Radishes in the Springtime By Shirley BarkerSpecial to the Planet

Friday March 31, 2006

There is simply nothing like a freshly harvested homegrown vegetable for flavor. That easiest of all vegetables to grow, the humble radish, is absolutely at its tastiest best when pulled from the ground in spring, given a good scrub under the kitchen tap, and eaten then and there. Pungent, crisp, it is the very essence of spring. 

One might well ask, spring? Even with frost lying thickly on garage roof and ground, wilting the cabbages? The fact is that radishes do not seem to mind a touch of frost, even a heavy-handed one. Still, I confess to a couple of trade secrets. 

First, I sowed the plump seeds last fall, so that they could dawdle through the dark months, with little spurts of growth in mild weather. And I had lots of help from my Wriggly Wranch, tiny red worms from the compost bin. 

I was given a handful of these creatures about two years ago, and ordered a set of trays in which they were supposed to live. I placed the trays in the kitchen, and provided the worms with the materials they were said to like—shredded leaves, a little earth for grit, and kitchen trimmings. In theory, when the bottom tray materials had been consumed, the worms would move into the tray above, leaving behind compost. 

This did in fact work, but I was concerned that whenever I removed the lid, a cloud of midges arose. The legs of the tray set had to stand in cans of water or oil to keep out ants. Altogether the system did not help my constant struggle for a life of simplicity and ease. So I chucked the lot into my outdoor compost bin and hoped the wriggly worms would survive. 

Before sowing the radish seeds I groveled into the bottom of the compost bin and amazingly came up with a couple of pails of the dark crumbly stuff one reads about in gardening books. I tossed this o n to the vegetable plot, spreading it thinly. When a couple of weeks later I dug it under, I was surprised to find the normally heavy texture of the earth, the tilth, had miraculously become ideal for seeds, so I sowed carrots and beets as well. Sowing radishes sparingly, about four inches apart, saves the bother of later thinning. When crowded, they tend to send up flower stalks rather than plump their roots. 

Saying that radishes are easy to grow is not strictly truthful. I here confess that this is my first, my only success. Yet in the weedy patch of my garden euphemistically called the meadow, radishes grow wild. These have coarse leaves and thick gnarled stems appropriate for their common name which derives from the Latin radix, for root, and when th ey look about to take over everything else, I remove a few. I do so reluctantly, because all through the summer and well into fall they produce delicate flower petals of pastel yellows, pinks, ivory and purple, visited by butterflies and even hummingbirds. These are edible, and so are the leaves and seed pods when green. The ancients made oil from them. With just about every part of them of use, I look on them fondly, as a potential famine crop. You never know. 

In the cruciferae family, radish, Raphanus sativus, is described variously as having no known wild ancestor, or as deriving from China. Either way, it is truly prehistoric, known to the ancients. There is little doubt that Apollo enjoyed them. Radishes were presented to him in gold containers, bee ts in silver, and turnips in lead, a truly Olympian distinction. Numerous varieties grow all year in Mediterranean climates like ours. They come in all shapes and sizes, from fat ‘Round Black Spanish’ to cylindrical ‘China Rose’ and the small red or red a nd white ones I grow. 

Radishes contain measurable amounts of the B and C vitamins. Along with green celery and black olives, they are an essential component of that quintessential American dish, the relish plate. Worthy of gold in the speed with which the seeds germinate and their ease of handling, they are fun for junior gardeners to grow and sample on the spot. And if your brood prefers to emulate Luna Lovegood and wear them as earrings, they’ll still need a good wash first.