Growing Rutabagas

growing rutabagas in the garden
As they enlarge, rutabaga roots push out of the soil.

This young rutabaga root is pushing up out of the ground, which the roots often do as they enlarge.

One of fall’s ideal vegetables, rutabaga ripens best in cool autumn weather, taking on its characteristic mild, rich flavor after fall frosts descend on the garden, and staying in the ground for a long time for later harvests. Rutabagas are known by many names: Russian turnip, Swedish turnip, Swedes, winter turnip, yellow turnip, and Canadian turnip. As these names suggest, rutabagas are related to turnips, created by a natural cross between cabbage and turnip. Compared to turnips, rutabagas grow larger (thanks to their cabbage heritage) and require a few weeks longer to mature.

Soil, Planting, and Care

A rutabaga plant looks much like a turnip plant when growing in the garden.

Rutabaga’s relationship to turnips and cabbage is obvious in its turnip-shaped leaves that are waxy and thick like cabbage.

Growing rutabagas isn’t hard; the greatest challenge is timing your planting. Because rutabaga roots ripen best in cool weather, they need to be planted in time to mature in cool weather. Rutabagas are perfect for a fall crop in cooler regions or as a winter crop in warmer zones. They need about 80 to 100 days from planting to harvest. In cooler regions, count back 90 days from the average date of the first fall frost, which you can find for your area on our fall frost maps. In warmer areas, time fall plantings by waiting until night temperatures are consistently in the 50- to 60-degree range. They also work as an early spring crop in areas where the ground isn’t frozen so that you can plant early; however, they are subject to early warm spells that take away from the sweetness compared to those planted in fall.

Rutabaga grows in ordinary soil, but crop quality improves when you work compost into soil to increase its ability to hold water. Poor soil yields roots with a woody texture. Ideal soil pH is 5.5 to 7.0; add lime to acid soil. Prior to setting out transplants, remove any large rocks that might interfere with root growth. Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart.

Rutabagas need consistent moisture during the growing season. An old rutabaga-growing adage says, “If in doubt, water.” Spotty watering that yields alternating wet and dry soil can cause roots to split. This is where a soaker hose or drip irrigation is invaluable to keep the soil moist but not soggy.

Troubleshooting

A variety of insects—such as slugs, aphids, cutworms, looper caterpillars, and flea beetles—like rutabaga foliage. Growing plants under floating row covers for the first few weeks can eliminate most pest problems. Some gardeners plant nasturtiums throughout the rutabaga patch as a trap crop for aphids.

Clubroot is a disease that typically occurs on poorly drained, acid soils, and can linger in the soil for up to 20 years. It produces distorted roots, wilting, stunted growth, and ruined crops. Don’t plant rutabagas in beds known to have been afflicted by clubroot in the past.

Roots with brown rings or discoloration in the center indicate boron deficiency. Treat by improving soil: Keep pH below 7.0, add compost to increase water-holding capacity, and rake in borax at a rate of 1 ounce per square yard.

Harvest and Storage

Rutabaga roots look like turnips. They grow larger than turnips and taste sweeter.

Rutabaga roots are shaped and colored much like turnips, but are bigger and sweeter.

Although grown primarily for their roots, the leaves of rutabaga are also edible, adding zest to salads. Pick younger leaves, never removing more than a few leaves per root.

Begin harvesting rutabaga roots when they’re 3 to 5 inches in diameter, about the size of a grapefruit. Early, small roots offer succulent, tender flavor; frost sweetens maturing roots. Harvest roots as you need them, leaving the rest of the crop in the ground. To harvest, hand-pull or carefully dig roots. In coldest zones, prolong the harvest by snipping leaves back to a few inches and heavily mulching planting beds with straw. Continue to harvest as needed until soil threatens to freeze, at which point the rutabagas must either be picked or mulched (see below).

Rutabagas store well for months, staying fresh as long as they’re held in humid conditions. After digging, prepare roots for storage by cutting tops to an inch above roots. Place in a cold, moist root cellar held as closely to 32 degrees as possible. To store in the refrigerator, place roots in vegetable storage bags and tuck them in the crisper. For large harvests, store rutabagas in moist peat moss, sand, or sawdust in a cool shed or garage—some place they won’t freeze. Another way to prolong fresh storage is to dip roots in warm, melted paraffin. After coating in wax, store in a cool place.

