In praise of turnips

Are you a turniphead?

I sure am. And I’d love to turn this from an insult, with connotations of “lumpy, dull, bitter,” to a compliment meaning “smart gardener”! Turnips are a great cool-weather root crop and an excellent addition to spring and fall meals. They’re easy and quick to grow, offer variety and good taste, plus you can eat the entire plant.

To be fair, some varieties of turnip (and its cousin rutabaga) are used for animal feed, and as human food are valued mostly for their storage capacity. Turnips have fed people in the midst of famine and wartime rationing, and while this is a terrific feat for a plant, it doesn’t lead us to think of them as tender, delicate, spicy little treats. But they really are!

Turnips are a subspecies of Brassica rapa, which also includes many of the Asian greens such as Chinese cabbage, bok choy, and tatsoi, and the Italian rapini. Turnips likely originated in northern Europe, probably one of the first domesticated crops there, and later made their way to Asia, where many new cultivars were created. Until recently, most American seed catalogs listed one type of turnip – Purple Top White Globe – or if you were lucky maybe two or three (including Gilfeather which is actually a rutabaga). And listen, PTWG is a perfectly decent turnip, but it’s easy now to find more interesting fare. Many catalogs will at least sell you seed for one kind of round white Asian turnip, probably Hakurei. Grow these, from seed planted directly in the garden in late March or early April, or in September, and you’ll be rewarded about 45-50 days later with a perfectly white ball, mild and crunchy cut up for a salad, or tender and sweet when braised, roasted, or stir-fried.

You only need to do a few things to help your plants along. Provide a planting bed with loose soil that’s been amended with compost, give your plants plenty of water, and cover them with a floating row cover to keep off insect pests (and also rabbits, if you don’t have a fence. But you have a fence, right?). Turnips grow so fast that it almost doesn’t matter if the leaves get chewed a bit, but since they’re also edible, spicy in a mustardy way and great either cooked alone or mixed with other greens, you don’t want to have to pick off caterpillars. (If you really love turnip greens, you can grow types that produce leaves and not much in the way of edible roots, or add extra nitrogen fertilizer for the same effect. But why not have both greens and roots?)

Perusing catalogs with wider selections, you may find other types of round white turnips. I have no idea what the best one is, so pick what sounds good and experiment. You can also find red-skinned, white-fleshed types, which look really striking, though for some reason I’ve had trouble getting them to produce the few times I’ve tried them.

And then you can branch out into the weird ones, like Hinona Kabu, which I grew for the first time this year.

They are not actually meant to be that twisty and branched (the catalog photo looks like purple and white carrots) but I guess the bed I grew them in still has some issues with compacted soil. But it doesn’t affect the taste. This type of turnip is traditionally pickled, so that’s what I did. This is a fairly spicy turnip and the pickles add a nice potent bite to other foods. I made some squash soup the other night and offered various toppings to add, such as rye bread croutons, green onions, and cubed sausage, and also pickled Hinona Kabu turnips, along with Nadapeño pickles.

The pickling process turned the turnip slices pink – very cute! As with the round white types, there’s no need to peel these, just clean and remove some of the odd side roots.

I’m going to make sure turnips are a regular part of my spring and fall garden from now on. Frankly, there are few easier crops to grow, so why not? Let’s all be turnipheads!

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.

Pepper and okra recommendations, and some updates

The end of the summer season is a time to take serious stock of what you grew this year, but sometimes it’s just all about the WOW.

These are the Sherwood Red okra plants that reached over 8 feet tall in my garden. They bore moderately well, with pods that started green and finally turned red when pretty large (6-7 inches long) at which point they were still tender enough to eat–and very tasty, too, with only a small amount of mucosity. (I learned somewhere that the best way to fry okra (okay, the second best way, but the best way without coating and deep-frying) is to make sure it’s dry when it goes into the pan, without even a drop of water combining with the oil. I cut mine into the size pieces I want and then pat them dry between dish towels. Much less gooey using this method.)

And yes, I could still pick from the tops of those plants, since the stems bent down nicely without snapping. It just took a little effort. Possibly they violated the height limitations of my community garden, but I bet they impressed my neighbors too.

Read on for some pepper news…

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Knowing when it’s time: Season’s end

The last Brandywine

I took out my tomato plants this week. It’s a lot earlier than I’d normally do it, but I had my reasons (which I will discuss below). Picking the last fruits and chopping down the stems made me think about all the decisions we make as gardeners, and how a lot of the questions we Master Gardeners get are about those choices. We might get asked at this time of year, “Am I supposed to take out my tomato plants now?” Maybe with an undercurrent of “Will I get in trouble with the garden police if I do it? Or don’t do it?” but in any case with uncertainty about doing the right thing. And the disappointing answer we long-experienced garden gurus usually give to questions like that?

“Well, it depends.”

Or, even more frustratingly: “It’s up to you.”

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What to do when your seedlings grow too big

I started my peppers too early.

