Swede is a very easy vegetable to grow and ideal for the gardener just starting off. It crops over a very large time and are often left in the soil throughout winter. The swede is a sweeter and milder flavoured crop than some other crops like parsnip or turnip. They naturally originate from the country of their naming.
The name of this crop is very confusing. They are known as Swedish turnips, winter turnip, yellow turnips in various European countries. We also know them as rutabagas in the USA. In Scotland they become neeps which are served with haggis on Burns night.
The original crop probably began cultivation in Scandinavia. They are ideally suited to cool and moist climates. Since the 1600s they have been used to feed humans as well as livestock. Some people wont eat the vegetable because of that association which seems ridiculous. They are in truth a cross between the turnip and a cabbage. The top can be eaten although they are hairy whilst the swollen stem is edible and nutritious. Ideal for winter dishes such as soup, pies, pasties, stews and suet puddings. The young roots can be julienned into thin slices and even eaten raw in salads.
Do not confuse with real turnips as they do have several advantages over this particular vegetable. For a start, they crop late in the season and the vegetable is capable of withstanding hard frosts.
Using Swedes in the Kitchen
The vegetable is very versatile and underrated in a great deal of cuisine because it is seasonal. A brilliant alternative to mashed potato and of course grown as neeps. The veg makes a good combination with potato and/or carrot as a mash topping for pies including cottage pie and shepherd’s pie. Use as a filling too in pasty. Nutritionally, it has a lower GI than potato and with more vitamin C, calcium and folic acid.
Try coating with mustard and honey, spices and chilli. Eaten raw when sliced thinly using a mandoline.
Where to grow Swedes
Swedes prefer a medium soil which contains lots of nutrients although they will be happy growing in most soil types. They are unfortunately prone to club root so make sure the soil is not too acidic. Acid soils encourage club root. The ideal pH for swedes is somewhere between 7.0 and 7.4 so add some lime if necessary. If the soil is short of nutrients then add some well-rotted manure and/or compost and a month or so prior to sowing seed. If manure is not available then add a long lasting fertiliser such as bone meal or similar.
The best and tenderest roots come with plenty of watering but swedes don’t like being waterlogged. If your soil is not free draining then either dig in some well-rotted compost or grow them on a ridge so that the water drains away.
Some shade is fine because it reduces stress when they dry out during the hotter summer months.
Before sowing it pays to add a dressing of general fertiliser anyway such as pelleted chicken manure or Growmore fish, blood and bone. Add at the manufacturer’s rate and rake lightly into the surface.
When to grow
The best time to sow swede in most areas is mid-May to mid-June but if your area is warm delay sowing to mid-July. They crop about 5 or 6 months later between September and November depending on the sowing. I have harvested in January from late sowings or just leaving in the ground to get some frost which sweetens them up.
Sow seeds direct into soil in drills of 2cm (3/4in.) deep and with row spacings of 45cm (18in) apart for ease of handling or growing on. You can also sow into cell trays.
When sowing direct, water the base of the seed drill. Make the drill using a stick or dibber, old broom handle or hoe edge. Sow thinly and cover with fine soil.
Protect the crop with insect mesh to keep cabbage root fly and flea beetle away. Use a slug control as well.
Seeded or transplanted swede should ideally be spaced 6 – 8 inches (about 35-45cm) between plants in the row with rows 45cm (4-6in) apart.
Place the seedling plug in the hole and firm gently around the roots, water well. They should be planted slightly deeper than they grew in the seed bed.
The seedlings will take about 10 days to emerge. Thin any directly grown seedlings out to about max. 25cm (max.10in) apart. As with distances its a matter of space and judging – I use by eye because who has time for precise measurement. I have grown seedlings at a minimum of 6 inches apart as I state above. Use thinnings in salads and stir-fries. Keep them well-watered and well-weeded and you should have no problems.
Keep watering throughout so that growth is continuous and not checked. They get woody and small if left to dry out. They also split with erratic watering after a dry spell. I have had some extremely bitter and unpleasant tasting swede when left to grow dry too.
Swedes like feeding but not with a high-nitrogen fertiliser as they will produce just shoots. A balanced or high-phosphorous fertiliser works best. Feed from mid-July onwards with tomato fertiliser as they are very demanding at this time. Keep up with essential trace minerals and also feed with a seaweed extract too at different times.
