Turnips and swedes are quite easy to grow and are full of goodness. The challenge is that not everyone likes their flavour. Innovation in varieties has helped address this to some degree. Of the two, swedes are slightly sweeter and have a milder taste. Turnips can be grated to add flavour to salads, or cooked, whilst swedes are generally always cooked. If cooking, they can be used in the same way as potatoes and parsnips, for example roasting, baking, or mashing, and for ingredients in soups and casseroles.
Both turnips and swedes thrive in cool, moist summers, and should be picked when young for the best flavour and texture. Turnips when they are the size of a golf ball, and swedes at the size of a tennis ball. In hot dry summers, there is tendency for plants to bolt, and if the soil dries out this can make the roots bitter and woody.
Different parts of the UK use the names for turnips and swedes differently. For the purpose of this page:
- Turnips are smaller white fleshed roots, often with purple and white skin, that grow relatively fast (6-10 weeks), and are not generally frost hardy.
- Swedes are yellow fleshed roots that take significantly longer to mature (5-6 months), have yellow to red skin, and are frost hardy, enabling them to stand in winter on the vegetable bed and be harvested as required.
It appears part of the reason for the different use of names is that swedes are actually a type of turnip - originally a cross between a turnip and wild cabbage. Swedes are sometimes called turnips, rutabaga, and neeps.
When growing turnips, sowing a little seed every few weeks will help give a long harvest season, and avoid unpicked roots growing too large. Like carrots, the tops of turnips are edible, and this is a good way to make use of surplus plants when thinning seedlings. The ideal spacing for plants is about 10 centimetres or 4 inches apart.
Swedes are sown directly into the soil after the weather warms in the spring. For a successful harvest, the soil needs to be kept moist, which can be a challenge on light sandy soils. Space the thinned seedlings about 25 centimetres or 10 inches apart. The first swedes will be available to harvest in September, and can be left standing, and picked as required, until January.