Every year I warn fellow gardeners not to rush on getting seeds into pots for warm-weather vegetables. Tomatoes, in particular, outgrow their indoor space under lights much faster than you’d think, but you can make this mistake with many plants that shouldn’t go outdoors until the chance of frost is past and the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees F. There’s often a several-week gap between the average-last-frost day that you used to count back from when calculating start dates and the actual day that it’s safe to put the plants in the garden. That can go either way, of course, but unless you’re inclined toward taking risks, it’s better to err on the side of later planting. The seedlings will grow faster under warm conditions and catch up with their early-planted peers.

So, there was no reason to put the pepper seeds in as early as the very end of February, but I did it anyway. We all have those moments. Mid-March would have been fine, but I know I was feeling anxious about other things and probably projected those feelings onto my peppers. And now I have some large strong well-grown pepper plants that are more than ready to go into the ground–which some of them are going to do this week, soil temperatures notwithstanding.

Some of my large pepper plants hardening off, guarded from inside by a helpful cat

If you have been in this situation, which most of us seed-starters have, here are some things you can do, more or less in chronological order. This applies also to plants you may have bought a while before you could plant them–we all do that too!

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Grow It Eat It in Montgomery County, May 14

April greetings, and that freeze we had earlier this week was no joke, right? Hope none of your plants got zapped. I was grateful for my own procrastination; my brassica seedlings won’t go into the ground until this weekend.

The uncertain temperatures of early spring make me think longingly of the more settled weather of mid-May (before I start complaining loudly about how hot it is). Another reason to look forward to May: the return of Montgomery County’s big Grow It Eat It open house on May 14!

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Cress and tomatillo: zesty flavors for your garden

Casting around for a topic to write on this month, I thought to look through my box of seeds (it’s a file box with hanging folders) to pick out a couple of plants that gardeners might not be considering as vegetable garden additions. I landed on two: cress and tomatillo. In most ways, they are opposites: cresses like cool weather while tomatillos thrive in the heat. Tomatillos are native to the Americas (Mexico, in particular) while the various cresses migrated over here with the help of European settlers, then went wild. The plants are very different in size and shape. And they taste different and are used differently in the kitchen, but I’d say they both add zest to your meals in a similar way.

Let’s start with cress. Or rather, with the cresses, since they belong to different species, though they’re similar in flavor. Most people have heard of watercress (Nasturtium officinale) and probably have eaten it, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for growing in your garden. It doesn’t actually require a flowing stream, but it does need a constant supply of water. I’ve been too daunted to try it myself.

However, there are several other types of cress that feature that same peppery crunch and are great additions to sandwiches, salads, or many other dishes. And they are easy to cultivate, as long as you remember to plant them in cool weather. They grow quickly, so there’s time to harvest a crop in spring or fall.

Look for seeds of plants in the species Barbarea verna or Lepidium sativum. They may be called garden cress, upland cress, peppergrass, or wrinkled crinkled cress. The leaves may be smaller or larger or differently shaped; they’re all good, so pick the one that’s available or most appealing to you. Plant in March (or September) either in good garden soil or in soilless mix in a container; they may take a while to germinate, so keep watering. Harvest at a few inches tall. If you like growing indoors, they make great microgreens. You could also try turning them into a ground cover around other plants. Discerning rabbits may enjoy them, but they are kind of spicy (the cresses, not the rabbits) so they might be left alone.

Garden cress (Lepidium sativum) as microgreens (Wikimedia Commons)

Moving on to tomatillo (Physalis philadelphica), which goes into your garden in mid-to-late May at the same time as peppers. They are cousins, as it happens, along with other members of the nightshade family like tomatoes and eggplant. Tomatillos are even more closely related to ground cherries, a.k.a. Cape gooseberries (they are neither a cherry nor a gooseberry), with which they share a genus and a cute little husk covering their fruit. Like other nightshades, they aren’t seeded directly in the garden, but started indoors or bought as transplants.

You may be familiar with tomatillos for making salsa verde, but not know how easy they are to grow. If you can grow tomatoes and peppers, you can grow tomatillos. A lot of people have tried and given up, though, including me once upon a time, because they don’t know that unlike other nightshades, tomatillos require (or at least strongly prefer) cross-pollination. You can’t grow just one plant; you have to grow at least two. That does take some space, since they are large plants, but if you can spare it, you’ll be rewarded with a massive harvest.

Any variety is fine, including your basic small green types. We grew a large-fruited green variety called Gulliver in the Derwood Demo Garden for several years, but I don’t see it listed for sale now; it appears to have been replaced by some other large types, which are worth trying. I’ve also enjoyed growing the purple ones, and a delicious yellow variety called Amarylla. Harvest when the fruit is filling up the husk. You can make various salsas with raw or cooked tomatillos, add them to salads or cooked dishes for a bit of zing, or (my favorite) roast them.

Roasted ‘Amarylla’ tomatillos

Tomatillos may be subject to some of the same pests as tomatoes, including flea beetles, stinkbugs and hornworms, and a few fungal diseases. They usually grow vigorously enough, given healthy soil and a bit of fertilizer, that you’ll still get a crop even with challenges. They are basically weeds.

If you have space, try tomatillos! If you don’t, you can fit in some cress anywhere.

By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener. Read more posts by Erica.