Growing rutabagas isn’t hard; the greatest challenge is timing your planting. Because rutabaga roots ripen best in cool weather, they need to be planted in time to mature in cool weather. Rutabagas are perfect for a fall crop in cooler regions or as a winter crop in warmer zones. They need about 80 to 100 days from planting to harvest. In cooler regions, count back 90 days from the average date of the first fall frost, which you can find for your area on our fall frost maps. In warmer areas, time fall plantings by waiting until night temperatures are consistently in the 50- to 60-degree range. They also work as an early spring crop in areas where the ground isn’t frozen so that you can plant early; however, they are subject to early warm spells that take away from the sweetness compared to those planted in fall.
Rutabaga grows in ordinary soil, but crop quality improves when you work compost into soil to increase its ability to hold water. Poor soil yields roots with a woody texture. Ideal soil pH is 5.5 to 7.0; add lime to acid soil. Prior to setting out transplants, remove any large rocks that might interfere with root growth. Space plants 12 to 18 inches apart.
Rutabagas need consistent moisture during the growing season. An old rutabaga-growing adage says, “If in doubt, water.” Spotty watering that yields alternating wet and dry soil can cause roots to split. This is where a soaker hose or drip irrigation is invaluable to keep the soil moist but not soggy.
Harvest and Storage
Although grown primarily for their roots, the leaves of rutabaga are also edible, adding zest to salads. Pick younger leaves, never removing more than a few leaves per root.
Begin harvesting rutabaga roots when they’re 3 to 5 inches in diameter, about the size of a grapefruit. Early, small roots offer succulent, tender flavor; frost sweetens maturing roots. Harvest roots as you need them, leaving the rest of the crop in the ground. To harvest, hand-pull or carefully dig roots. In coldest zones, prolong the harvest by snipping leaves back to a few inches and heavily mulching planting beds with straw. Continue to harvest as needed until soil threatens to freeze, at which point the rutabagas must either be picked or mulched (see below).
Rutabagas store well for months, staying fresh as long as they’re held in humid conditions. After digging, prepare roots for storage by cutting tops to an inch above roots. Place in a cold, moist root cellar held as closely to 32 degrees as possible. To store in the refrigerator, place roots in vegetable storage bags and tuck them in the crisper. For large harvests, store rutabagas in moist peat moss, sand, or sawdust in a cool shed or garage—some place they won’t freeze. Another way to prolong fresh storage is to dip roots in warm, melted paraffin. After coating in wax, store in a cool place.