Seed Saving: Turnips

I’ve fallen in love with Purple Top turnips. So much so that not only did I order a second variety of turnips to plant alongside them this fall, but when four of the fourteen turnips that I planted this spring bolted I was elated. Yes, I know, most people are disappointed when their root veggies bolt but I was thrilled at the idea of saving my own seeds for next season. That is how much I have grown to love turnips. They are a foolproof, cold-tolerant root vegetable that grows reliably even in rocky, poor quality soils. They are a great choice for novice gardeners!

When I saw my first buds forming I got online to research what I could expect from the experience. I was disappointed to see that there wasn’t much in the way of written documentation regarding turnip seed saving. There were videos that outlined the vernalization process but nothing that addressed same-season seed saving or, specifically, the seed harvesting portion.

What is vernalization? Well, turnips are actually biennial plants. Although we gardeners most commonly plant them for annual harvests, from the plant’s perspective the first year is typically devoted to root development (the part we eat) while the production of flowers and seeds doesn’t usually happen until after the plants have experienced a period of dormancy. Many people plant turnips in late summer/early fall and carefully harvest them in late fall before storing them in a cool dark place through the winter months. They then replant those roots in early spring and when the plants have recovered they produce new foliage followed by flowers and seed pods. There are multiple videos available on YouTube that discuss this overwintering concept.

Bolted turnip buds

Turnips typically only produce flowers in their first year if they experience extreme stress such as drought or drastic temperature fluctuations. Such events elicit an innate survival response, in which they skip robust root development and focus all of their energy on reproduction. This is what happened to mine. We went from a week of frosts every night to days in the high 90’s (Fahrenheit) in less than 36 hours. It was as if Mother Nature flipped the thermostat on full blast and walked away.

So…when life gives you lemons…

When the flowers started blooming they were brilliant yellow and filled our back yard with a heavenly aroma; an unexpected treat. Each tiny blossom has both male and female reproductive parts, making the pollen exchange an easy one.

Initially, our pollinators were not present in abundance due to the extended cold snap we endured a full month after our forecasted last frost date. Rather than wait for them and hope for the best, I decided to do some hand pollinating. Q-tips to the rescue! For anyone who is unfamiliar with hand pollinating, I gently rubbed the cotton swab across multiple open blossoms to manually transfer pollen from stamen (male) to stigma (female) and flower to flower, just like an insect would.

The blossoms that were adequately pollinated developed elongated stems that then thickened into seed pods.

The seed pods eventually started to brown and dehydrate at which point I clipped off the stems and brought them inside to finish drying.

When the pods had thoroughly dried and hardened I gently broke them open and collected the brown seeds from inside. The pod has a thick outside layer and then a thin film that separates two sets of seeds. Pods range from 2-10 seeds each, depending on how mature the pod was at the time they were cut and brought inside. I found that the pods near the top of the stalk were smaller than those at the base, presumably because they developed last.

Some of my harvested turnip seeds

I will admit, this is a long process. The time between the appearance of my first flowers to the date of seed extraction was roughly three months. Fortunately, the blossom/seed pod bearing stems grow to roughly 48 inches tall so I was able to interplant my bell peppers alongside them to keep my succession planting schedule on track. All in all, I’m very grateful that I was able to save seeds without enduring the overwintering process and I still harvested 10 beautiful turnips that I turned into a delicious soup (recipe below) or roasted with a little olive oil and fresh herbs from the garden. Win, win! If you have any detailed questions concerning the turnip seed saving process feel free to ask in the comments below. Odds are, you’re not the only one who may have that same question so I’m sure it would be helpful for others. Cheers, friends!

Creamy Turnip Soup

2 cups low sodium chicken stock
3/4 pound turnips, peeled & chopped
3/4 pound potatoes, peeled & chopped
1/2 medium-size yellow onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 thyme sprigs
1/8 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
4 thick-cut uncured bacon slices
2 tablespoons scallions, chopped (garnish)

Combine stock, turnips, potatoes, garlic, onion, thyme sprigs, salt, and pepper in a 4-quart pot. Cover and cook on low heat until vegetables are very soft, approximately 6 hours. Thyme sprigs can be removed and discarded. Set 2-3 small potatoes aside. Add cream, and process soup using a blender until smooth. Dice the unprocessed potatoes and stir them into creamed soup. Cook bacon in a non-stick skillet over medium until crisp then remove excess grease by placing bacon on a plate topped with paper towels. Crumble bacon and stir majority into creamed soup. Serve soup topped with remaining crumbled bacon and scallion garnish. Enjoy!

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