Toward the end of winter our inner garden clocks begin to tick. What can we sow, and soon? Cool-weather crops beckon, and top of the list is the photogenic radish. But are radishes easy to grow? My mother must have thought so, when she handed me radish seeds when I was a kindergartener. They were the first seeds I had ever sown. In my small hand they were big and round, easy to roll and to hold in unpracticed fingers. Absorbed, I dropped them into individual, finger-poked holes. I don’t remember waiting for them to mature, but I do remember the sense of wonder when plump bulbs began to emerge, each one resistant when pulled—fat and red when free of the earth.
I was hooked. Couldn’t read or write, but I could garden. My subsequent radishes never seem to have matched that perfection, although their leaves always look very healthy. So, ahead of the new growing season, I asked two experienced kitchen gardeners to share their radish-growing tips with me.
Read on for some wisdom from the gardens of California and Tennessee.
Photography by Marie Viljoen, unless otherwise noted.
Most radishes can be sown in pre-spring—around six weeks ahead of your last frost date. Winter radishes (like daikon, watermelon radish, and black radish) tend to be sown in fall, before the first frost date, to mature through the coolest months. Radishes can be grown in containers, in raised beds, or in-ground.
In Orange County, Southern California, Randi Rhoades is the Freckled Californian (her informative blog and Instagram handle), a gardener who transformed her home’s barren monoculture of lawn into what she describes as an “edible garden and pollinator paradise.” It is flourishing and diverse. It took seven years (“and counting,” clarifies Randi, in an email.” I don’t know that I’ll ever consider it finished.”) Her lush Zone 10b garden sees dry summers and wet winters (at least, if all is well). Pomegranates, persimmons, avocados, and artichokes share the productive space along with many other crops, and a slew of radishes, including her favorite winter cultivar, a daikon called ‘Bravo.’
Randi grew up in a home where radishes were treasured for their greens. They were typically added to soup (“at the end, where they would just wilt,” she explains), and she says that her mom would specifically seek out “the radishes with the best tops at the grocery store.” Now, she thinks radish-thoughts when the weather starts to cool in fall, and especially if rain is in the forecast. “I start to sow radishes directly in the garden,” she says, “and continue to succession-sow them during the cooler months… The rain will water them in well—less work for me!”
Does she find them easy to grow? Yes, and no. Radishes are easy to germinate (they make good sprouts), and are also “a crop where minimal investment is necessary,” says Randi, because they don’t take up much space and they grow quickly. “But issues with bulb-formation can frustrate gardeners.” These could be due to inconsistent moisture: “The seeds, and beginning stages of growth, are so shallow-rooted, that it’s easier for them to dry out compared to other crops.”
And she cautions against over-fertilizing. “This often results in too much nitrogen for your radishes,” explains Randi, “so they tend to form only greens and no bulbs.” Although greens can be a good thing. Remember the soup… (But this could be my problem; I amend spring soil in my pots with organic granular fertilizer. This season, I’ll skip.)
Across the continent, in Nashville, Tennessee, Hemalatha Gokhale—she is @nashvillegrows on Instagram—raises radishes in Zone 7a, both in her home garden and in a community plot, Farm in the City, where she shares in harvests as various as asparagus, velvety pumpkin leaves, fresh chickpeas, roselle, okra, and muscadines. Her radish-sowing schedule is almost continuous, “except for about four weeks in January, and four weeks in the summer,” she says.
Although she finds radishes an easy crop to grow, Hemalatha recommends staggering planting times and planting several varieties to ensure success “since weather and rainfall can vary so much. You hedge your bets better by not relying on one planting time or one variety.” She relishes eating them nose to tail, roasting the bulbs, adding the leaves-with-bulbs to soup, and using the greens interchangeably with other brassicas. Even the tender seed pods are eaten: “They work beautifully in sambar (the spicy Indian lentil soup).”
@NashvilleGrows – Hemalatha Gokhale
- Growing: “Planting multiple varieties of radish at the same time in multiple staggered sessions means that something will thrive regardless of the weather.”
- Eating: “I boil the leaves and then finish them off with a drizzle of an oil-based dressing with herbs and spices. The leaves are also fun to roast and crisp up.”
@FreckledCalifornian – Randi Rhoades
- Growing: “Thinning radishes really helps the larger varieties grow most uniform. Cut out any radish sprouts you want to thin as opposed to pulling them. Radishes are delicate at first, so this helps to not disturb the root system.”
- Eating: “Raw, with your favorite dip. It’s also wonderful to lightly sautée radishes in some butter, seasoned with salt and pepper, and served as a side.”
No doubt there are complicated ways to eat radishes but, like our two radish growers, I believe these brassicas shine when treated very simply, and with respect.
How to Eat Them
This spring, in my Brooklyn windowboxes, I will sow radishes, again. I won’t feed them, but hopefully they will feed me.
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