This easy, compact and fast-growing root vegetable is best sown little and often for harvesting from early summer into autumn. The young roots are sweet and tender, delicious raw, roasted or added to stews, and the young leaves are edible too.
Turnips are quick and easy to grow from seed, forming small rounded or flattened roots, usually with white or purple skins. They are ready in as little as six weeks and are best harvested young, at their most tender and tasty. The leaves can be eaten like spinach too, making this a doubly useful crop.
Sow in small batches every few weeks from spring to late summer for regular harvests without any gluts. The priority is to keep them well watered, especially in dry spells, and to protect
In some parts of the UK, swedes, with larger orange and purple roots, are known as turnips.
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- Early turnips – sow March to June, for harvesting throughout summer. Some early varieties, such as ‘Atlantic’ and ‘Purple Top Milan’, can also be sown under cloches in February
- Maincrop turnips – sow July to mid-August, for harvesting in autumn
Varieties with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) always make a good choice, as they performed well in our trials – see our list of AGM fruit and veg.
What and where to buy
Turnips seeds are widely available in garden centres and from online suppliers.
The main sowing season is from March to mid-August, although early sowings can also be made in February under cloches or in a greenhouse. Choose early varieties for sowing up to June, then maincrop varieties in July and August. Turnips generally prefer cool conditions, so spring sowings usually germinate quickly and abundantly, while in hot dry weather germination may be less successful.
Turnips like moisture-retentive soil, in an open, sunny spot. Like most root crops, they are best sown direct outdoors, where they are to grow, either in the ground or in large containers. However, they can also be sown indoors in modules in late winter, for planting out before their roots start to develop, for an early harvest.
As they grow so rapidly, turnips are great for filling any gaps that appear on the veg plot after harvesting other crops, or for sowing between slower-growing crops, such as parsnips, for harvesting before the slower crop needs the space.
If you make regular small sowings, you avoid large gluts and can have harvests from early summer through into autumn and beyond.
Sowing outdoors in the ground
It’s easy to sow turnips directly where they are to grow, into prepared ground (see above):
Make a shallow drill, 1cm (½in) deep, and water along the base if the soil is dry
Scatter the seeds thinly along the drill, then cover with soil, firm gently and water lightly
Space any additional rows 23–30cm (9–12in) apart for early varieties, 30cm (1ft) apart for maincrops, and 15cm (6in) apart if growing for leaves rather than roots
Thin out seedlings until they’re eventually 15cm (6in) apart for early varieties, and 23cm (9in) apart for maincrops. You can use the leafy thinnings in salads. When growing just for the leafy tops, thinning isn’t usually necessary.
Sowing outdoors in containers
If you’re short on ground space, or just want a few small or mini-roots, you can sow turnip seeds into containers outdoors in a warm sunny spot:
Choose a container at least 40cm (16in) wide and fill it with multi-purpose compost, then water well
Scatter the seeds thinly, then cover with about 2cm (1in) of compost
Once the seeds germinate, thin out the seedlings if necessary to 10cm (4in) apart for harvesting as delicious mini-veg.
For earlier harvests, you can start hardy varieties indoors in late winter:
Fill a modular tray with seed compost and water well
Make a hole 2cm (1in) deep in each module
Drop two seeds into each hole, then cover with more compost. If more than one seed germinates per module, remove the weaker one
Alternatively, grow as a small clump for harvesting as mini-veg by sowing up to four seeds per module and don’t thin out the seedlings
From early March, harden off the young plants to acclimatise them to outdoor conditions for a couple of weeks
Then plant into prepared ground (see above), with minimal root disturbance, spacing them 15–23cm (6–9in) apart. If sown as a clump, don’t split the seedlings up, just transfer each whole module into the ground. Water in well and continue watering regularly
Protect from slugs and snails, especially in damp weather. If birds are a problem, cover plants with netting or fleece
Keep turnips weed free, especially when young, so they don’t have to compete for light, water and nutrients.
Weed by hand close to the plants, to avoid accidentally damaging the root tops with a hoe blade.
Turnip roots grow rapidly – early varieties can be ready to harvest in only six weeks and maincrops in about ten weeks, depending on the growing conditions.
They are best harvested when small and full of flavour. If left to grow larger than a tennis ball, they can turn woody and bitter.
The roots are not completely hardy, so it’s safest to harvest the last of your maincrop turnips by late autumn, before the weather turns really harsh and frosty. In mild regions, you can leave them in the ground, protected with cloches or fleece, and lift roots as needed through winter.
Autumn-harvested roots can also be stored for several weeks in trays of moist coir or sand, in a cool, frost-free place – see our guide to storing root veg.
The leaves, or turnip tops, can be harvested too – either at the same time as the roots, or when small and tender, as a cut-and-come-again crop, providing several pickings. Young leaves have a peppery flavour and can be eaten raw, while larger leaves (up to 15cm/6in) can be cooked like spinach. If you’re growing mainly for the roots, don’t harvest too many leaves from each plant, otherwise root growth may be reduced. But you can also grow turnips entirely for their leafy greens, making repeated harvests.
The main harvesting seasons are as follows:
Early turnips: harvest from May to September when the size of a golf ball for eating raw, or the size of a tennis ball for cooking
Maincrop turnips: harvest from mid-October onwards, when the size of a golf ball
Turnip tops: harvest the leaves from spring onwards. The leaves will re-sprout, so you can make several pickings.
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