Harvesting Rutabagas

Botanical Name: Brassica napus var. napobrassica

It pays to keep a careful eye on rutabagas – and on the weather forecast – when harvest time approaches. That’s because rutabagas, a cool weather crop, mature toward the end of fall and except for the greens and thinnings taken mid-season, should only be harvested in the period between the first several frosts of the season and the time when winter truly arrives and the ground freezes hard.

Those first several frosts sweeten the edible rutabaga root, making it a good cooked companion for meat, poultry, soups and stews and casseroles made of root crops. However, while some coldis good for flavor, when the ground freezes hard with rutabaga still waiting, the flavor deteriorates somewhat.

There’s no need to harvest all the rutabagas at once if there’s a sufficiently long cool season. Just wait until they are fully ripened – with a diameter of about four to six inches — and pull them outone at a time as you get ready to cook. As you pull each one trim the tops off straight across the crown of the plant, leaving about an inch of the green stems, and cut any long taproot off as well. What’s left is the fleshy, crisp-and-creamy round rutabaga that’s so good to cook and eat.

If the ground is too firm or dry to pull the roots out by hand, there are a couple of strategies for a good harvest. One is to wait until after a soaking rain, when root crops should practically slide out of the ground. That wait-and-harvest method puts the least stress on the plants and assures that the roots don’t get broken or torn.
Another way to harvest is to use a garden fork, just as you would with potatoes. The garden forkis about half the height of a shovel and has several broad tines. There’s a place to put your foot to push. Using a shovel makes it likely that you may nick the rutabaga skin or even cut the rutabaga in half inadvertently. The fork works better because it loosens the soil first and is less likely to shear off the root. The roots should come to the surface readily.

In the very best growing conditions a 100-foot row of plants may yield as much as two bushels of trimmed rutabagas. That’s quite a lot, so be sure you have room for what you harvest.

Harvesting rutabagas one at a time when you want to eat one…that’s ideal. Later, as a hard freeze approaches, it’s best to harvest all the remaining rutabagas and get ready to store them, whether in the refrigerator, in a root cellar, or cooked and mashed, in the freezer.

If you keep livestock, on the other hand, it is perfectly all right to leave a lot of the rutabagas in the ground as winter forage. The animals won’t be as fussy about perfect flavor, and may appreciate the variety in their diet.