Turnips were most likely grown by the Greeks and Romans thousands of years ago. Early turnips were grown primarily for their fleshy leaves, which resembled what we call “Swiss chard” today. The first documented evidence that turnips were grown for their tuberous roots dates back to 16th-century Germany and Italy. They’re a great source of fiber and carbohydrates and have a range of vitamins and antioxidants.
In the United States, turnips are a relatively uncommon food, occasionally popping up in a side of roasted vegetables or a hearty soup. But unbeknownst to many people, they are actually an important staple food and produce about 20% of the world’s sugar. The type of beets used to make sugar are aptly called sugar beet and are a great source of sweetness for people who grow their food in a temperate environment where sugarcane would not survive the winter.
In our subsistence gardens we grow a patch of turnips each year for use in venison borscht and as food coloring in our wild red velvet cake. My wife Silvan also likes to use it occasionally as a natural blush and as a lipstick.
types of beets
Most people are familiar with the classic deep red spherical beets commonly found in supermarkets, but there are actually a number of other colors, shapes, and flavors you can experiment with when growing your own.
For that classic beetroot look and taste, our favorite strain is Bull’s Blood – named for its deep, blood-red color. The Chioggia Italian Old Beet offers a beautiful pink streak and a mild flavor for people who aren’t crazy about the classic earthy beet flavor. Finally, Touchstone Gold is a very sweet turnip that resembles an orange carrot in color. Together, these three make a beautiful bouquet of turnips that can serve as kitchen decorations until you’re ready to eat them.
Growing conditions for beets
Beets are very hardy and can be planted outdoors in spring about 6 weeks before your average last frost and then again in late summer for a winter harvest. They can grow in partial sun and produce beautiful beet greens and a small root. But if you choose the typical large round beets, you need to plant them in full sun (at least 6 hours a day). Beets can be seeded directly outdoors in the garden or grown indoors in trays and transplanted when they are a few inches tall.
Each beet “seed” is actually a small cluster of seeds fused into a dried fruit. Beets can be grown in clusters or “modules,” which is what happens when you plant each cluster of seeds without thinning them out. For large round beets, you should thin them out until there is only one beet seedling every 3 inches. However, many gardeners swear by the modular growing method, which involves growing three to four beets in a cluster. In my experience, they are often much smaller in this form.
Turnips are fairly short in stature and don’t compete well with weeds, so you’ll want to be vigilant and remove any unwanted plants that start shading them in the garden. Spreading some leaf mulch or grass clippings between your beet rows will keep weeds from overpowering them and make your beet garden a little more manageable.
Beet Pests and Diseases
The primary insect pests of beets are leaf miners, small flies whose larvae tunnel through the leaves of beets and spinach, destroying the cells in the process. Leaf miners are very easy to identify due to the conspicuous tunnels they leave behind. You can control them by finding the larvae in the leaf and just crushing them without tearing too much from the leaf. Leaf miners are also very susceptible to several species of parasitic wasps and wasps, so beneficial insect habitats like a flower garden will also help control them. Because they are sheltered within the leaves of your beets, leaf miners are not particularly susceptible to pesticides.
At the end of the season, remember to remove any potentially affected beet leaves from your garden and compost them, as leaf miners overwinter as larvae in the residue and emerge as adults in spring to lay eggs in your new crop. Breaking this cycle won’t completely eradicate them from your garden, but their population will be significantly reduced each year.
Beet Harvest and Use
Once your beets are at your preferred size, you can simply pull them up, wash them and they’re ready for dinner. If you want to preserve your turnips for the winter, you should lightly brush off large clumps of soil instead of washing them and store them in a cool, dark place with the leaves and taproots removed. Depending on the variety of beets you have grown, they can be stored for months. We keep ours in a wax lined box in our garage over the winter and last year we ate them well into spring.