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A Fresh Look at Turnips (and the Thrilling Return of Pliny the Elder!)

Posted Feb 01 2013 6:35am
Sometimes it just takes a different perspective to see the relationships, the possibilities, the benefits, the beauty. And so it is with turnips. Brassica rapa. Root vegetable with nutritious, edible greens. Considered by my hero, Pliny the Elder (the ancient Roman naturalist), to be one of the most important vegetables of all. Here are turnip roots under a microscope, with seemingly-diamond-speckled soil clutching to them (the newest addition to my "foodshed planets" series of similar photos). (My younger daughter caught me outside in the garden with my microscope the other day and said, "Oh, no, not that again.")

Two beds at the community garden sport turnips right now because of my "twirl and toss" seed-planting habit (they are also all over my home garden)--my original cinderblock bed , and the one built by my friend Bob and the middle school kids with money donated by a city councilor. Both beds are currently "unstewarded" as I have moved on and the school had no interest in continuing with their bed (good news--they are expected to be finally starting a school garden on the Peachtree Middle School campus this Saturday). I couldn't stand looking at the two beds empty in the fall (which, by the way, was one of the best growing seasons we've ever had due to the unseasonably warm weather), so I tossed turnip seeds so that future stewards would be able to enjoy the beneficial effects of this crop after our brief winter (if you could call it that) here in Grow Zone 7B. 

* Turnips as a winter cover crop help break up compacted soil as they grow, reduce erosion by holding onto soil on their roots (as in the picture at the top of this post), and scavenge for nitrogen left over from the previous season, which they then return to the bed as biomass (you want to throw around the term "biomass" as much as possible) when the turnip greens and roots are"turned under." 

* This then gets broken down over about a two-week period by "microbial life" (another doozy of a term to throw around) in the soil and is excreted and made available to plants as nutrients.  

* They also emit "biotoxins" (score another point for the jargon!) when they decompose, which are toxic against many soil-borne pathogens and pests in the upcoming planting season. 

* And, of course, they produce a delicious edible root that can be eaten raw (good on salads, and cows and sheep love them as cold-season forage food, too, which makes them extra-valuable to farmers) or roasted into a candy-like (seriously) delicacy (cut into fourths, add a little olive oil and a little sea salt, roast an hour at 350 degrees--they don't even make it off the pan in my house as my older daughter considers these a terrific after-school snack).

Yeah. That's how it works. And even after 11 years of organic gardening, this process never ceases to amaze me. See my little video below about the summer-into-fall cover crop, sunn hemp (yes, that spelling is right):

Learning as I Grow: Sunn Hemp and Nitrogen from Pattie Baker on Vimeo .

And don't even get me going about crimson clover and hairy vetch . . . okay, fine, you forced me.  See "This Is What Cover Crops Are."

If you want to join the Dunwoody Community Garden , I'd suggest you consider requesting one of the two beds with turnips. They both have a good soil base and I gave you a head start on the season. Let some keep growing so you get the turnips to eat, and pull up the rest and just lay them on the soil so they decompose. You'll be ready to plant in a few weeks. And I'll be able to rest more soundly knowing those beds have stewards and my work has not all been in vain.

If you live elsewhere, keep turnips in mind as part of your future planting crop rotation and make Pliny proud. (See All Roads Lead to Pliny , if you haven't had enough of a Pliny fix yet.)

eclectic food-for-thought for a changing world
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