Today we are celebrating the radish.
Not just any radish. Oh, sure, there are round globes of red white, and the elongated French breakfast variety with both red and white. Lately we’ve been seeing designer colors ranging from cream to yellow, pink to purple. There are long white tapers of Japanese daikon radishes, which are pretty impressive, too.
Perhaps about this time your spring radish bed looks like
But wait, what is that lurking behind the thinned rows of Cherry Belles? You can almost see The Radish. Behold:
That, my friends, is the Black Spanish Radish.
An Heirloom Radish
A European variety dating to the 1600s, this radish was introduced into the U.S. before 1828. You can commonly find the round variety, shown here, or seek out the less-available long tapered root. Either will produce a lot of radish for the seed. One taper can be 5 to 7 inches, and I eat round ones that are turnip-sized, up to 3 inches in diameter. The one above, grown for its seed pods and not for the root, was larger than a softball.
The tough exterior skin is dark as compost, but slice it open to reveal a snowy white interior with an
entrancing pattern of rings in the flesh. Check it:
On the left is a product of this radish that suits me the most: its pods. These are pickled pods from last year’s harvest, paired with this year’s roots. This photo is from last October.
Here’s a photo I snapped today that shows the relative size of the Cherry Belle and Zlota radishes with the overwintered root of the Black Spanish:
I always leave one or two plants in the ground and let them go to seed. People who’ve attended my gardening talks in the last couple of years know — I often drag along a big bag of dried radish pods to give away as seeds, and I hope they’re now being grown in many Northwest gardens. But I’m not leaving them in the ground just to get the seed — we eat the immature pods.
Here’s another photo taken today that shows a bit of the voluminous pod production from that giant root in the picture above:
The Black Spanish is best as a winter radish, so planting it in mid- to late summer will mean you can start harvesting the roots in October, or mulch them and let them sit in the ground through the winter, pulling as needed. (I’ve also planted them in late winter, like end of February, and have gotten smaller plants with pods by the end of June.) If you’ve let them overwinter, as the days lengthen they will begin to swell, and in early spring start putting on a lot of top growth. By April the tops are tall and rangy, eventually reaching 6 feet.
A halo of purple-and-white, four-petaled flowers will get the early pollinators buzzing. Then come the pods. We begin harvesting when the first slender pods get a baby bump. Even the smaller ones are tasty, but there is a sweet spot in size and maturity that is great for eating fresh. In salads, they add a hint of radish zing and a pleasant crunchiness. Or just set out a bowl of them for a unique snack.
Pick and use daily, because they pretty quickly lose their flavor in the fridge. Also, as they get too mature, the skins become tough and the centers fibrous.
Besides the taste, this unique plant is good for you. The root is used as a medicinal whole food supplement. The respected Standard Process company says it “provides support for the body’s organs” because of a “high concentration of glucosinolate metabolites which induce detoxification enzymes.”
So we eat them fresh, we can them, and we save plenty of seed to make sure there’s always a little Black Spanish Radish lurking in our garden through the winter.
How do you get kids interested in gardening? One way is to shelve vegetable seeds next to their favorite books at the local library. And then let the kids check them out.
A fitting end to my series on seed catalogs comes via NPR, which broadcast a story about the library in Basalt, Colorado that lets people “check out” seeds of various vegetables, and then return them in the fall, after growing the fruit or veggie, then harvesting and saving seeds from the best plants.
Presumably they provide some seed-saving advice along with this lending program. I could direct them to Suzanne Ashworth’s excellent book Seed to Seed, or even my own articles Save Your Own Seeds and Saving Rainbow Chard Seeds from last summer.
The story mentions a child’s interest in carrots because of her love of rabbits. It does not mention that the carrot is a biennial and saving seed from it will be a bit more challenging to beginners, espcially ones who might not have the willpower to let the best carrots alone until their umbrella-like seed heads finally appear.
After all, there might be bunnies to feed.
