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Grow turnips in February for a food that can be eaten from tops to roots

Liz Cardinal, Special to the American-Statesman
If you don’t want to grow turnips, you can find them at a local farmers market. [JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

If you are familiar with the Central Texas Planting Guide, you know that February marks the end of the cool season gardening period of our yearlong gardening calendar. Our sweat-free and bug-free gardening days are coming to a close. Let’s make the most of February in the garden, shall we?

Turnips are an often-overlooked vegetable, so just as Michelle Obama once championed them with a viral video in 2014, I’d like to show them some love this month, too.

You’ll have to add the pop music soundtrack, though. Turnips are a member of the brassica family — the large group of cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, radish and kale. Turnips are typically grown for their root, but as with most brassicas, the leaves are edible, too. Sold as turnip greens or turnip tops, the leaves are closely related to mustard greens and are most often braised before eaten. They are very high in vitamin K as well as A, C and folate.

Turnips grow best when temperatures are between 40 and 75 degrees. They are grown throughout winter here in Central Texas, and February is the last month to sow seeds before the temperatures get too hot, which will result in a bitter and tough root.

The best varieties of turnips that are grown for roots (as opposed to solely leaves) are purple top and white globe. The plants need to grow in full sun and loose, fertile soil, and they can easily be grown in containers on balconies as long as there is enough direct sunlight.

To plant seeds directly into the soil, loosen the soil by gently tilling by hand about 6 inches below the surface. You can make mounded rows with 12-inch spacing or just make a furrow with a hand trowel.

Before seeding, if your soil has too much clay or needs some nutrients, mix an all-purpose, organic fertilizer and compost into the soil. When considering fertilizers, remember that they are made up of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium — the essential nutrients for plants. Phosphorus, the middle number, is what helps the growth of roots; find a fertilizer with a high middle number.

To plant, sprinkle the seeds like you are salting food with your thumb and index finger all the way down the row, but don’t over-sow. You will thin the seedlings in a few weeks after they sprout. Gently water the seeds in, and keep the soil moist.

Seedlings will emerge five to 10 days later. Once the seedlings have reached 1 inch to 2 inches tall, go through the row and pull out some of the crowded seedlings, leaving 4 to 6 inches between each plant. This allows room for the root to grow. If the plants are too crowded, the roots will not fully develop. The little plants that you have thinned are edible and delicious.

As the plants mature, keep an eye out for tiny pests like aphids on the undersides of the leaves, especially as the weather gets warmer. You can rub off aphids by hand or spray off with blasts of water. As the plants mature, you can harvest the outer leaves to eat, leaving at least one-third of the leaves on the plant. In 40 to 50 days, you will begin to see the “shoulders” of the root emerge out of the soil. This signals that the plant is ready to harvest. The younger, smaller roots known as baby turnips are tender and can be eaten raw. The larger roots, about 2 to 3 inches in diameter, can be stored in a refrigerator for about three weeks and cooked in many different ways. Remember to harvest turnips before the temperature exceeds 75 degrees, as that signals the end of our cool growing season.

To find local turnips that farmers have been growing all winter, visit your farmers market or farmstand or consider signing up for a community supported agriculture share or a local produce delivery service like the boxes from Farmhouse Delivery. These services support local farmers while getting you the freshest seasonal produce with convenience.

This month, chef Matt Taylor of the Farmhouse Kitchen shares a turnip recipe using the entire plant with an arugula pesto recipe to serve with the roasted turnips. Find Farmhouse Kitchen offerings at Farmhouse Delivery, In addition to their produce boxes, they offer meal kits and groceries delivered from the farm to your door.

Zero-Waste Pan-Roasted Turnips

1 bunch of turnips with greens

1 jar of Farmhouse Kitchen sauce of your choice: basil pesto, romesco sauce or sesame stir-fry sauce

Extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Wash and dry turnips. Remove turnip greens and roughly chop. Set aside. Quarter the turnips. Heat a cast-iron or saute pan over medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon of oil and then turnips. Allow to sit undisturbed for 2-3 minutes or until caramelized. Shake pan and allow to roast for another 2-3 minutes. Turn off heat and add chopped turnip greens, season with salt and pepper and toss all together, allowing the greens to wilt from heat in the pan. Dress the turnips with the Farm Kitchen sauce options or make your own arugula pesto.

Arugula Pesto

1 bunch arugula, washed well and spun dry

1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted golden and cooled

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 large garlic clove, chopped

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup hot water, plus additional if desired

In a food processor pulse together all sauce ingredients except oil and water until arugula is chopped fine. With motor running, add oil in a stream, blending mixture until smooth. Sauce can be made up to one week ahead and chilled, its surface covered with plastic wrap. Bring sauce to room temperature to continue. Stir in 1/4 cup hot water plus additional for thinner consistency if desired.

Serves 4.

Chef Matt Taylor

Liz Cardinal has more ideas on her website