Turnip Day Sessions



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.


  1. Well, this is my last daily read of your blog. I would say if you want socialized health care go to a country where it is provided and their economy is imploding from the cost. ex—In the UK the bureaucracy to handle SM is the 3rd largest employer in the WORLD—next to the Chinese Red Army and the Indian Railroad. In case you haven’t noticed—the polls show that the majority of people are waking up and want no part of it. With an approval rating in the 30’s and graft and corruption rampant in congress–who in the world would trust them to run health care—NOT ME___THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!

  2. Michele, keep up the good work. I don’t like turnips, but you are absolutely right about health care.

    Carolyn Wylie

  3. Wow, I thoroughly enjoyed you post about radishes, and didn’t find the social commentary offensive at all. I am not sure where Carilyn Wylie gets her information, But I bet she’ll be first in line for medacare…
    Thanks for the tips…

  4. I too have discovered late planting works best for somethings. In my case, green beans. The last few years they have beeen a japanese beetle magnet. This year I planted them end of July fist of August, after the evil jb’s are gone. I planted them where the peas had been. I will probably not get a full crop this year because we have been having some unseasonably cool weather. But the ones I have picked have been very tasty.

  5. Oh, we can all wave good bye to Carla. Good bye!

    But back to gardening…

    It’s interesting that you have success with late season brassicas only. I have no success with late season brassicas — rather than spring that suddenly becomes summer, we have summer that is extra hot right until fall. So my brassicas rise up quickly and immediately bolt. 2010 is the year of the early season brassicas for me.

    Hopefully I can get it to work. Can’t live w/o my broccoli!!!

    Keep up the social commentary — the garden is an analogy for the whole of our lives. And it is possible for us to disagree with each other without the tizzy fits. 🙂

  6. I’m not sure where Carla Pickens got her statistics. The latest polls I’ve seen – this week – show more than 2/3 of the country wants a public option to be a part of health care reform. (That’s “socialized medicine” to Carla.)

    Now if only 2/3 of the country could learn to love turnips, one of my favorite veggies, we’d be a lot healthier country, even without health care reform. Rant on, Michele!

  7. Very helpful post. Next year I’ll plant arugula late. Like Tibs I planted beans very late in the season and have a great harvest coming in now. Oh, and about health care reform. Lies, damned lies, and statistics. I want a public plan, in other words I want socialized medicine, because it’s the right thing to do–socially, medically, ethically, morally, financially.

  8. It depends on where you live when you plant turnips.
    Evil is as evil does. Shame on you for wanting others to pay your way or for wanting others to pay for your ideas. If you feel no shame then you are part of the evil. We are meant to be a free country and we will remain a free country. While Truman wanted health care he was duped by the march into Communism and Socialism which was started by progressives. Much more corruption in Communist /Socialist countries. If you open your eyes you will see.. AND just why did your relatives come to America anyway? Surely not for health care?

  9. The soil in So Cal is too blazing hot for most root crops even in my Sunset zone 24 garden. I’ll be sowing turnip seed this weekend.

    “Lies, damned lies, and statistics. I want a public plan, in other words I want socialized medicine, because it’s the right thing to do–socially, medically, ethically, morally, financially.”

    Amen to that!!

  10. @American first: I’m sorry, but that’s the stupidest argument I’ve ever heard. My grandmother came to this country because she fell in love with an American and married him, so that means that all I’m allowed to do here is fall in love and marry? and it means that my brother deserves to have to declare bankruptcy because he had the misfortune to get cancer when he was very young and didn’t have a job that provided health insurance? That’s nonsense. It’s ok that you are opposed to health care reform — reasonable people can disagree about such things — but there’s no reason to be stupid about it.

  11. Anyone who is against universal health insurance coverage already has a plan paid for by their employer or the government.

    And no heart.

  12. Katxena Hi! Ok so your grandmother only came to this country because your Grandfather was American? In other words she wasn’t proud to come to America? She wasn’t glad to be coming to a free country? She only came here because she loved your grandfather? She came here and never realized that she was free and could do much more then where she came from and so could her children and grandchildren? She came here and never found prosperity? Never encouraged her children to have a better life then she did? And you too were confined in some way so you had no opportunity to do anything but fall in love and marry? I would be stupid if I believed that! I believe people are free to do what they want in the country. Well I must admit it is stupid to believe we are free when our government now owns 90% of the mortgages two car companies and now we are going to turn over our health care system to people who can’t even run our post office and licensing drivers? Hate to let you down but the health care you want you won’t like. I find it very selfish for you want to ruin health care for all because of your brother. Why don’t you work for insurance reform? Call me stupid but clarification and honesty on your part would set you free.

  13. I came across your blog a few weeks back and really enjoy your many takes on gardening tips. This post has now pushed your blog to the top of my daily reading list. You want universal health care for the right reason…helping out others. As far as gardening, I’m from Truman’s home state, and while my turnips didn’t go in the ground until the first of Aug., they are looking awesome. Keep up the good work.

