Botanical Name: Brassica napus var. napobrassica
Rutabaga plants have a lot to offer the home gardener. They are easy to grow and harvest, they extend the growing season through autumn, and they store well for months in the ground or in a root cellar. They are delicious, nutritious, and versatile in the kitchen. And they make good forage for livestock.
Closely related to turnips, rutabagas are also known as Swedes, yellow turnips, table turnips, and Mangel-Wurzel, among other names. Rutabagas are part of the plant genus that also includes broccoli, cabbage and mustard.
The rutabaga plants themselves have three main parts: a green leafy top, a round bulb-like edible root, and a long taproot with fine hairs. The greens, especially when young and tender, may be cut and cooked to make a nutritious side dish or an ingredient in soups and stews.
The long, straight taproot is cut off when a rutabaga is harvested, as are the green tops, and the remaining root bulb is about the size of a small grapefruit. The flesh of this part of the plant is usually gold or yellow in color, and is rich in vitamin C and dietary fiber, as well as containing sugars, protein, and trace amounts of other vitamins and minerals. Rutabaga is prepared for eating by cooking and mashing it – often with potatoes – or by roasting it with other root vegetables.
It’s best to plant rutabaga seeds in the middle of summer, when spring crops are through producing and the soil is about 80° F. Germination takes place in about 14 days, and the emerging greens are a dark blue-green in color. Those seedlings are thinned every few weeks to give the developing root bulbs sufficient room to grow; thinnings may be used as sprouts in fresh dishes.
In order to grow to their full size rutabaga seeds need to be planted in loose, fertile soil with plenty of organic materials mixed in. That way roots won’t be bent or stunted. Moisture should be even throughout the growing season, rather than having soil become too wet at one time. The plants need full sunshine, except in the hottest climate, where they may benefit from light afternoon shade.
Gardeners should weed the growing rutabaga plants carefully several times during the season. A layer of loose straw mulch can help keep down weeds that might compete for nutrition. Too little potash in the soil can cause poor quality root bulbs or the failure to form bulbs at all.
Rutabaga plants can be plagued by the same pests that damage any other cabbage-family or turnip-related plants.
When rutabagas are ripe the plants’ “shoulders” will turn purple – if plants are of the “purple top” varieties – and bulge out of the ground. The optimum size for harvesting is for these bulbs to be three to six inches diameter. Plants can be left entirely in the ground through several frosts, but need to be pulled up before the ground freezes entirely, about 20° F.
Store them in cool, moist, dark conditions.