Swede: varieties, planting & harvesting


Having worked as a journalist for many years I studied horticulture and now work as a professional gardener. I work as a specialist kitchen gardener, growing a wide range of vegetables, fruit and herbs for chefs in the north of England. I am passionate about gardening and writing, and love growing edibles and trying to inspire others to get outside and grow their own.

Favourite fruit: Apples and Raspberries
Favourite vegetables: Beetroot, celeriac, parsnip and broad beans

Swedes are hardy root vegetables that are making a comeback in the UK. Discover all about this versatile and nutritious winter crop.

Two purple swedes sitting in the ground
Swedes are very old winter vegetables, a hybrid between a turnip and cabbage [Photo: Elena Koromyslova/ Shutterstock.com]

The swede (Brassica napus subsp. napobrassica) is a humble vegetable that is known by many names around the globe. There are many different varieties to unearth, and it is one of the most storable winter vegetables.

Swede: origin, characteristics & synonyms

Swedes are part of the cruciferous family (Brassicaceae) and are a relatively hardy brassica grown for their purple-or-green-skinned roots, similar to turnip (Brassica napus subsp. rapifera). It is known by many names, including the Swedish turnip due to its closeness to the less-hardy turnip. It is a popular vegetable in Scotland, where it is known as neeps. Swedes are also called rutabaga in North America.

Swedes were developed in Sweden around the 17th century as a cross between a turnip and cabbage (Brassica oleracea). The root vegetable is said to have come to the UK from Scandinavia, arriving in Scotland towards the end of the 18th century. During the World Wars, swedes were regarded as a last resort crop during food shortages and were viewed as a necessity rather than a desired ingredient. However, in recent years, they have become increasingly popular again due to their flavour and are now a common sight in kitchens.

pile of swedes freshly lifted
Swedes are also known by other names, such as rutabaga and neeps [Photo: Michaelpuche/ Shutterstock.com]

The root grows much larger than turnips and has a yellow flesh. It is also sweeter and milder in flavour than its close relation. Swedes are typically round and grown for consumption during the autumn and winter months. Some cultivars can keep through the Christmas period. Swedes and turnips are often confused with one another, but along with their distinct flavours, swedes also crop much later in the year and can withstand frosts.

The swede is actually a biennial plant that is traditionally grown as an annual for its bulbous root. In the first year, the swede produces a rosette of edible leaves and develops an oval root. If left to bloom, the swede plant flowers in the second year, producing numerous yellow flowers.

Swede types: the best varieties of swede to grow yourself

There are three types of swede, referred to as green tops, bronze tops, and purple tops. Purple tops, or purple-skinned cultivars, are thought to be the best-flavoured and produce the biggest root. White-fleshed versions are traditionally grown for animal feed, but there are also varieties with a delicate flavour.

purple swedes and yellow swedes
Swede varieties vary in colour and flavour [Photo: Danler/ Shutterstock.com]

Best swede varieties for the garden:

  • ‘Marian’: the swede ‘Marian’ is a purple top variety with a pale yellow flesh and a good, reliable round shape. The variety has good disease resistance to mildew (Pseudoperonospora cubensis) and club root (Plasmodiophora brassicae).
  • ‘Best of All’: a popular heirloom variety with purple tops, yellow flesh and a smooth texture. Swede ‘Best of All’ has a mild flavour, is very hardy, and easy to store.
  • ‘Tweed F1’: Swede ‘Tweed F1’ is a British-bred hybrid variety that produces round, purple-shouldered roots and cream flesh. This British swede variety has good resistance to club root.
  • ‘Brora’: this variety has a deep purple skin with creamy yellow flesh. Swede ‘Brora’ has been bred to have a delicious taste, free of any bitterness.
  • ‘Helenor’: this variety is globe-shaped with a purple top and deep yellow flesh. Swede ‘Helenor’ produces reliable, good-sized roots with a sweet flavour.

Planting swedes

Swedes like full sun and well-drained moisture-retentive soil. The crop likes a pH of at least 6.8 and can be susceptible to club root when grown in acidic soil. When planting swedes, work plenty of organic matter into the site prior to planting.

Purple swedes growing in rows
Sow swedes in a sunny and well-drained spot from April to June [Photo: Peter Turner Photography/ Shutterstock.com]

When should you sow swede seeds?

Swede seeds are sown directly in the bed in late spring in northern or colder regions, or in summer in warmer areas. The window for sowing swede in the UK tends to be from April through the end of June. To prepare the bed, weed it, remove any stones, work in some mature compost and rake to a fine tilth. Sow thinly in 1cm deep rows, spacing the rows 40cm apart. Water well and regularly. Swede seeds germinate in 10 to 12 days at temperatures above 12 °C. As they germinate, thin the seedlings until they are 20 to 25cm apart. Thin the swede seedlings regularly, as they grow quickly, and the plants will suffer if left overcrowded. Early sowings of swedes in April and May are more susceptible to mildew than later sowings.

