How to grow swedes
All you need to know about growing and caring for swedes, in our Grow Guide.
Swede (Brassica napus) is a delicious and nutritious vegetable that can be grown at home. Grow them yourself for organic produce with better flavour than shop-bought swedes. Sown in spring, they'll be ready to harvest for warming and hearty meals in the depths of winter.
The part of the vegetable usually eaten is the round root (actually an adapted stem). While not particularly tasty, the leaves can also be eaten. Swedes are delicious mashed with cream or glazed and roasted as an alternative to cooked ham. They are easy to grow as long as you ensure they do not dry out, are grown in a sunny position, and are protected from pests. The best way to grow swedes is by sowing them direct in the ground from mid-spring, once the soil is warm.
Is swede a turnip?
A swede is not a turnip, but instead is believed to be a cross between a turnip and a type of wild cabbage. The term 'Swede' is short for 'Swedish turnip', thought to have been created in Sweden in the 17th century. Americans call swedes rutabaga, from the Swedish word ‘rotabbagge’ meaning baggy root. A turnip is generally smaller than a swede, with white flesh. Swedes also have a sweeter and stronger, nutty flavour, and cope better with frost. This makes them useful crops to harvest late in the year once other vegetables have finished.
How to grow swedes
Sow seeds from late spring or early summer, depending on how warm it is where you live. The soil will need to be warm enough to help the seeds germinate, with all risk of frost passed. You may want to add compost or well-rotted manure a few months before, or a general fertiliser. If it's too late to sow seeds, or you do not have the space, you can also buy small plug plants to put into the ground or pots. These are on sale in places like garden centres from late spring. Water often, especially during dry periods. Harvest from September onwards.
Where to grow swedes
Grow swedes in a sunny spot in moist but free-draining soil. While it’s easier to care for swede plants in the ground, those with limited space can use pots as an alternative. Use large pots and grow them outside. For the best results make sure the swedes don't dry out, and harvest when they are still young.
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How to sow swede seeds
Grow swedes from seed for a wider range of varieties to choose from. They can be sown directly outdoors or started off indoors to get them growing earlier in the year.
- Get the ground ready for sowing by weeding and raking, removing any large stones. Gently tread over the soil to firm it. Walk over it penguin-like with toes pointing outwards but heels kept together. Make small and gentle steps to firm in the soil, covering the area.
- Ensure your ground is level. If sowing in a straight line, use something like the handle of a rake to press down lightly into the ground. This will create a dip (known as a drill) to place your seeds in. Before you sow your seeds, push in reusable labels at each end of your line to allow you to locate your swedes later. Sticks can also be used as placeholders, until you have labels ready.
- Water the drill gently and sow your seeds about 5cm apart. Have some of the seeds ready in the palm of one hand and use the other hand to pick up and drop the small seeds, one or two at a time, into your drill. You'll later remove seedlings to create a space of about 20cm between plants.
- Pinch the soil back over the seeds and firm it back down with your hands. Leave a space of about 30cm between your line of seeds and next crops, unless you are growing quick crops like salad. Quick crops can be sown, grown and harvested before the space is needed by main crops, making the most of your space.
- Thin out weaker seedlings as they grow, or those too close together. You want to end up with plants about 20cm apart if growing to full size. Unwanted swede seedlings can be added to the compost heap, or washed and added to salads.
- Fill your tray or pot with peat-free multi-purpose compost and firm in. Leave a gap of about 2cm for extra compost to go onto of your seeds and water to sit and soak in. For best results, sow into modular trays. This will make it easier to lift and transplant seedings, and reduces any root disturbance.
- Sow your seeds thinly onto the compost and then cover with more compost. If possible, sieve this compost first to remove any large pieces. The seeds should sit about 2cm deep under the compost.
- Place the trays or pots in a sink of water or place on the ground outside and water from above with a watering can. Make sure you have a rose attachment on your watering can to soften the water coming out. Also make sure to turn the rose upwards, this will further soften the force of the water hitting your seeds and compost. To further ensure you don't disturb your seeds, start by watering the ground next to the pot or tray. Then sway the watering can back and forth over the tray, providing an even watering.
- Let the pots or trays drain out and then place on a sunny windowsill or in a greenhouse. Speed up germination by covering the pots or trays with a propagator lid or reused clear plastic. This will increase the warmth and humidity, but do keep an eye if in a warm greenhouse. If on a windowsill, encourage straight growth by turning the tray or pot every few days.
