Swedes (short for Swedish turnips) are extremely hardy and do well in cool, damp climates. These slow-growing, moisture-loving root vegetables are harvested in autumn and winter, and have a sweeter flavour than turnips.
Swedes form a large, rounded root (actually a swollen stem), usually dark purple at the top and creamy-yellow below ground. When cooked, they have a sweet, nutty flavour and creamy, golden flesh. Swedes are traditionally served mashed with butter or added to soups, stews and other hearty winter dishes. They are rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Like most brassicas, swedes are slow growing, taking up to six months to mature. They can be dug up as soon as they’re large enough to use, from early autumn, or left in the ground until Christmas or beyond, to lift whenever needed, providing harvests over a long period.
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There are several swede varieties to choose from, forming large, rounded, purple-topped roots with creamy-white or pale yellow flesh.
Sowing times vary, so check seed packets. F1 hybrid varieties tend to produce more vigorous plants and a reliable, consistent crop. Some varieties keep better than others, so if you’re planning on harvesting right through winter, choose a variety that won’t turn woody and stores well. Many varieties are resistant to clubroot disease and powdery mildew.
Varieties with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) performed well in trials, so are always reliable choices – see our list of AGM fruit and veg for recommended varieties.
You can also see many crops, including swedes and other brassicas, in the veg plots in the RHS gardens, so do visit to explore how they’re grown, compare varieties and get useful tips and inspiration.
What and where to buy
Swede seeds are widely available in garden centres and from online seed suppliers.
Preparing the Ground
Weed thoroughly and remove any large stones, then firm the soil by treading it down in a shuffling motion, before raking the surface level. Like most brassicas, swedes like firm ground.
Swedes can be sown outdoors from mid-spring to early summer, or from late spring in colder parts of the UK. Alternatively, you can start them off indoors to get a head start, then transplant outside after a few weeks.
If you sow several small batches a few weeks apart, you can spread your harvests over a longer period.
Swedes are brassicas, so should be grown alongside their cabbage relatives in crop rotations. This helps to avoid any build-up of pests and diseases in the soil.
Swedes are not suitable for growing in containers unless harvested when young.
Swedes can be started off indoors from mid-spring, in modular trays filled with multi-purpose compost. Sowing in modules helps to minimise root disturbance when transplanting outdoors, which should be done as soon as the roots fill the modules.
Transplant swedes outdoors in early to mid-summer, before they start to form their main tap root, and harden off carefully to avoid a check in growth.
Swedes are best sown direct where they are to grow. Start them off once the soil is warm enough to work in late spring to early summer.
Prepare the sowing site as explained above, then make a shallow drill about 2cm (¾in) deep. Water along the base, then sow the seeds thinly. Space rows 38cm (15in) apart.
Cover early sowings with cloches or fleece, and protect seedlings from slugs and snails.
Thin out the seedlings as soon as they’re large enough to handle, to keep them growing strongly. This can be done in stages until they’re 20–25cm (8–10in) apart. If you’re going to harvest as mini-veg, they can be kept 8–10cm (3–4in) apart.
Swedes are a long-term crop, taking up to six months to mature. Keep the soil moist and weed-free throughout, and protect the plants from pests.
To boost crops, apply with a nitrogen-rich fertiliser in summer.
Keep seedlings and young plants free of weeds, to reduce competition for light, water and nutrients. Take care not to damage the top of the roots if hoeing between plants.
Swedes are very versatile and can be harvested at whatever size you prefer – as baby veg after only a few weeks, as young roots about 5cm (2in) in diameter, or, more usually, when 10–15cm (4–6in) across. They can also be left to grow larger, as long as you choose a variety that won’t turn woody.
Swedes are usually ready to harvest from early autumn onwards, but you can leave them in the ground into winter or even early spring, lifting whenever needed. They are particularly valued as a winter crop, when little else is available.
Although swedes are hardy, it’s best to cover the crop with straw or fleece before winter. If the ground is likely to freeze, lift the roots and store in containers of soil or potting compost in a frost-free shed or garage.
Swedes are delicious roasted or mashed with butter, or used in soups, stews and similar. They are rich in vitamins, calcium and magnesium.
Swedes need plenty of water to grow well and shouldn’t be allowed to dry out, as the roots can split or turn bitter, and the leaves may develop powdery mildew.
Seedlings and young plants are vulnerable to slug and snail damage.
As swedes are brassicas, they are susceptible to cabbage pests and diseases, including cabbage root fly, caterpillars and pigeons, so are best grown under insect-proof mesh. Clubroot can be a problem too, especially in acidic soil, so apply lime the winter before sowing if you’ve had this fungal disease in your plot before, and choose a resistant variety.
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