Purple Top Milan is a classic Italian heirloom turnip variety, introduced before 1888. It is still as popular as ever. Highly ornamental, it has smooth creamy-white flat roots with bright purple shoulders and pure white flesh of choice quality. A strap-leaved variety, quick to mature and early cropping, it is an ideal 'catch crop' between slower growing vegetables.
The very tasty, sweet and mild flesh is fine-grained, crisp and succulent. The roots can be eaten fresh or cooked like potatoes: roasted, boiled or mashed. Long a popular soul food, turnip greens are slightly sweet when young. They are even more nutritious than the roots and are considered one of best flavours in the greens category.
Prepare the site: All brassica crops grow best in partial-shade, in firm, fertile, free-draining soil. For the best crops start digging over your soil in autumn, removing any stones you find and working in plenty of well-rotted manure or compost. Because they are fast growing, they require a higher level of fertility. Ideally the soil should have been manured for a previous crop and the pH level should be around neutral. Like most brassicas they do not like an acid soil so add lime to the soil if necessary. A week or so before sowing provide a general purpose fertiliser like fish, blood & bone. Tread on the soil to remove any air pockets and make the surface very firm. Turnips are easily grown in containers. Small roots can be grown in wide containers but they must be at least 20cm (8in) deep.
Timing: Turnips are a cool-weather crop that require 30 to 60 days to come to harvest and grow best in temperatures from 5 to 24ºC (40 to 75ºF). They are best harvested before temperatures exceed 24ºC (75ºF) as hot temperatures cause the roots to become woody. In temperate climates (ones with a growing season of 5 to 6 months), seeds are sown in spring for an early summer harvest and in late summer for a late autumn to early winter harvest. If sown under cloches, sowing can start as early as late August. As turnips grow on they become less tender and flavoursome so successional sowing every two weeks ensures a constant supply of young and sweet turnips.
Sowing: Turnip seedlings do not transplant well so seeds are sown directly into the garden. Sow seeds 12mm (½in) deep and rows should be spaced 15cm (6in) apart. The seeds should be sown thinly, as this reduces the amount of future thinning necessary and potential risk from pests. Plan for around 5 to 10 plants per household member.
Rake in lightly and water often in dry weather. Germination takes place in less than a week. When grown for their roots, it is important to start thinning as soon as possible because they are fast growing. If they are allowed to crowd, decent roots will not develop. Thin small rooted varieties up to 7cm (3in), so that they don’t touch. Maincrop varieties that are sown in January and February require a larger spacing, 25cm (10in), to allow the larger root to develop for harvesting in May and June. The thinnings can be eaten as greens. If growing turnips for greens only, do not thin out.
Turnips are a relatively trouble free crop. Cultivation is mainly a matter of keeping them weed free and watering in dry periods to avoid woody texture and split skins. Turnips prefer to be watered deeply before the soil dries out entirely. Frequent shallow watering or erratic watering can bring on early flowering, resulting in poor root development.
If growing for greens, leave the plants close together, and pick your greens without pulling out the roots. Leaving the plants close together discourages growth of the large bulbous stem, and the greens will replenish consistently. A higher nitrogen content in the soil encourages production of leaves rather than the root bulb.
Companion Planting: Turnips thrive in the company of peas and onions as well as with other members of the onion family. They should not be planted near other root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and radish as they will compete for the same resources.
Harvesting: Turnips can be harvested at any size during the growing season. Although the globes reach 10 to 12cm (4 to 5in) at full size, they achieve peak flavour and maximum sweetness at 7cm (3in) in diameter. If growing for greens, they are best harvested when 10 to 15cm (4 to 6in) tall, they can be cut when up to 30cm (12in) but flavour and texture reduce in quality if allowed to grow larger then this. Cut the outside leaves first and leave to resprout. Thinned seedlings can also be harvested for greens.
Rotation: Rotate your crops. Planting brassicas, of any kinds, in the same ground more often than once every four years runs the risk of club root infestation and once you have it, the ground is useless for up to a decade. Don't take needless chances, even with catch crops of radishes.
Culinary Uses: Young, golf ball sized, turnips can be grated and eaten raw in salads. The smaller roots can be boiled whole for around 25 to 30 minutes. Main crops will require peeling before boiling, treat as swedes. Enjoy them mashed, roasted, in soups and casseroles.
To freeze, peel and dice, blanch for two minutes, plunge into cold water, drain and dry with paper towel, pack in meal sized amounts. Both roots and green tops are high in vitamin C and fibre. Turnips retain their nutrients well when cooked.
Turnip leaves are sometimes eaten as greens, often called turnip tops they resemble mustard greens in flavour. They can be blanched, sautéed or used fresh as a bitter and textural green in salads. Smaller leaves are preferred; however, any bitter taste of larger leaves can be reduced by pouring off the water from initial boiling and replacing it with fresh water.
Storage: Regular turnip crops are left in the ground as the plants can withstand freezing temperatures in the air until the ground freezes. However baby turnip varieties should be harvested young. Thanks to their thin skin, they don’t store long like the more common, thick-skinned storage types. They will store for a short while but are not considered a tradition cellar vegetable as they will not maintain their firmness and flavour if stored throughout the winter, which common turnips as well and the turnip's parent, the swede (rutabaga) are often utilised for.
Most very small turnips (also called baby turnips) are specialty varieties. They are available in white, yellow, orange and red-fleshed varieties. Their flavour is mild, so they can be eaten raw in salads like radishes and other vegetables.
Origin: The turnip originated in northern Europe in about 2000 BC. The domesticated turnip can be traced as far back as the Hellenistic Period of Greek civilisation (approximately 300 BCE). Its horticultural relevance pre-dates the arrival of the potato. Historically the turnip has had dual purpose as a crop for both humans and animals. Unfortunately, it was their use as animal fodder that long ago caused nobles to scorn them as poor-man’s food. Thank heavens we now live in more enlightened times.
Turnips made their way to China and Japan about 1,300 years ago where the white Tokyo-type turnips were developed. Golden turnips have European origins. They were first cultivated in France in the 1800's. In Scotland and the North of England they date back at least to the early 19th century. They were registered in the United States patent office in 1855 as Robertson’s Gold Ball.
Nomenclature: In the south of England the smaller white vegetables are called turnips, while the larger yellow ones are referred to as swedes (from 'Swedish turnip') In the USA, turnips are the same, but swedes are usually called rutabagas. In Scotland, Ireland, northern England and parts of Canada, the usage is confusingly reversed, with the yellow vegetables being called turnips or neeps, and the white ones swedes. Neeps are mashed and eaten with haggis, traditionally on Burns Night.