Plant of the week: Rutabaga

Rutabagas–also known as swedes, yellow turnips, Russian turnips, or Canadian turnips–are a cross between turnips and cabbages.  They are a good source of vitamin C and potassium, and they’re easy to grow.  Due to their large size, you only have to grow a few to get a lot of return on your time and effort!


Ideal growing conditions

Rutabagas are cool season plants; that is, you’ll want to time them so that their roots mature during the cool season, for the best flavour.  They like light, well-drained soil that is rich in compost and manure and has a pH of 5.5 to 7.0.  They do not grow well in heavy soil, or soil that is deficit in boron.

Direct sow the seeds in spring, as soon as the ground can be worked.  Place seeds 1/2 inch deep, and about 3 inches apart.  As the plants grow, thin them so that they are about a foot apart.  If the roots that you thin out aren’t big enough to eat, you can still eat the greens.

Harvesting, using, and preserving

You can harvest the greens throughout the growing season, but just remove a couple of leaves at a time, and let the plant recover between pickings.  Use the greens as you would kale.

You can begin to harvest the roots when they reach the size of a grapefruit, and continue to harvest them throughout the season.  They can stay in the ground after a killing frost (frost sweetens their taste).  To harvest them, pull them by the tops, or use a gardening fork to ease them out of the ground.

Rutabaga is delicious in soups and stews, or mashed.  My personal favourite is to mash them with carrots and a bit of butter (chop and cook carrots separately from cubed rutabaga; rutabaga takes much longer to cook than carrots).

Rutabaga can be cubed, blanched, and frozen, although it’s more commonly stored in a root cellar or a similar location that is around 0 degrees with some humidity.  Chop or twist the top off to about an inch long before storing.

You can keep your rutabagas in the ground for as long as your climate permits, although overwintering them makes them tough and woody.  In the grocery store, rutabagas are sold coated in paraffin wax.


  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Turnips


  • Potatoes

Fun facts

  • Turnips and rutabagas were the first jack o’lanterns.
  • Those delicious candied fruits that are used in fruitcakes and other festive cakes and cookies are actually candied rutabaga!



Thinning vegetables

Many vegetables have small seeds that are difficult to sow one at a time.  As a result, you invariably end up with too many small plants close together, fighting each other for the same space, air circulation, and nutrients.  In the case of beets, multiple seedlings almost always arise from each seed (which is really a clump of 4-6 seeds).

Here is a list of vegetables that often need to be thinned out:

  • Beets
  • Carrots and parsnips
  • Lettuce and other greens
  • Turnips and rutabagas
  • Various herbs, such as basil and cilantro

For greens and herbs, simply pull the plants out by the roots.  You can use these plants whether they are big or small.

For very young root vegetables, snip the tops off the extra plants; they will die back naturally.  Throw the tops into the compost.

For older root vegetables, wait for a day when the soil is quite wet, and slowly pull on the tops until the root emerges.  Keep a small spade or stick handy to gently dig out the root should the tops break off, leaving you nothing to pull.  Ideally, though, you should minimize disruption to root vegetables.  Carrots, for example, may fork is moved (although their shape does not affect their taste).  I gently pack the soil back around the side of the carrot that is bared when its neighbour is pulled.

Leave enough space for each plant to grow comfortably without pressing up against any others of its kind (or any other neighbours).  This will vary according to the type of plant.

Want to reduce the amount of thinning you have to do?  Try making your own seed tape.  Although you may find more gaps in your garden (where seeds along the tape did not germinate and did not have backup seeds to fill in), at least you will have less precious seedlings to pull.

Protecting brassicas from cabbage worms

If you are growing cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, radish, turnip, or rutabaga, you may need to take steps to protect your plants from cabbage worms.  These green caterpillars love to chow down on brassicas and similar plants; after they pupate, they emerge as small, cream-coloured moths (that have a couple of dark spots on their wings).

There are many natural ways to control them, such as attracting their predators into your garden.  One simple solution is to construct a cover made of tulle (a fabric commonly used to make prom dresses and the like).  This fabric mesh allows in rain and sunlight but prevents moths from entering and laying their eggs.

You don’t need to make anything fancy.  You can make a wire hoop frame, or simply set up some stakes that you can drape the fabric over so it does not sit on the plants (as I have done above, on my hail-damaged plants).  Place something heavy on the edges of the fabric, where they rests on the ground.  Or, you can construct something permanent.  There are plenty of ideas on the internet.

For more information on cabbage worms, and other methods of controlling them, see

Direct sowing cool season crops

Once the snow has melted, and the soil is workable (that is, it is neither frozen, cold, or very wet), you may direct sow cool season crops.  These plants tolerate overnight temperatures that hover around the freezing mark, and even a touch of frost; they prefer the cool temperatures of spring and fall rather than the heat of summer, during which they may bolt (go to seed too quickly).

Refer to the seed package to see how many weeks prior to the last frost that you may sow the seeds.  The package may also list an ideal soil temperature.  You may choose to place row covers over the area that you are planting to expedite the warming of the soil and protect your plants from occasional cold nights.

The following plants are quite hardy, and can tolerate a soil temperature of around 5°C:

  • Leeks
  • Peas
  • Radishes
  • Spinach, lettuce, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, and other greens
  • Sunflowers
  • Turnip and rutabaga

The following plants are also quite hardy, though they prefer a slightly warmer soil temperature of around 10°C:

  • Broccoli (shown above), Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and cabbage
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Chard
  • Kohlrabi
  • Onion sets
  • Potatoes
  • Parsnips