Rutabagas! A First!

My very first rutabagas!

To experienced rutabaga growers, this crop of rutabaga “Laurentian,” an old (pre-1920) heirloom variety, is certainly not impressive, but I’m happy. Just harvested today, after record cold weeks including a week of single digit nights and below-freezing days, the temps then jumped into the 50’s (welcome to Indiana weather!) melting the snow, thawing the ground, allowing me to dig. I suspected they would have frozen to mush, having never grown them before, but was relieved to see that they were still firm.

What I learned from this year is that rutabagas need more water than I was giving them. The only big one (about 5″ diameter) was growing close to the melon plant that I watered daily. Secondly, they are members of the cole crop family (think cabbage and broccoli, kale, kohlrabi) and therefore subject to cabbage worms, so I should have been spraying them with Bt (an organic bacteria, “thuricide” used to kill leaf-eating caterpillars.) And, I should have thinned them to the suggested 6″ apart distance, but I didn’t.

I experienced my very first rutabagas in Atlanta, Georgia last year during a visit to my cousin. For some reason, I thought rutabagas only grew in the North, like Minnesota or North Dakota, so I was surprised to find they are common in the South as well. At her favorite barbecue place, I had mashed rutabagas and discovered that I loved their sweetness. They reminded me of butternut squash in color and texture. Then I had rutabagas that had been sliced and steamed, served with butter, salt and pepper, and those were delicious as well. I want to try some of this crop roasted.

Now that I know I can grow them, I’ll give them better care. I should have replenished the soil with a layer of compost before seeding them in early August, and sprinkled a bit of lime to mix into the soil. Rutabagas like 6.8-6.9 ph. And next time I’ll mix the seeds with a little sand so they aren’t sown so thickly. The seeds are tiny round balls, much smaller than cabbage or radish seeds.

Traditionally, rutabagas are harvested after at least two hard frosts, which increases their sweetness. They are an excellent crop to store for the winter. Just trim off the leaves and roots, give them a quick rinse and store at around 32 degrees F in a plastic bag to retain moisture. In olden days, they would have gone into the root cellar, but a plastic tub or garbage can will do just as well in an unheated garage or basement.

Rutabagas were a new crop for me in 2019. Now I’m looking for something new to grow in the potager for 2020. Any suggestions?

About carolee

A former professional herb and lavender grower, now just growing for joy in my new potager. When I'm not in the garden, I'm in the kitchen, writing, or traveling to great gardens.
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4 Responses to Rutabagas! A First!

  1. Chicken Librarian says:

    We love rutabagas! I’ve never grown them though so this is good information.

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  2. underswansea says:

    We called them Swede Turnips. We always had them in the garden because they would keep in the cellar till spring. We would have the first ones after at least a few frosts at Thanksgiving (Canadian mid October). The best was leftovers the next day when they would be fried with the remaining mashed potatoes. The seeds are small and you have no choice to plant them thick. They also seem to all germinate. The best time to thin them is when the first radishes are ready to be pulled. Thinning them to about six inches apart. They look terrible after thinning, laying on the ground. You will think you’ve killed them all, but after a few days they will be standing straight back up. Very fine post.

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  3. Lillie says:

    I haven’t tried growing rutabagas yet, but we eat them often. Your post gives me the confidence to give them a try! Thank you!

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