The Flavor of America
By Justin Butts
By: Justin Butts Photos by: Rachel Benavides
The most popular vegetable in America today is the tomato. It’s hard to imagine a backyard garden without a few ripe red tomatoes on the vine. But for much of our country’s history, the most popular vegetable in America was the turnip!
The Pilgrims planted turnips in their first gardens at Plymouth. The settlers at Jamestown brought turnip seeds as a core provision. Turnips, which grow easily and well, even in the poorest of soils, have long been a staple crop of frontier farmers.
Turnip Fields Called “Virginia Lawns”
Turnips are highly nutritious, rich in vitamins K and C, as well as calcium and other minerals. Turnips supplied vital nutrition to pioneer families during the bleak winter months when little else would grow. To store their turnips, farmers simply left them in the ground all winter, to dig out of the snow as needed. This practice was so common in early America that turnip fields were called “Virginia lawns”.
Turnips as Animal Fodder
Farmers also planted turnips to feed their livestock. Hay was difficult to come by in winter, so farmers fed turnips to their cattle and hogs until spring.
We use turnips in exactly this way on our farm in Rockport. to fatten our hogs and to flavor the pork. If you keep backyard laying hens, feed them turnips and notice the difference in the richness and flavor of their eggs.
How to Plant Turnips
Now is the time to plant turnips in your garden. First, prepare a wide bed with well-tilled soil. Then, use the wooden end of a garden rake to draw parallel lines across the width of the bed four inches apart and a quarter inch deep.
Sprinkle the tiny black turnip seeds down each line and gently rake them into the soil. Thin the turnips to a final spacing of four inches. Sauté your thinnings; they are some of the best greens of the winter. Harvest the round roots when their tops show three to four inches across.
The Best Turnip Varieties
The easiest turnip variety for South Texas is the purple top. But for a real treat, try the Japanese shogoin for turnips so tasty you can eat them like apples.
Turnips bring old-fashioned flavor to your garden, the flavor of America back when everyone grew their own food. They are nutritious, easy to grow, and like tomatoes, there is room in any well-kept garden for a few good turnips.