Jane McLeod: The humble turnip
I might be up against another hard sell, but I’m always trying to convince gardeners that when it comes to growing vegetables here, we need to get back to our roots — literally.
The turnip is probably the oldest (about 2000 BC) known vegetable and was once the basic staple of the vegetable garden but got elbowed out of that position by the potato, and today, it ranks so low in popularity that it is highly underestimated and little appreciated.
Turnips are low in calories, high in fiber, high in the nutrients potassium, folate, vitamin C and trace minerals, plus they are hardy, flavorful, grow fast, flourish with little care, produce their best root growth in cool 40- to 60-degree temperatures and are resistant to mild frosts — all components that should make you search for the nearest seed package. Admittedly, I get a little tired of my garden come the end of summer, but being able to harvest a variety of root vegetables in late autumn is more than satisfying and will give any gardener a second wind.
The favored site for turnips is a sunny one, but some shade is tolerated. As for any root crop, soil composition is important for a quality product and loose, well-drained and enriched soil with organic matter works best. Sow the seeds in early spring about half an inch deep and though they are tiny, try to get them 1 inch apart in rows at least 1 foot apart. Water well to ensure germination (the success rate is high) and thin seedlings 3 to 5 inches apart when they are about 6 inches tall, eating the thinnings as greens.
Turnips can be eaten from top to bottom as the greens pack as big or even a bigger nutritional punch than the root, and their mustardy somewhat spicy flavor is good raw or some say even better mellowed by cooking. Some turnip varieties are grown for the root, others for the greens and still others for both. Most turnips have white flesh (basically from growing underground) with the shoulders bluish or purple where the sun hits them where they protrude above ground. They have no necks and their leaves, which are fuzzy and green, sprout right from the root. They have a high water content and consequently appreciate a good deep soaking at least once a week.
Left too long in the ground, they become pithy and cooked wrong (as in boiled to death), they taste bitter and well — “turnipy.” Harvested young and small (less than 3 inches) and cooked lightly they are sweet and tender. Wash, trim off the hairy roots and peel (not even necessary if young and small) and serve turnips raw in a salad, cooked in a stir fry, braised, boiled or steamed. If you happen to have a damp and cool root cellar they will store for a long time but their high water content makes them surprisingly fragile and they don’t store well or for long (up to a week) in a refrigerator (since there is no place drier). Every bite of turnip is full of health, and as my mother always said, “just try them — you’ll like them.”
Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the Routt Extension Office. If you have questions, call 970-879-0825.
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