These turnips, an Italian variety named Rapa di Milano Colletto Viola, which I pulled out of my vegetable garden this week, explain why I enjoy vegetable gardening as much as anything in life. If you plant a range of crops, even in the worst year (beating rain all summer, late blight on the tomatoes and potatoes, neighbors who have discovered the gardener's mulch source so insufficient mulch and many weeds), there are always delightful surprises.
And these turnips are utterly delightful. So beautiful with their purple shoulders, so fresh smelling when you peel them, so delicious quartered and boiled in salty water for ten minutes and then tossed with butter and chopped parsley, that I would do a garden just for the turnips alone.
I used to never have success with turnips (or their cousins the radishes) despite the fact that every reference calls them easy. That's because I was gullible and believed the conventional wisdom, as in this guide from Cornell University, which suggests that because they are a hardy crop, they can be planted equivalently either in spring or in late summer for fall.
Well, I don't know where Cornell University gardens…oh, that's right, I do. Cornell, too, is in upstate New York. When I would plant radishes and turnips in spring, they would often go to seed before they were sized for harvest. Or, if they did bulk up sufficiently, the roots would be unpleasantly woody. Even brassicas planted for their leaves and flower buds, like broccoli raab and broccoli, would bolt before they looked like anything if I planted them early. I used to think it was me.
The truth is that brassicas are sensitive to day length and temperature and seem to be inspired by the summer solstice to go to seed. In my climate, where we move from snow on the ground in late April to long days and 90 degree temperatures just a few weeks later, a spring planting does not work.
Since I've started planting my radishes, turnips, and assorted other leafy brassicas in late July–and not putting broccoli seedlings into the ground until Memorial Day–they are all utterly gorgeous. Even arugula, the easiest of all possible crops, stands longer without bolting and has a less woody, more melting texture for me after a mid-summer planting. Of course, turnips and radishes require the great discipline and excruciating boredom of thinning. No thinning, no root crops. Might as well just stay home.
Harry Truman knew when to plant turnips, even if many modern gardening guides don't. In fact, he saved his presidency in 1948 by dragging a Republican-controlled Congress back to Washington in late summer for the "Turnip Day Sessions." He wanted Congress to pass civil rights legislation and–get this–a national health care plan, and explained that the session would begin "on the 26th day of July, which out in Missouri we call 'Turnip Day.'"
Missouri folklore apparently went this way: On the 25th of July, sow your turnips, wet or dry.
Needless to say, Congress was obstructionist and none of this stuff passed. But it's not as if the Turnip Day Sessions accomplished nothing. Truman was able to win reelection by running against the do-nothing Congress, and he did provide America's home gardeners with a valuable bit of information.
I suspect that if there were more people in Washington today who knew the right time to plant turnips, we would already have that most obvious of necessities, a universal health care plan.