  14. “people who can’t even run our post office and licensing drivers.” I love it when someone tries to smack down the federal government by using the post office and DMV as examples. I’m getting ready to carry 5 books to the post office where they will deliver them to 5 different cities in the US for about 2.50 a book. I know they will all arrive in a week or so because I’ve done this dozens of times before. I also just put on my new car registration sticker that the DMV sent to me in the mail without me having to remember to do anything but mail them a check. I call that damned efficient. Later today I’m going to my local library to take out books that my local government bought and now lends to me. Don’t give me inefficient government. Most of the planet is at war trying to get this kind of reliable government action.

  15. Gee Pam just goes to show how people get used to all they know. I wouldn’t call your great little trips and your great little life a scientific experiment. When you are out and about on all your fun trips why don’t you ask the people if they want to pay for your health care. Better yet why don’t you take a gun and steal it from them. Oops maybe you could just take your gardening trowel instead. I don’t really see the difference between stealing from others with a trowel or by a corrupt government. I think you will be amazed at those of us who have worked hard and deserve to keep what they have – not to have people like you rob us. You may also want to get out there and talk to a few doctors – hope they speak English. (Guess we will need more doctors for all the illegal aliens who will rob us too.) They can’t stand the regulations now. Many plan on quitting
    if this goes through. Most Americans do want freedom and don’t want the government in all their business and we will win this. So when you can’t rob others to pay your way then you may have to cut down on some of your great little trips to the post office and the library. By the way next time you are at the library you might want to read up on Communism. It isn’t free.

  16. Obviously this country is still full of people who just fell off the turnip truck. They will believe all manner of half truths, distortions and outright lies being peddled to them by snake oil salesmen who are out to make a quick buck off the gullible and dim witted. Whips these folks right up into a nationalistic frothing fervor. You Michele have now been shunned by one of them. That will teach you.

    And thank you for reminding me to thin my late summer planted turnips.

  17. Turnips make my stomach hurt. Too bad, because I sooo want to like them & many other cool season roots.

    As for health care – I think it’s appalling we don’t have basic health care for ALL … and that others are spreading lies & rumors in a selfish bid to keep others from something that is a fundamental human right.

  18. In case anyone else misunderstood my post, I was agreeing with Michele, not Carla. And yes, I signed up for Medicare the minute I was eligible and like it very much. Carolyn Wylie

  19. I will choose freedom and you may all continue with the false GODS before you! Please remember the freedom you forfeited on judgement day. That day be here sooner then you think!

    I am going out to get my turnips in!

  20. “People who just fell off the turnip truck” – too funny Christopher! You know, it’s interesting to note that those against universal health care are basically spewing fireballs. It’s great to have a good, old fashioned American debate, but come ON. It’s not useful to fly off the handle; try backing up your arguments with facts and reason.

  21. I really enjoyed the blog about the turnips but because I am British the health care stuff passed me by – until I read the comments!

    Woaah – I thought this was all about gardening??
    I was about to comment on day length and soil type but I now feel out of my depth!

  22. I love that one of the most recent posts was about how gardeners are good people and can get along whatever their backgrounds. Carla must have missed that one.

  23. Hi Michele,

    Wow, I love turnips and rely on local farmers to grow them for me here in the Capital city of Canada, that cold country just to the north of you.

    Now as to that other debate… we have had universal health care since 1966 when “A Prairie boy(a Baptist Preacher)with fire in his belly went on to become the founder of medicare”- North America’s first government-run medical care insurance.

    May I just say we, as a country and a people are better for it- healthy, happy and doing well economically thanks. Call Canada socialist if you wish, with a currently elected Conservitive Government I may disagree with you but I will always be a gardener.

    Rant on Michele, your voice is important.

  24. Just so you know I am not Carla. I can’t get believe you need facts to learn about freedom. You may want to start with the Declaration of Independence.

    By the way 85% of people are happy with the insurance they have. So your 2/3’s number is wrong it is 2/3’s who don’t want public health care. What kind of people are you who want other people to pay your way?

    The facts are out there thieves don’t need facts they just need to how to steal.

    SHAME on you!

  25. Turnips survive because even though they taste nasty people still plant them.
    Never planted one or tasted one.
    Parsnips are grown the same and have better culinary value.

  26. “I can’t get believe you need facts to learn about freedom.”…. American first

    Why am I not surprised that you would find facts irrelevant to having a frothing incoherent opinion. American first I hate to say this but you are presenting yourself as a nitwit.

  27. This post just got better with American first’s increasingly ridiculous comments 🙂

    I swear, next year I’ll have a fall vegetable garden! Sometimes (like this year) I get so tired of the garden over the summer that I just give up. Next year, I will make it happen!

  28. Thank you for this post. I must confess that I live in upstate NY and haven’t had any of these problems with radishes; I’ll find out in a few weeks how the turnips worked out.

