Have you perused the radish offerings in seed catalogs lately? The shape and color of this unassuming member of the Brassica family have expanded well beyond the traditional red globe and familiar white daikon to include spherical and tapered roots in appealing shades of amethyst, crimson, violet, pink and creamy-white tinged with pale green. Quick-growing radishes (Raphanus sativus) are the perfect vegetable for impatient gardeners, and their striking array of colorful, zesty roots make them an exciting addition to both garden and kitchen.
Radishes are often categorized as winter or spring types, but here in Texas (where spring translates so quickly into summer) it is best to think of all radishes as a root vegetable grown in the cool season, mid-fall through early spring. Though radishes can be coaxed to grow in warm weather, the flavor and texture will be more satisfying, with fewer insect pests, when allowed to mature under cool conditions. The main distinction between winter and spring varieties has more to do with root size, culinary use and how quickly they mature than with the season in which they are planted.
Spring radishes are the classic round roots that reach harvest size in only 25–35 days. To fully appreciate their mild flavor and crisp flesh, they are usually eaten raw as a snack or sliced into salads, coleslaw, salsa or wraps, but they can also be roasted or sautéed.
Daikon and other large-rooted radishes, mostly of Asian origin, belong to the winter-radish category and are popular for pickling, stir-frying or grating into soups and salads. They are the radishes traditionally used in kimchee, a spicy Korean condiment made from fermented vegetables. These hefty, somewhat pungent roots can take 50–70 days, sometimes longer depending on growing conditions, to reach maturity. Because they take longer to grow, they are best planted in the fall so they develop when soil and air temperatures are cooling off rather than warming up. All radishes tolerate cold weather, but they may be damaged by a hard frost. Row cover will provide protection from freezing temperatures and will also exclude flea beetles, a common pest of radishes that chew tiny holes in the leaves. Their minor damage is nothing more than an aesthetic nuisance, but severe damage can stunt plants and interfere with root development.
While radishes are considered the fast food of the vegetable garden, they might also be a contender for the Miss Congeniality award. An ideal companion crop, they do not take up much space and can be sown along the edge of a bed or container, planted in the space between longer maturing crops or tucked into a flower or herb bed. Fast-growing radishes are often used by gardeners to mark the row among slow-germinating vegetables, such as carrots and parsnips. It’s an efficient use of space, and the radishes can be harvested before the other roots begin to develop. Just remember that radishes grow best in a full-sun location during the fall and winter growing season, when days are shorter and sunlight is less intense.
No matter where you plant them, there are a few simple requirements for growing radishes successfully.
- A few weeks before planting, prepare the soil so it is friable and free of rocks and sticks. This will allow roots to grow unimpeded as they develop underground.
- Spread one to two inches of compost over the planting area, apply a garden fertilizer with a 1-2-1 ratio (following package directions) and mix it lightly into the top six inches of soil. If the soil is dry at planting time, water thoroughly before seeding.
- Space the seeds three inches in all directions to eliminate the need for thinning. Use your finger, a dibble or a wooden dowel to clearly define each hole. One of the primary reasons that radishes fail to develop is because seeds are planted too close together and then never thinned. If you consider that the life of a radish is only 25–35 days, it is important to give each seed sufficient space early on so the root can enlarge in the short growth period that remains after germination. For large-rooted daikons, space plants six-to-eight inches apart.
- Water regularly. A steady supply of moisture is necessary for consistent and uniform growth without interruption and is especially important for tender, succulent roots.
Numerous garden guides recommend planting “rows of radishes two feet apart” but really, who needs that many radishes at one time? For a bit of perspective think about the radish bunches for sale at the grocery store or farmer’s market. A single bunch with greens attached contains about a dozen small radishes. How many radishes would you eat, preserve or share in a week? A dozen? Ten dozen? A standard seed packet contains 100–200 seeds, so it’s important to think about how many you can manage to harvest at one time because it’s very easy to overplant.
In the past I have dutifully seeded a full packet according to directions, then painstakingly thinned to the proper spacing and the result was always extra work and a surplus of radishes languishing in the refrigerator. I actually find it more efficient to count out one or two dozen seeds and plant one by one at the proper spacing than to overseed and thin. One seed equals one radish, and if the seed is fresh, the result is near 100% germination, each appropriately spaced to allow for proper bulb enlargement; no wasted seed and no extra steps. The process can be repeated at 10- to 14-day intervals for a steady supply.
Experiment with the numerous radish varieties that can be found in seed racks and through online seed companies; all should do well in Texas as long as they are spaced properly and grown in the cool season. Most small, round salad radishes are ready to harvest when they are one-to-two inches in diameter, but consult the seed catalog or packet description for harvest information. Different varieties mature at different rates, and the quality is best when harvested at their prime; if left too long in the ground, they may crack or become pithy and harsh tasting. The following list includes colorful and dependable varieties available from multiple sources to help you get started.