Keep weeding as these take nutrients from the soil as well as water. It also reduces pest infestation and reduces powdery mildew taking hold.
Harvesting and Storage
Harvest from September as mentioned before. They have stopped growing when the leaves start turning yellow. Lift with a fork.
Only harvest during dry weather or the swedes will rot. The roots can be left in the ground
If you harvest your swedes, store them in a dry, dark and cool area of the garden, in a wooden crate or some similar device that rats and mice cannot access. Also remove leaves and root tails to discourage rot if storing.
Cover with straw or hay or use a cover of cloche to protect from birds and rats and even heavy frost. Lift however if the ground is prone to waterlogging or liable to flood.
Indoor storage can be as easy as placing in a hessian sack or layering them in a box filled with sand or dry potting compost. I’ve used paper too! Again, the area should be cool, dark and dry. Swedes will keep for up to 6 months if stored correctly.
Pests and diseases
- Aphids: Aphids are small insects that can suck the sap from swede plants, leading to distorted growth, yellowing leaves, and the transmission of plant viruses.
- Slugs and snails will nibble the roots of seedlings and leaves of young plants. Either remove by hand or use a safe form of control after sowing.
- Flea Beetles: These tiny beetles feed on the leaves of swede plants, creating small holes and pits that can reduce photosynthesis and stunt growth. Use insect mesh and regular watering. Intersperse with pots of mint to confuse these pests.
- Cabbage Root Fly: The cabbage root fly lays its eggs at the base of swede plants particularly in the early phase of plant growth. The larvae feed on the roots, causing stunted growth and making plants more susceptible to diseases like clubroot. Cover with insect mesh after sowing or use cabbage collars around the base of plants. Water with a biological control like Nemasys Fruit and Vegetable Protection if the pest is known to be a problem.
- Cabbage Moths and Caterpillars: Cabbage moths lay eggs on the leaves of swede plants, and the resulting caterpillars can consume foliage, leading to reduced plant growth and vigour.
- Cabbage white butterflies love any cabbage. The caterpillars readily devour leaves. Inspect leaves regularly. Use insect mesh to keep them away.
- Diamondback Moths: These moths and their larvae can cause significant damage to swede leaves by feeding on the undersides of leaves, creating a “windowpane” effect and reducing the plant’s ability to photosynthesize.
- Clubroot: Clubroot is a persistent soil-borne disease caused by a pathogen that affects the roots of brassica crops, including swedes. Infected plants develop swollen, distorted roots, and can become stunted. It’s important to practice good crop rotation and use disease-resistant varieties to manage clubroot.
- Downy Mildew: Downy mildew appears as yellow spots on the upper surface of swede leaves and a fuzzy, grayish growth on the underside. It can lead to leaf loss and reduced plant vigor.
- Powdery Mildew: Powdery mildew presents as a white, powdery coating on the leaves of swede plants. It can inhibit photosynthesis and weaken the plant over time. Maintain watering at all times and allow space between developing plants.
- Black Rot: Black rot causes V-shaped lesions on the edges of leaves, which eventually turn black. The disease can spread rapidly, affecting the entire plant and leading to reduced yield.
- Alternaria Leaf Spot: Alternaria leaf spot manifests as circular dark spots with concentric rings on the leaves. Severe infections can cause defoliation and reduced photosynthesis.
- White Rust: White rust appears as white pustules on the underside of leaves, and it can cause yellowing and distortion of leaves. It’s more common in cool, moist conditions.
Plant Seeds For Swede
cv. ‘Brora‘ – very similar to Tweed F1 in shape and colouration. Produces a flesh which is the mildest of all with creamy yellow flesh and is soft and tender when cooked.
Swede cv. ‘Gowrie’ is a purple skinned variety that offers excellent disease resistance. It’s good colour and flesh texture make this ideal for culinary uses. Gowrie is Powdery Mildew and Club Root resistant.
cv. ‘Invitation’ is a nice root to grow, full of vitamins and minerals. Good round roots with a strong purple top and almost yellow base. Has reasonable resistance to clubroot and mildew.
cv. ‘Marian‘ – a variety resistant to clubroot and mildew. Stores well over winter in the soil or boxes of dry sand
cv. Tweed F1 – bred in Britain with clubroot resistance. Nice global shape with purple tops and white beneath.
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