By Les Harrison, UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director and Shelley Swenson, UF/IFAS Wakulla County Family and Consumer Sciences Agent.
Simple, easy and low maintenance are not normally terms applied to growing vegetables in Wakulla County, or anywhere else. To every rule, however, there are a few exceptions and gardening is not the exception.
Gardeners this time of year have many advantages to go along with the challenges; insects are few to non-existent, there are far fewer weeds to compete for nutrients, and the temperatures will not induce heat exhaustion. Granted, vegetable selections are restricted, but there are options.
One of the traditional favorites in the South is the turnip, scientifically known as Brassica rapa. Turnips are simple and easy to grow, a low maintenance and low calorie choice for the holiday season.
This high yielding crop was once a staple in every garden south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Depending on the cultivar, almost the entire plant is usable for food. The leaves, commonly referred to as greens, are cooked like collards, kale, and mustard. There is a taste difference with turnips having a bitter tinge.
Some cultivars produce the greens almost exclusively. Seven-top is one locally popular variety which is at prolific at delivering usable leaves.
Turnip roots may weigh up to about two pounds, depending on the specific cultivar. Usually the roots are harvested when smaller and before they become tough and fibrous. Size is partly a function of variety and partly a function of the length of time the turnip has been growing. Most varieties can be harvested in 60 to 85 days.
There are very small multi-color specialty varieties turnips which can be yellow, orange or red. These are only available when freshly harvested and do not keep well. The most common local root type turnip is purple top. It is easily distinguished by a bright purple band across the top of the root. This turnip cultivar was planted in the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Office demonstration garden on Sept. 20. Harvest began 60 days later, but examples are still growing in the garden, which is available to visitor during the week.
Planting and cultivating turnips is simple and easy, and the seed is inexpensive and plentiful. The small hard seed are planted in rows and covered by one-quarter inch to one-half inch of dirt.
It is easy to drop too many seeds, so thinning of seedlings may be necessary. This problem can be alleviated by mixing the seed in clean sand to reduce the number of seed placed on the soil. The planting bed should remain moist, but not saturated.Germination will occur in about a week.
Turnips can be peeled before cooking, eaten raw or sliced, diced or julienned. When cooking this delicate root, cook only to the just-tender point to avoid overcooking as sweetness will diminish. Select smooth surfaced roots that are firm and heavy with some root hairs at the bottom. In general, the smaller the turnip, the sweeter that taste.
The roots store well by cutting the greens off and bagging them separately. Place the greens in the crisper section of the refrigerator for up to a week. In a half-cup cooked serving size, you will receive 15 calories and 15 percent of the daily recommend value of Vitamin C (based on a 2,000 calorie diet).