- Once seedlings are large enough to handle, remove the unwanted ones first. These will be smaller and thinner – you want to keep your strongest candidates growing. Harden off the plants before planting outdoors. You can either move the plants into a cold frame or put them outside during warm days, bringing them back in at night. Do this for about a week for best results. If you are removing a propagator lid, do this gradually over a few days to avoid shocking your seedlings. Plant the seedlings out before the main root (tap root) develops. This way you will avoid disturbing future growth.
How to care for swedes
To care for swedes until they are ready to harvest, remove any weeds by hand or hoe gently around the plant. Trim back badly damaged leaves, but don't remove too many as the plant needs these to develop well. Keep the soil moist by watering regularly, otherwise you could end up with woody, bitter-tasting swedes. This will also help prevent problems such as powdery mildew.
Consider using grey water from your washing up to reduce mains water usage. You can also install drip irrigation at ground level, on a timer, to minimise water loss. Keep an eye out for slugs and snails, especially while plants are at the seedling stage. Carry out night time checks, especially after wet weather to remove slugs and snails.
Mulch around the plants to help keep soil moist, prevent weeds and slowly feed your crop. Use compost or well-rotted manure, spreading it about 5cm deep. Keep the mulch away from the base of the plants to prevent rotting. For best results, mulch after heavy rain. Mulching in dry weather can prevent water getting to the plants as it gets locked into the mulch on top. If plants do get too dry they may ‘bolt’ (produce flowers and seeds), which will make the root taste bitter. If they do bolt, consider leaving them in the ground. The flowers will provide food for bees and other insects.
How to harvest swedes
Harvest swedes as baby veg or leave them to grow and crop from autumn onwards. If you want to grow large swedes, look out for varieties that are more resistant to becoming bitter and woody. To enjoy as baby veg, especially if grown in pots, harvest once the roots are about 5-15cm in diameter. Otherwise they can stay in the ground until needed, coping with most frost. Harvest by gently pushing a garden fork into the soil and lifting the whole plant out. Remove the soil and bring into the house or store in pots of compost in a frost-free location such as a shed.
The root vegetables will store best left in the ground until the end of the year, so harvest only as required.
How to cook swedes
Use swedes to create a range of dishes such as mash, neeps, soups and gnocchi. For Christmas, you can even glaze and roast a swede to serve instead of a ham. Once washed, peeled and chopped, freeze any extra swede chunks left over or to keep for later. Place in a bag or container once prepared in peeled chunks to keep for a later date.
How to prepare for cooking or freezing
- Cut off the thin root, top with leaves, and wash each swede
- Chop in half with a large knife, and use a potato peeler to remove the skin
- Place the flat side of each half down on a chopping board and chop into similar size chunks
On Burns night (25 January) impress friends and family with your own homemade accompaniment to haggis. Cut into similarly sized chunks, boil and then roast with boiled potatoes. Mash together and add cream and butter to taste.
Pests and diseases
If the roots have split, or have a woody and bitter taste, it's likely that the vegetables dried out in the ground. Regular watering in dry periods will help prevent this. Signs of a whitish bloom on the leaves are also a consequence of drying out, as it makes the plant more susceptible to powdery mildew, a fungal infection.
Holes in the leaves can often be a result of cabbage root fly and cabbage white caterpillars. Protect your crops with horticultural netting to help reduce this problem. You can also help repel pests like cabbage white fly naturally by growing onions or nasturtiums next to them. This is known as companion planting. Cloches and fleeces will also help protect seedlings from snails and slugs. They can also protect harvests left in the ground from strong or prolonged frosts.
Advice on buying swede
- Swedes are usually only available to buy from seed although some suppliers sell swede plug plants
- Make sure you have the right conditions for growing swede before buying, including moisture-retentive soil and good light levels
- Chose a variety resistant to bitterness if you want to grow large swedes for winter cropping
Where to buy swede
Swede varieties to try
Swede ‘Brora’ – this non-bitter variety has creamy flesh and stores well.
Swede ‘Tweed’ – British bred, this variety has an attractive purple top and creamy flesh, and does well in poor soil.
Swede ‘Gowrie’ – best for disease resistance, this purple variety has creamy flesh and is winter hardy.