Black Spanish. Introduced to the United States market in 1824, this distinctive black radish produces three-to-four inch round roots with a spicy bite. Rough black skin contrasts with pure white, firm flesh. It’s considered a winter radish that will keep several weeks under refrigeration. Similar varieties include ‘Nero Tondo’ and ‘Round Black’.
Cherry Belle. Classic red, round roots with crunchy white flesh. A widely adapted heirloom with a mildly sweet flavor, ‘Cherry Belle’ was named an All-America Selection winner in 1949.
Easter Egg. For gardeners who can’t decide, ‘Easter Egg’ comes in eye-catching shades of pink, purple, red and white. Perfect for spring salads and hors d’oeuvres.
French Breakfast. A pretty heirloom that has been enjoyed since the late 1800s. Rosy-red roots with creamy-white blunt tips have a pleasant pungency. Harvest when two or three inches long to avoid pithiness.
Myashige. The white interior of this cylindrical Japanese daikon is mildly flavored with a juicy and satisfying crunch. Hefty white roots can reach more than 12 inches in length; once harvested, they can be stored in the refrigerator, slicing off a section as needed. Commonly used for pickling and stir-fry.
Pink Beauty. A popular heirloom radish that is rosy-pink on the outside, bright-white on the inside. Smooth roots are slightly oval, uniform in size and juicy sweet.
Purple Plum. Beautiful amethyst-colored roots are slightly oval in shape with a bright-white interior. Best harvested when they reach one inch in diameter. Another purple alternative is ‘KN-Bravo’, a purple-skinned daikon radish streaked with violet on the inside.
Rat Tail. Grown for its profusion of slender green or purple seed pods with a zippy flavor that can be enjoyed raw, cooked or pickled. ‘Rat Tail’ is distinct from standard radishes and does not produce an enlarged root. Pods form along the flower stalks of plants that can reach two-to-three feet in height, becoming a bit unruly and top-heavy. A stake or small cage will help keep plants from drooping. Pretty pink-tinged flowers attract pollinators.
Watermelon. An eye-catching round daikon radish with a green tint reveals a beautiful fuchsia interior that is crisp and mildly spicy. Roots can grow to tennis-ball size. Similar varieties include ‘Beauty Heart’, ‘Red Meat’, ‘Mantanghong’ and ‘Starburst’.
White Icicle. Still popular today, ‘White Icicle’ dates back to the late 1800s, when it was sometimes referred to as “Lady Finger.” Its tapered, white roots are best harvested three-to-four inches long. An attractive radish with a snappy flavor and a delicate crunch.
Once you’ve harvested your homegrown radishes and served them on a veggie platter, sliced a few onto a salad or topped a taco, you may be wondering what to do with the rest? My recommendation: roast! In a cast-iron skillet, if possible. You won’t believe how roasting elevates the flavor and texture of a humble radish. Cooking mellows the spiciness and transforms the roots into tender morsels.
The greens are also edible and can be enjoyed either raw or cooked. Slice them into thin ribbons and add to salads, slaws, pasta, stir-fry dishes or soups. Store the tops separately from the roots and use within a few days of harvest. If you intend to grow radishes for pickling or preserving, consider using a mandoline-type slicer. It makes quick work of slicing radishes and yields thin, uniform slices. Cut radishes just before using; if they are sliced and chilled too far in advance, you may notice a funky smell permeating the refrigerator.
Radishes also pair well with citrus, creamy cheeses or butter. One of our favorite ways to eat fresh radishes is to slather a piece of rustic bread with softened butter, layer it with thinly sliced radishes and sprinkle it lightly with coarse salt. It’s very French, and very delicious. Not to be outdone, Southerners have their own version: a few minced radishes mixed into a stick of softened butter and spread on — what else — a fluffy biscuit. tg
Black Spanish 50–60 days 1, 2, 4, 6
Cherry Belle 22–26 days 1, 2, 3, 6
Easter Egg 26–30 days 1, 2, 4, 6
French Breakfast 25–30 days 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Myashige 50–60 days 1, 4, 5
Pink Beauty 26–28 days 1, 2, 3, 4
Purple Plum 28–30 days 1, 2, 3, 6
Rat Tail 50–60 days 6
Watermelon 50–60 days 1, 3, 5, 6
White Icicle 30 days 1, 2, 3, 5
- David’s Garden Seeds
- Heavenly Seed
- High Mowing Seeds
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds
- Pinetree Garden Seeds
By Patty G. Leander, B.S.
Advanced Master Gardener — Vegetables