Just before Christmas, my neighbours delivered to me a bag of fresh white turnips. It was a particularly memorable gesture, not only because white turnips are so succulent and delicious, and I adore them drizzled with melted butter and smothered in ground black pepper, but also because they are one of the few vegetables with which I seldom have any success. I know exactly why this is and yet, frustratingly, year after year, I insist on making the same mistake. I put it down to a kind of "over-thriftiness". By that, I mean that I refuse to give them the space they actually require. The problem is that white turnips take up great deal of garden space in order to be successful and, even when they are, the return they provide in terms of bulk, is minimal in comparison to the volume of leaves produced. So, stupidly (when I know better) I sneak them into a row where they won't bother any better-producing vegetable, and then refuse to thin them as they need to be thinned in order to grow fat white roots. The result is that, under stress because of lack of space, they inevitably run to seed. Those that manage to resist, are the size of marbles.
I really can't emphasise enough (even if, in the case of the white turnips, I am unable to heed my own advice) the importance of thinning root crops. There is a tendency in all of us not to "waste" but, left unthinned, vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, beetroot and swedes (even leeks) will not thrive. To manage the "waste" worry, I thin my carrots and beetroots twice. The first thinning really does produce waste – the thinnings go to the compost (or to the donkeys) and the number of remaining plants are reduced to the point that they are growing about 1 centimetre apart. The second thinning takes place around three-4 weeks later, at which stage the vegetables being pulled from the soil, though small, can be put in the pot or a salad. After this thinning, the remaining plants are spaced around 3 centimetres from each other. This encourages rapid growth and, from then on, I harvest them as required, leaving the rest with even more space to develop in fat roots for winter use. If I have done the job well, when I dive out into the garden through a raging southerly August squall, I usually have just one or two plants to pull up to ensure soup for a week.
Do trust me on the thinning front. If you read this column regularly, you will know that my advice, when it comes to vegetables such as salad greens, celery, and other summer plantings, is always to "pack them in close" to avoid weeds and to provide a self-mulching environment. But with white turnips, and also our winter vegetables, the reverse is the case. Give them all the space you can afford, as much sun as possible, a weekly feed of liquid fertilizer and a side dressing of blood or bone once or twice over the summer. In short, give them whatever they ask for and plenty of it. Thriftiness has its place but not where winter crops, especially root crops, are concerned. Now, if I can only remember that advice next spring, it may be me whose delivering the white turnips to the neighbours!