FAIRBANKS - Here is one of my major assumptions about gardening: while all of the vegetables we grow are great, tomatoes are really the whole point of gardening. Cukes and corn are great, too, but tomatoes are why our gardens exist.
Then along comes this email from a friend of mine: “I am thrilled to announce that I have harvested my first crop of radishes!
I dream about them all winter, and now they are here!” Radishes? Except for being included in sprouts I raise during the winter, they barely register on my summer gardening brain.
I plant a few, but mostly as dinner plate trimmings and so that I have enough for one or two radish heavy meals per summer.
My father, my grandmother and the nuns at the Immaculate Conception Convent of the Virgin Mary Lithuanian boarding high school were the people who taught me to garden, and they would not have wasted precious soil space on something they viewed as a garnish.
All of these folks had been through either (and in some cases both) concentration camps or the displaced persons camps of post World War II Europe, where hunger had been an intimate acquaintance. Consequently, their gardens were reserved for sturdy and prolific vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, beets and kale.
It wasn’t until I started writing this column some 20 years ago, when gravity had yet to take its toll on me, that I was forced to read about and grow radishes just so that I could answer readers’ questions about what seemed to me to be an entirely frivolous vegetable.
My initial knowledge came from a May 2, 1999 New York Times article called “Radishes: Easy to Sprout, Hard to Grow Right.” I still have a yellowed, laminated copy of that piece and have referred to it repeatedly over the years.
It is from author Cass Peterson that I learned the following:
• “The hotter the soil, the hotter the radish.” In other words, anything that ups soil temperatures, such as raised beds or mulch, will up the heat of the radish.
• Our long days tend to cause bolting, which is why my radishes have done better toward the end of the summer, as nights lengthen. I had known this before the article, and had tried to fool Mother Nature by sowing them in shaded areas, only to end up with a harvest of just radish tops. This article taught me why---because radishes need about six hours of sun a day to avoid the all-tops-no-bottoms phenomenon.
• If they do bolt, all is not lost. Leave them in the ground until they flower and produce their seed pods. They are edible right off the vine, in a stir fry or a salad.
. Radishes grow so quickly that it takes very little time for them to go from perfect to inedible.
They get pithy because “the cell walls…separate from each other,” turning the crisp flesh into spongy flesh. (Again, all is not lost — if you find one or two or three are spongy, leave the rest in the ground until they sprout flowers that turn into the edible seed pods. Pick and eat.)
• If your radishes have splits at the time of harvest, it is because you have exposed them to uneven watering. Dry conditions followed by wet conditions will lead to rapid growth and splitting.
• And, finally, “If you want big radishes, plant them deeply, about an inch and a half deep. Planting radishes shallowly — a halfinch deep — results in small roots.”
As I have aged and my palate has become more adventuresome, I have come to value radishes because their crisp texture and peppery flavor enhances sometimes bland dishes such as cole slaw. While I don’t love them enough to eat them in sandwich form, with only butter and salt, I now grow enough to serve radish top soup and braised radishes at least once each summer. (For those recipes and more, visit www.mariquita.com/recipes/ radish.html) And this week I ran across a recipe for raw Brussels sprouts and radish salad at thirtyaweek.wordpress.com that looks very promising.
It is not too late to plant radishes. In fact, sow some seeds every week to 10 days starting today and you’ll be harvesting them from mid July until the frosts descend. Just remember to thin so you end up with three inches or so between plants; use the thinnings in soups, salads or a stir fry.
Linden Staciokas has gardened in the Interior for more than two decades. Send gardening questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.