Have you ever had a big dinner with extended family, perhaps at Thanksgiving when all the nice dishes are brought out of the cupboard, and discussion has turned to the history of the antique serving bowl being passed around?
It’s the kind of hand-me-down that is accompanied by stories. In many families who have a tradition of growing their own food, they could have that discussion about what’s in the bowl as well. The edible antique in question will have come from heirloom seeds.
The seed catalogs from companies who specialize in heirlooms are, to me, like a printed bit of Antiques Roadshow. When I flip open the lush cover of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds’ “Pure Seed Book,” I feel like I’m delving into the musty shelves in the back corner of an old general store. When I peruse the offerings from Seed Savers Exchange, I feel the extra tug of preservation, knowing that everything sold there is being conserved by the membership-based SSE.
Tragedy at Abundant Life
Nearly 10 years ago, when I first sprouted the idea of writing about heirloom vegetables, I didn’t know many of the stories. I just knew they were in trouble.
Throughout the 1990s I had been buying seeds from and making small annual donations to the Abundant Life Seed Foundation. Through their locally adapted seeds, which in the early days had been donated by home gardeners before being grown professionally on a larger scale, I had grown to love many of the reliable old vegetable varieties. But in August 2003, a catastrophic fire destroyed their offices and much of their seed collection.
In the aftermath, searching for another source for many of those beloved seeds, I realized how few people and organizations were actually working to preserve heirloom seeds, and felt the loss more deeply. I wanted to help bring heirlooms to a broader audience, and do what I could to enhance what little remains of our vegetable heritage.
That led to the publication of my 2009 book Edible Heirlooms: Heritage Vegetables for the Maritime Garden, in which I tell the stories of heirlooms commonly grown in our region, and offer my tips on how to cultivate them.
In writing the book, I discovered that vegetables tell stories.
Growing TJ’s lettuce
For instance, Tennisball Black-seeded Lettuce, a small butterhead perfect for a single-serving salad, was beloved by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that it took less effort to grow in his Monticello garden than many other varieties. One year when I couldn’t find seed for that, I tried Tom Thumb, a crinkled-leaf variety that is very similar. It is an old English strain introduced to American gardeners in 1868.
Now when I stand on my garden path and look over the beds, history sprouts around me. I can thank an Italian immigrant’s mother for the amazing Jimmy Nardello Italian Sweet pepper, and the people of the Makah tribe for Anna Cheeka’s Ozette potato, and the Greeks who ended up in Portland, Oregon for the Greek Blue (today commonly called Spanish Roja) garlic.
Not only does this food tell stories, but it’s alive with history and the very elemental source of our country’s heritage. It literally fueled the people who built the United Sates.
Baker Creek celebrates
So open up the offering from Baker Creek, the Missouri company who recently expanded to the West Coast, with a “Seed Bank” now selling heirlooms out of a former bank building in downtown Petaluma, California, and an annual Heirloom Exposition in nearby Santa Rosa.
The catalog delivers lush close-up photos, sometimes bordering on the obsessive, of their many heirloom offerings. They are celebrating the form and beauty, nature’s artistry, that is too often lost when the supermarket produce stands are filled with bins of identical red tomatoes or stacks of one variety of the most marketable carrot.
What about Amarillo, thick tapers in pale peach, or Cosmic Purple which, when sliced open, reveals a glow reminiscent of a summer sunset? I don’t yet know what the flavor of those carrots will be, but I would lay odds that they will taste as unique as they look.
The Gettle family, who runs Baker Creek, seems to be on a mission to get me to try something new. I mean something old. Well, OK, old-new. It’s certainly a delightful discovery on every page.
Seed Savers inspires
Seed Savers Exchange, whose catalog this year is coincidentally covered with a rainbow coalition of carrots, urges me to do something more than just grow my own. They want me to help them grow the movement. With the mandate of “Passing on our garden heritage,” this membership- and donation-fueled organization is having success in stemming the loss of old varieties that had happened for decades, and in some cases reclaiming what’s been lost.
