Radishes are often given to children to grow because these are one of the quickest and easiest crops around. Whether most children go for their pungent, peppery flavour is anyone’s guess – it certainly wasn’t my favourite when growing up. As I’ve got older though, I appreciate the extra flavour they bring to a salad and especially when they are such an easy crop to grow. They will be ready to eat in as little as four weeks, but the flip-side to this is the speed in which they go past being crunchy orbs of flavour and turn into hot, pithy balls of unpleasantness. The phrase ‘little and often’ sums up the art of radish sowing perfectly – ideally every week if you want a ready, steady supply.
These types tend to be the round, red types that we are familiar with, but you can get yellow and white ones too for an interesting mixed plateful. The varieties ‘Candela di Fuoco’ and ‘Long Scarlet’ make roots shaped more like a carrot – in fact, the vegetable that Peter Rabbit is often depicted with is actually a long, red radish. All of these can be sown from March to early June then again from late August to October – high summer sowings will quickly run to seed if not lavished with water.
Radishes are notorious for running to seed at the slightest hint of dryness or hot weather, but you can turn this to your advantage. Pickled radish seed pods were a delicacy in the 17th century and if you catch them right, they have all the crunch of a radish, but with a less fiery, somewhat greener flavour. I think that they are nice enough to eat raw in a salad. The variety ‘Rat’s Tail’, originally from India, was bred just for this purpose and the pods can be up to 20 cm long, but your ordinary garden radish can also be eaten in this way. Pick the pods just as they reach full size (probably no more than 1cm diameter) and when they are still bright green. Each tiny little radish can produce dozens of pods so you’ll have plenty to eat raw and then some to pickle.
Other radishes have been bred for winter eating, such as the Japanese ‘Mooli’ types. These tend to have much larger roots and need sowing in late summer, in order to put on enough growth before the winter. We grow the very venerable ‘Black Spanish’ radish, first written about in 1548. As the name suggests, it has a jet black, rough outer skin, but the flesh is bright white. These are used for cooking in much the same way you’d use a turnip, but you can also eat them raw – a warning though – they can be very hot. Like all radishes, they increase in temperature when the weather is hotter.
All types of radish are subject to attack from flea beetles. These are tiny beetles that hop like a flea when you pass your hand over the leaves and they will make lacework out if the leaves in a bad attack. They are at their worst between April and July so cover crops with fleece to prevent damage. Only a severe attack will affect root growth and as you discard the leaves anyway, this is rarely a reason to abandon the crop. The only other pest can be slugs, who I find tend to rasp away at the skin but the damage is only on the surface, leaving most of the root perfectly edible and ready to be sliced straight into a salad.