Rutabagas are a cross between turnips and cabbage and originated in Scandinavia, which most likely explains why some gardeners call them “swedes.” Although technically a biennial, rutabagas are often grown as annuals for their edible roots. Like some other members of the brassica family, rutabagas taste best when they have been exposed to cold weather. The flavor is described as mild and sweet and develops fully after first frosts. Remember that leaves are also edible, so keep those greens!
Helenor rutabaga is a medium-sized, productive plant that makes round roots with a pale orange tint and deep purple top halves. The root has good texture and taste and is ideal for long term storage, either in the ground or in a root cellar or similar location. Ready for fall or winter harvest, this plant is extremely easy to grow.
Seed Depth: 1/4–1″
Space Between Plants: 4–8″
Space Between Rows: 12–24″
Germination Soil Temperature: 45–70°F
Days for Germination: 7–14
Sow Indoors: Not recommended.
Sow Outdoors: Approximately 3 months before the average first frost date in cooler climates and in the early fall in warmer climates.
Prefers cooler climates and should come to maturity when temperatures are below 75°F. Southern growers should plant in the fall for a spring harvest, and those in cooler climates should plant in the late spring/early summer for a fall harvest.
Natural: Full sun.
Soil: Prefers sandy or loamy well-drained soil. If soil is particularly rocky, clear the area of larger stones or clumps of soil as these can cause the roots to become malformed. A pH of 5.5 to 6.5 will keep plants healthy and nourished.
Soilless: Can be germinated in most soilless mixes if desired.
Water: Requires moderate to high levels of water. Soil should be kept moist but not muddy as sporadic watering may cause roots to crack. Aim for at least 1″ of water per week.
Nutrients: Adding rich compost to the soil prior to planting should ensure that your plants will thrive, as it will add nutrients and increase the capacity for the soil to hold water. If the soil is prepared properly before planting, adding fertilizer throughout the growing stages will not be necessary. Avoid fertilizers that are higher in nitrogen as this can encourage leaf growth which will detract nutrients from the roots.
Foliar: Compost tea can assist in root development if you are experiencing stunted growth.
Deficiency(s): Soft spots, usually brown in color, can indicate a boron deficiency, a common malady for rutabagas. This can be corrected by applying a boron-rich fertilizer.
Companions: Grows well with beets, turnips, and carrots. Avoid strawberries, tomatoes and pole beans.
Harvest: If harvesting in summer or spring, wait til weather is below 75°F. Harvest before the soil freezes if growing in fall or winter. Rutabaga leaves may be picked in addition to the root, but be sure to not harvest more than a quarter of the plant’s leaves at once, as this can hurt the plant and stunt root growth. Roots should be harvested when they reach 3–5″ in diameter. To harvest, loosen the soil surrounding the root and gently pull.
Storage: Cut off the greens to prolong the life of the root and place in a root cellar or in the refrigerator until ready to use. Will generally keep for up to a couple of months. Do not wash until just prior to use.
Fun Fact: During World War II, rutabagas were used as a filler ingredient in mixed fruit jam.
Preserve: May be frozen by blanching or cooking and then placed in the freezer. They’re also delicious pickled!
Prepare: Most commonly steamed and mashed, roasted, boiled, baked, or eaten raw. To prepare, first peel the rutabaga and slice. Boil or steam in a covered pot for approximately 30 minutes or until soft. It is commonly smashed with butter and garlic similar to mashed potatoes.
Nutritional: Contains vitamin(s) A, B6, and C. This root veggie is also a good source of fiber, magnesium, potassium, manganese, iron, and calcium.
Medicinal: Like other brassica vegetables, the rutabaga contains compounds that can help reduce the risk of certain cancers such as prostate and colorectal.
Cut up a raw rutabaga and mix it into this Squeaky Clean Coleslaw for a healthy side dish.