Transplanting swede seedlings

There are alternative methods for growing swedes other than direct sowing. If your ground is very cold, wet, or unworkable in spring, you can sow swede seeds in transplant trays or modules. Put two or three swede seeds 1cm deep in each cell. Grow in a frost-free place at 15 to 18 °C. The seeds should germinate after around 10 days. After germination, thin them out to one swede seedling per cell. Harden off the swede seedlings and then transplant to their final place in the garden once the risk of frost has passed, usually from mid-May but they can be planted out until August. To plant out swede seedlings, prepare the bed as mentioned above. Dig holes spaced 40cm apart and place the young swede plants inside. Fill with soil and press down firmly around the plants. Water well.

Can you grow swede in containers and pots?

Growing swedes in pots is possible; however, if you want full-size swedes, you will need pots or troughs large enough to allow for 40cm spacing between each swede. Fill a large container with peat-free multi-purpose compost, such as our Plantura All Purpose Compost. Then either sow the seeds directly in the pot or plant out seedlings. Water well.

Organic All Purpose Compost, 40L
Organic All Purpose Compost, 40L
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  • Perfect for all your house, garden & balcony plants
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Companion planting with swedes

There are numerous options for swede companion planting. These include peas (Pisum sativum), celery (Apium graveolens), onions (Allium cepa), dill (Anethum graveolens) and lamb’s lettuce (Valerianella locusta). However, crops such as tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and peppers (Capsicum annuum) are not good companion plants for swedes. When growing swedes, keep to a four-year crop rotation and avoid growing them or other brassicas in the same area for four years. This will help prevent diseases such as club root and other pests.

Swede care: watering, fertilising & pests

Water swedes regularly after planting, especially during hotter periods, as it is a crop that prefers to be damp but not waterlogged. Water developing plants every five to ten days to avoid any irregular growth. A lack of water during growth can make the root go woody. Other key aspects of swede care include regular hoeing to keep the bed free of weeds. Mound soil lightly around larger swedes to cover the tops with soil and prevent the swede heads from turning green. Cover the swedes with netting or fine mesh as a precaution against pests such as the cabbage root fly (Delia radicum) or flea beetle (Alticini).

Swedes are not heavy feeders but do like enriched soil. Consider adding well-rotted compost to the site before planting, or alternatively apply fertiliser to the bed around two months after sowing. Our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food is ideal to add to the bed, as it promotes soil life and supplies all the nutrients required for a good crop.

All Purpose Plant Food, 1.5kg
All Purpose Plant Food, 1.5kg
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  • Perfect for a variety of plants in the garden & on the balcony
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How and when to harvest swede

The exact time to harvest swede will be determined by when you sow the crop. Swedes sown and planted early will be large enough for harvesting come autumn. Swedes tend to be lifted between September and November. Swedes can survive moderate frosts and will taste much sweeter if one or two frosts have hit them. To harvest swede, simply pull them out of the ground by their leaves or use a small fork. Remove the green leaves and wash the roots before cooking but do not wash your swedes straight away if you plan to store them.

pulling out white swedes
The harvest season for swedes is usually from September through to the end of November [Photo: Cat Act Art/ Shutterstock.com]

Swede storage: freezing and other ways to preserve swede

Swedes can be stored in the ground all the way until Christmas time if covered with straw to protect them from the coldest period. Once lifted, the roots can be stored in a container filled with moist sand or compost and placed in a frost free cool room at 0 – 1 °C, with high relative air humidity. Do not wash the roots before storing as this will impair storage life. Swedes can store until April. Freezing swede is an option, but it does not freeze well raw. Blanch the swede in boiling water before freezing and this will ensure the texture, colour, taste, and nutritional value of the root is preserved when you come to use it.

Storing swedes in the bed
Swedes are ready for harvesting and storing from autumn onwards [Photo: Hecos/ Shutterstock.com]

Swedes nutritional value and how to use it

Swedes are very low in calories, despite having a relatively high sugar content. The root vegetable is a good source of many minerals, including potassium, calcium, and magnesium, as well as vitamins B and C. Being high in vitamin C, it is perfect for winter when fruit is scarce.

It is a very versatile vegetable and there are many swede recipes to try. Swedes are delicious in stews and soups and can also be mashed or pan fried. You can also harvest young swedes and add them raw to salads. Maybe you fancy trying Scotland’s signature dish of haggis with neeps and tatties? Neeps are swedes and tatties are potatoes, both of which are served mashed together with a bit of butter.

Lamb’s lettuce is a great companion plant for swede. Find out all about this leafy green in our feature article on growing lamb’s lettuce.