Some gardeners store roots in place through winter by leaving them in the ground and covering with mulch to protect freezing.

FAQs

Are the leaves of the rutabaga plant edible?

Yes, when harvested at a tender stage, the leaves are good for salads, or for boiling like turnip greens.

Do rutabagas store like potatoes?

Rutabagas can be stored for several months if kept cool (about 40 degrees F) and dry. You can also leave them in the ground over winter if you mulch heavily and pull back the mulch to dig them through the winter.

24 Comments

John Rodda

We love rutabaga, but have never planted same. Would we be wise to get a plant to expedite thngs or seeds? And being from N. Ga. when would be the best time to plant rutabaga?

Reply
Danielle Carroll

Hi John,
Rutabagas will grow well in Georgia. Think about planing a little later for a fall crop. This information is from the University of Georgia extension. You will find the planting dates and other cultural details on growing rutabagas in your area. -danielle, Bonnie Plants

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Amit

Hi, a question related to allowing rutabagas to go to seed in the second year. In the second year, are the plants equally threatened by the cabbage looper butterfly, flea beetles, and the plant’s other nemeses? Or, is this not an issue? Thanks.

Reply
Theresa

A couple weeks ago, I bought some waxed rutabagas, put them in the pantry, and promptly forgot about them. Today, I found that one of them had sprouted (and is actually kind of cute). Is it possible to replant the root or even a sprout to have as just a plant around my apartment? If so, what should I do?

I’m sorry if these seem like dumb questions, but I am clueless when it comes to plants.

Reply
Mary Beth

Hi Theresa,
That’s not a dumb question. Nature always has tons of wonder in store for us, so we are always learning and experimenting. My answer depends on what you’d like to gain from your rutabaga. Your hope in planting a rutabaga seed is to gain one large rutabaga root to eat. So, you won’t gain any extra food to harvest by potting up your one root. But, if you want to watch it grow for foliage and to perhaps bloom and set seed for collection, you can certainly do that. The wax coating shouldn’t remain on the exterior, or else your experiment may rot. I say you eat the rutabaga you bought and try to plant new ones early this season for an additional harvest! Growing is addictive. ~Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

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Mitch Jones

Hi, can I take some leaves from rutabagas,as they are growing the roots to eat ? ( like Collards )

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Mary Beth

Hi Mitch,
Yes, it is safe to eat the leaves of a rutabaga. They are not as nutritious as the greens from turnips but great all the same. You can eat very young ones raw, or steam or boil the more mature leaves. Let us know what you think!~Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

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Ginger

I am so confused. We planted turnip seeds and rutabaga seeds in late August. The turnips look like most of them are ready. I don’t see any sign of a rutabaga popping up though. Will we have any this Fall? Is it just that it needs another 30 days? I am in Central NC. Thanks for your help.
Ginger

Reply
Mary Beth

Hi Ginger,
Not to worry. Rutabagas simply take longer than turnips. See our variety description for the 90 day detail information. If you’d had a Bonnie transplant with the tag information, you would’ve known! :) Hope you have something in the garden from Bonnie to keep those other guys happy… All kidding aside, join in our online discussions via Facebook and sign up for our newsletter. ~ Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

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Gerry Gadberry

We have some rutabagas that were planted May 1st and are digging them up to take to a fall pumpkin festival weigh off in Oregon. My question is will the rutabagas we dug up grow even larger next year when we replant them for seeds? PS I was carefull to not cut off the roots!

Reply
Mary Beth

Hi Gerry,
I may be misunderstanding you, so correct me if so. You are digging up your rutabagas with roots attached in hope that you can replant them later? Root crops like these are a one-harvest, one-time veggie production. If you’ve pulled them out of the ground and broken that main tap root, then it’s perfect to eat now — or store in a cool cellar until you are ready to eat. It won’t regrow if you put it back into the soil. So enjoy these great ones you are showing off at the festival as dinner, after you bring home the blue ribbon! ~Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

Reply
Ian

Gary, your rutabagas will grow again and to even larger size when planted again the following spring to produce a seed crop. They can sometimes grow into some really weird and grotesque looking roots. Unfortunately once they are grown out for seed the root is no longer decent for eating. It’s edible but very woody and the flavour is not as good.

