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GARDEN FRESH : The Glamour Radish?

July 15, 1993|SYLVIA THOMPSON

More than 50 years ago in "Serve It Forth," M.F.K. Fisher mused about the social status of vegetables. In those days, she said, offering avocados to college friends labeled her a snob, while her grandmother regarded the sort of woman who would serve artichokes as "a vulgar climber."

Radishes have a problem socially, but one far removed from artichokes and avocados. Radishes are like a friend who is too available, too easy. It's human nature, I'm afraid, that when it comes to putting together a party, radishes--Mr. Nice Guy--are an afterthought. Thinking about which hors d'oeuvres to offer, the host or hostess thinks: ". . . oh, and I'll probably have radishes and French bread and a pot of sweet butter." Planning a tossed salad: ". . . and I may as well throw in a few radishes." Composing condiments: ". . . and don't let me forget a dish of radishes."

Radishes are an afterthought in the garden too. Who ever dived into a new seed catalogue and went straight to radishes? But the radishes of spring and summer in catalogues are more appealing--more amusing--every year. Not only are the round reds rounder and redder (Red Pak, for example), and the round whites rounder and whiter (Snow Belle), but white carrot-shaped icicles grow faster and more icicle-like (short top strains of White Icicle).

Splashy colors abound. Fat round Sparkler looks like a child's top that's red from the middle up and white from the middle down. Little-fingers of French Breakfast are scarlet dipped in cream. Plum Purple is probably closer to beet than grape, but it's lovely. And even the blase gardener can have fun with a seedsman's mix called Easter Eggs. These are assorted oval radishes in cherry red, cream and shades of lavender pink. Insides on all of these are pure white.

In the garden, you won't see the pretty colors of the roots, of course, just the leaves that flutter above ground. On the whole, radishes neither add to nor detract from the landscape, since once they're of a visible size, they're out. That radishes are one of the fastest-maturing crops in nature--as little as three weeks--is both an advantage and disadvantage. Once they're ready--just pull and eat--few cultivars can hang onto their sweetness and crispness for more than 10 days.

That means, ideally, we should be sowing a sprinkling of radish seeds every week or two through the season. However, most radishes are like lettuce and peas, they're happiest when it's cool. Spring radishes are what we're harvesting now. Summer radishes are what you'll sow the moment you get some seeds--ask for heat-tolerant Comets. The longer the days of summer, the longer the shapes you should sow. When days are steadily in the 80s or higher, the small orbs grow rapidly, their crisp texture turns pithy and their hint of pepper turns snappish. But I say there's nothing wrong with feisty radishes--boon companion to cold beer.

If your summers are that hot, try French Breakfasts ( Radis Demi-Long Rose Bout Blanc , nearly 150 years old), then cool-in-the-heat White Icicles. If you sow where the plants will get bright light but not intense sunshine (such as under a tall leafy tree), and if you keep the roots mulched (soil covered with at least an inch of shredded black and white newspaper or grass clippings or old straw) and constantly watered (this is not a drought-tolerant crop), you may be able to harvest radishes all summer.

But if your radishes should bolt--flower and set seed--let them. The small tender pods are delectable!

In August or September, you can safely go back to the little roundlings--Cherry Belle is a favorite. If you'll have frost, sow the last crop about six weeks before the first frost is expected. If your climate is balmy, experiment with sowing radishes the year around. Then start with the all-American boy, Champion, come spring.

Many gardeners mix the seeds of radishes with the seeds of slower crops such as lettuces, carrots, beets, spinach, parsnips and parsley. The radishes make good use of the free space and their aggressive seeds break the soil for the slower-to-germinate seeds. I've done it occasionally, principally with carrots. And one school suggests using radishes as bait for assorted beetles that hop around crops such as beans, squashes and tomatoes. I've tried that too, but it didn't made a difference in my garden. Besides, I'm philosophically opposed to sacrificing one plant to another.

Crop rotation (growing in a new spot each season) is crucial to the success of annual vegetables and the health of the soil. As in-and-out as they may be, it's wise not to grow radishes in soil where another member of the mustard family grew within the last two or three years. Where flea beetles are a problem, shelter the crop with a floating row cover from start to finish. (Polyester FRC resembles light interfacing material used in sewing. It lets sun and water in but keeps cold and insects out.)

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