Freshly-picked radishes can be spicy, sweet, flavorful, and delicious. Unfortunately, the all-you-can-eat salad bars of the 1980’s ruined radishes for most of us. But even if you don’t like to eat them, radishes can play an important role in your garden.
Radishes were first cultivated in China, and they were carried along the ancient Silk Road to Rome, and then northward throughout Europe. The Conquistadors and the Pilgrims brought radishes to the New World in the holds of their ships, and pioneer settlers carried them west. I first learned the value of radishes in the lush gardens of Japan, where daikon is a dietary staple.
Radishes for Pest Control
On our farm, we grow radishes primarily for pest control. The scent of a radish repels and confuses pest insects. To protect your delicate winter greens from bugs, companion plant a variety of radishes liberally throughout the garden.
You can also plant a thick line of radishes across the width of your garden beds every few feet down the rows. Plant your greens and carrots and broccoli right up to the line of radishes on either side. The radishes will form walls, or barriers, to trap insects into confined areas, where they are easier to eliminate.
Whether you need to remove your bad bugs by hand (the pinch method), or spray them with Bt (a natural treatment for caterpillars), pests are easier to find and do less damage when they are confined in your radish “bug traps”. Also, beneficial predators seem to have an easier time hunting pests when they are trapped in confined areas.
Bees and Beneficial Predators
Mature radish plants offer a brilliant display of pink, purple, and white flowers, and radishes are the one plant we can count on to flower in the coldest weather, even when they are covered with frost. The flowers serve as a beacon to draw bees and beneficial predators into the garden, especially when they are the only flowers blooming in the bleak winter landscape.
Radishes Help Chickens Make Delicious and Nutritious Eggs
If you leave them in the ground long enough, radish roots can grow up to ten or fifteen pounds. I harvest these huge bushy radishes and feed them to our laying hens, and the hens devour them, root, stalk, and all. Radishes are an inexpensive and highly nutritious food source for our chickens during the winter, when green material is scarce—and radishes help chickens produce exquisitely delicious eggs.
Varieties of Radishes
The standard varieties for radishes are cherry bell, scarlet globe, white icicle, sparkler white tip, and long scarlet, but there are dozens of varieties to choose from. Plant as many different types as you can find, because different varieties are better at resisting different types of pests, and you might even find some tasty radishes that you like to eat.
Daikon is a Japanese radish with a wonderful flavor, and there are many exotic radish varieties from the Orient with incredible flavor. The quicker you harvest radishes once they mature, the sweeter the flavor; and the longer you leave them in the ground, the hotter and more pungent they become. I realize that with radishes “sweet” is a relative term–not sweet compared to chocolate bars and strawberry sodas, but sweet enough when they are the first taste of out your winter garden.
Eating and Cooking Radishes
Every part of a radish plant is edible, and the flowers are a unique delicacy. Shake the radish plant over a bowl to catch the flowers, and sprinkle them on salads and meat dishes. Radish roots are best pickled or roasted with other root vegetables, like carrots and parsnips.
Successively Planting Summer Vegetables with Radishes
If you plant radishes now, in mid-December, they will be ready just after the New Year, and the scent of your radishes will protect the garden for the rest of the winter.
On the first day of March, when your radishes are dripping with fragrant flowers, pull them out of the ground, and simply drop your tomato, eggplant, and pepper transplants into the open holes. Cover the new transplants with compost, and keep your garden going through the spring and summer.