    And thank you for speaking out about healthcare. The ignorant seem to be dominating the media, so it’s important for sane voices to be heard.

    I bought my seeds from a mail-order company. They sent them to me through socialized mail. I had to build raised beds and put in new topsoil because the soil around my old house has lead in it. Although I had to pay a small fee to cover materials, my soil test was done through my state extension. The dirt and raised bed materials were delivered to me by trucks that drove on our socialized roads. I water my garden with water from our public water system. I frequently check gardening books out of my public library. Any gardening waste that I don’t want to compost for some reason (e.g. disease) is hauled away from my house by our socialized garbage service. When I garden, I control my pollen and mold allergies with drugs whose research grew out of NIH and NSF grants. Even as we speak, I’m hanging out on a gardening blog that I get to via the government-developed internet.

    I’m curious how America First gardens without engaging in any socialist activity.

  29. The ‘Turnip Session’ was new to me. Thanks for sharing that.

    But I suspect that the reference was more agronomic than horticultural. Visiting livestock farmers in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska back in the day, I saw many of them were reviving the practice of planting forage turnips after wheat harvest. Cool-season fescue and clover would get the stock through the fall. But the stockpiled forage turnips could keep the cattle fed for a long time after the pasture ran out, providing fodder even through the snow.

    I understand your frustration with bolting brassicas. If you want to harvest spring-planted turnips, try some of the smaller, short-season varieties, and get them in the ground ‘as soon as the ground can be worked.’ Even with your short spring, you might find a variety that fits your conditions.

  30. Nobody, are you the “nobody” of “how dreary to be somebody” fame? Anyway, loved your comment. You are so correct. I don’t grow turnips but I’m about to go out and plant a few bulbs, which I normally never do because of all the squirrels here. Need something to cheer me up.

  31. Well, there’s nothing like a great big controversy to get you going on a Saturday morning! Once again, great post; Rant never fails to inform and entertain. Christopher, you too never fail to be spot-on. As for some of the other ranting going on here, I took an oath a while back to support and defend, and I fully support America First’s right to speak. That said, am I the only one finding it a bit tiresome? I think a bit more gardening and a bit less frothing might make for good medicine in that corner. Are we still talking about turnips? I planted in September and something ate them all to the ground when they were about 2 inches high. Ate the spinach, beets and lettuce, too (all in one night) but left the kale. Here’s to kale (and Rant)!

  32. Sadly I forgot to plant my turnips this year, but yours look magnificent! I like mine cooked like yours, but tossed with a light sprinkling of good parmesan, dust with salt and pepper and butter. I’ll add parsley next time!

  33. I have just enlarged my veggie plot, and will try turnips and parsnips next year. The beets and chard did well this year, and the new crop of spinach and lettuce is looking good. All told, it’s been a good year in the garden. Kim, would it have been rabbits that ate your greens? Sounds like you had Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail in there.

    I don’t think there’s any point in arguing with American First but let me just say one thing in answer to him/her — “85% of people are happy with the insurance they have”. That’s wonderful! But what about the approximately 20% of the population that doesn’t have insurance? Are THEY happy?

  34. Quoting Rosella: Kim, would it have been rabbits that ate your greens? Sounds like you had Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail in there.

    Well, could be, but I’m not sure. Some of the little beet leaves still had the stems and main vein. I haven’t had the heart to replant because I planted late anyway. But next time, I’m using Carol’s (of May Dreams) trick – plastic forks and spoons all around. 🙂

  35. “Say you want a revolution well you know, we all want to change your mind…” the Beatles
    You guys are great! thanks for the post and rant- i agree with Michelle O.- we gotta get this together- NOW!
    ..and I will try my turnips (which NEVER do well planted early) later and see. I did try a small buttery textured white turnip- forget the name- it was a success in central Mass.

  36. @American first –

    Funny, I was unaware that a LACK of basic compassion for my fellow man was important for me to get into heaven. I thought it was the other way around.

  37. Wow…I didn’t know that I lived in a communist country. But if I do I love it. I can take my children to the doctor without having to save up for it. I didn’t have to budget for the hospital costs before having a baby. I can get x-rays, emergency care, an EDUCATION, hey wait, Americans can get an education without private insurance…can’t you? Oh you must be communist too! I love my library, I love my education system, I love my doctors, even the ones that don’t speak english, thank you for taking up practice here because we need more. I even love my postal system, and the right to free speach. I am scared to death of getting sick when I am visiting the United States, even though I have insurance when I go. Most of Canadians LOVE our health care system. Sure there are sometimes gliches, but where isn’t there?

  38. This is a great post.. Very informative… I can see that you put a lot of hard work on your every post that’s why I think I’d come here more often. Keep it up! By the way, you can also drop by my blogs. They’re about Vegetable Gardening and Composting. I’m sure you’d find my blogs helpful too.

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