To maintain good genetic diversity, you should choose 30-40 of your best rutabagas to keep to plant for a seed crop next year. Even just one plant produces a tremendous amount of seed.

Try getting together with neighbours and friends and alternate who saves what for seed planting the next year. One person can grow out carrots, the next person beets, the next person rutabagas and so on. Good luck.

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Mary Beth

Ian,
Thank you for joining in here. We hope to see more gardeners share their expertise and experience; I appreciate you taking the time to respond to Gary. I should have expanded more on his seed-saving question, though we both advise him the seed-producing plants won’t be ideal for eating. (Sorry Gary! Eat the non-winners and save the festival winners for seed only.) While we don’t cover much information on seed saving here, this quote from High Mowing Seeds gives a little more detail: “Store turnips or rutabagas over the winter in a cold area with high humidity or leave outside in areas with mild winters. In the spring, transplant the entire root to its original depth, 8″-12″ apart in rows 18″-36″ apart. They will grow in height and then flower. Staking may be required. Seeds are mature when pods are dry. Harvest individual pods or entire stalks.” Good luck! ~Mary Beth

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Carolann

Purchased what I thought were rutabaga seeds this spring – dug up one just to try and found out they were turnip seeds. Does anyone know where one can purchase actual rutabaga seeds hopefully in Canada. Thanks.

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Doris Krueger

Question…I planted rutabaga seeds the first week in June, and we have had intense hot weather… high 90’s and little rain for weeks on end. We have watered extensively, and the plants look good, but other than 90 days, do the leaves get brown, or how do you tell that they are ripe. They are about the size of a softball at this point. Should we be mulching them to keep them as cool as possible? This is Wisconsin, and it is a new crop for us.

Reply
Kelly Smith Trimble

Hi Doris,

It sounds like you could start harvesting your rutabagas now. When reaching full size, the root will start to push up from the ground but the tops don’t yellow or fall over like onions do. We describe harvest size as grapefruit-sized, which is about the same as the softball-size you’re describing. Read more about how to harvest rutabaga in the Harvest & Storage tab above, and enjoy!

Kelly, Bonnie Plants

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John

My rudabaga bulbs are now the size of a volley ball. I planted the started Bonnie plants in mid May, today is June 25th. I tought that they grew slower, will the be edible?
John from Pennsylvania.

Reply
Mary Beth

Hi John,
Volleyballs! Those are large rutabagas! They should typically take about 90 days, so yours seems to have a headstart. If they seem ripe and ready to harvest, why not go ahead and try them? No sense on waiting 90 days. They may not be as sweet as those that ripen in the cooler temps. Let us know how those record rutabagas taste.
Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

Reply
Darlene

What is the visible difference between a rudabaga and a Daiken Masato Red Radish. In cleaning up my garden I uncovered what looks to be like a giant radish… Three inches exposed above ground, reddish purple color, cream bottom…about 3 pounds…much larger than a baseball…

Reply
Mary Beth

Hi Darlene,
That sounds like an overgrown rutabaga to me. Did you plant any purple top turnips or rutabagas? If you planted from seed, you may have gotten a stray seed in the bunch for a radish, but the purple on top with cream bottom sounds like a healthy, woody rutabaga. Red radishes would be red on the outside and in the inside when you slice them, of most varieties. ~Mary Beth, Bonnie Plants

Reply
mike

what do i do when my rutabagas start going to seed? they have only been in the ground about a month. thanks mike

Reply
Kelly Smith Trimble

Hi Mike,

Normally rutabagas are biennials, i.e., they form a swollen root during the first year of growth and flowering stems in the second year of growth after a cold period. However, if plants are subjected to low temperatures (below 5 degrees C/41 degrees F) when they are less than 10 weeks old, this will trigger the development of flowering stems. As few as 3 to 5 nights with these temperatures are believed to result in development of flowering stems. If you’ve experienced cold nights like these since you planted your rutabaga transplants, this is why your plants are bolting. Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do at this point. Next time, especially if you’re growing in a cool climate (and it sounds like you are), invest in some row cover fabric to cover your crops when temperatures drop.

Kelly, Bonnie Plants

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