uneven moisture levels. Give your plants a good drink every few days, and don’t let the soil dry out in between. Better to water consistently than to soak them occasionally.
Until the plants start to develop their thick roots, they can be fairly delicate so don’t be too aggressive with your weeding. Only pull weeds by hand, and don’t disturb the soil too much with power cultivators.
Unless your soil is very poor, you shouldn’t need to add any fertilizer or compost. They will grow very well without additional feeding.
Because they will grow larger than turnips, rutabagas are less suitable for container gardening but it can be done. You’ll need a large pot, at least 10 gallons in size and fairly deep. A “half barrel” will work fine for rutabaga, usually holding 2 or 3 plants each.
Fill with loose soil, and never let the soil dry out completely.
Pests and Diseases
With edible roots and leaves, the rutabaga is an attractive plant to a large number of insect pests. The leaves are targeted by both slugs and snails, which can be controlled by a number of methods. Take your pick from any of the home-brew techniques or buy commercial slug poisons. Either way, you should pick them off as soon as you see them.
Though slugs can be a huge problem, your biggest problem is more likely to come from underground root maggots. They chew up the growing roots, usually killing the plant and definitely making the rutabaga inedible even if the plant survives. Once they are in your soil, there is little you can do.
You can use mesh row covers over your young plants to keep the egg-laying flies away. Around mid-summer is when their laying season is over, and you can take off the covers. If the flies haven’t laid any eggs in the soil around your plants, you should be maggot free until harvest time.
Harvest and Storage
You don’t necessarily have to wait until your rutabaga are fully mature to start your harvest, as they can be pulled when the roots are about 3 inches across. But the taste gets much better after a few frosts, so its more common to wait and harvest after the cold weather arrives.
Rutabaga can get quite large, so pulling them up by their stems may not always work. You may have to get out the shovel and dig them loose. An average rutabaga will be around 1 to 2 pounds in size.
The best place to store whole (and unwashed) rutabaga roots is in a cool and damp location, such as the basement. They will be fine for at least 4 months when kept like this. If you live in an area where the ground doesn’t freeze solid over the winter, you can just leave the rutabaga in the ground and dig them up as you want to use them.
If you want to use some of the leaves as a salad green, you can start picking them once each plant has at least 5 or 6 full-sized leaves. And even then, only pick a few leaves at a time or you will end up with very small turnip roots in the fall.