Their Moon & Stars watermelon is the bulbous green poster child. Tales had been told of the large melon with dark green skin and large and small yellow blotches. Typically each fruit would have one large blotch (the moon) and a field of small blotches (the stars). The SSE founders wrote about such lost treasures in an article, and a Missouri farmer reading it realized he had that variety, passed down through the family. From that one source, seed was saved, given away, propagated, and eventually reintroduced to a number of catalogs.
It might not be one that everyone can grow in our maritime climate, but if you ever see Moon & Stars at a farmers market, give it a try. Its pale pink flesh is mildly sweet, extra juicy, and filled with lovely, spittable, black heirloom seeds.
New in their catalog for 2013 are Black Cherry tomato, which should do great in our climate, and Three Heart lettuce, another small butterhead that intrigues me.
This year I might try Sunset Runner, a runner bean with a salmon-pink flower, or I might stick with my favorite, Painted Lady, whose pink and white flowers were named after Queen Elizabeth I, whose subjects tagged her with that nickname when she appeared in public sporting a shocking new fashion for late-1500s England: makeup.
Last year I tried Prickly Caterpillar from this catalog, and I need to give this another chance. It’s an unusual legume which produces pods that come out curled and spiky on a low-growing bed of greenery. We got yellow flowers out of a small plant last year, but no mature pods. They suggest you surprise your guests by putting the weird, edible pods in salads, which is the perfect reason to keep trying.
The SSE catalog tells of its preservation actions – hand-pollinating dozens of varieties of squash, for instance—and urges people to join, donate and take action by growing and sharing heirloom seeds. I concur. On a hopeful note for the future of seed, I will end my long, multi-post treatise on seed catalogs.
Sharing the bounty
Our annual seed exchange and seed ordering party is scheduled for this Thursday, and it’s looking like a good turnout.
Nearly a dozen of us will crowd around the dining room table, with our catalogs and seed boxes in front of us, and talk about vegetables we love, or ones we want to try. We’ll share what we have from previous years, and go through each catalog to find the varieties we want to grow this year. We’ll then place a collective order to each of our chosen catalogs, and when the seeds arrive, we’ll meet again to split them up.
Often, four or five people will share one packet, giving us just enough seed to use in our gardens this year. That’s OK, we might want to try a different variety next year, which the thrifty group-buying effort makes as easy as pie.
Do friends rave about your vegetables? I don’t have to ask if you rave about them to your friends, because I know you do. Most committed edible gardeners are more than just a little crazy about their produce. It’s closer to a love affair. I can still hear myself waxing poetic about the amazing Jimmy Nardello sweet pepper.
Inevitably, if your friends agree with you, they want to know the variety. They want some of the crazy too.
That’s why you should be saving seeds. The earliest tomato. Most productive broccoli. Sweetest chard. The least-stringy bean. And then, confer the simplest, most welcome gift on your gardening friends: share your seeds with them.
Before I offer tips to seed-saving, which is the next task in the Urban Farm Handbook Challenge, I want to just add three more reasons to save seeds:
Here are two methods for saving seeds of different types of plants. Your challenge is to pick one vegetable currently growing in your yard and simply capture its seed for use next season. Go check out the great prizes for the challenge listed on Sustainable Eats, and join the fun!
For peas, beans, and crops that form seed heads, such as salad greens, saving seeds is mostly a matter of gathering them up. Big seeds are easy, little seeds need a lot of separating and cleaning.
Let the seeds fully dry in their pods or seed heads. I pull them out of the garden, trim off the roots, and hang them upside down to dry on a simple rack attached to my garage ceiling. When dry, shell them and sort the seed from the chaff.
Some vegetables, such as lettuce, are biennial, going to seed only in their second season, so you have to pay attention to timing. You might dig up and move a desired seed plant to a corner of your garden and keep it alive for another season.
For tomatoes, peppers, and squashes, you must remove the seeds from the pulp, which is a bit more messy and involves a different drying regimen.
Tomato seeds can be stripped of most of their pulp and put in a jar with water for a few days, agitating it to get the rest of the gel-like covering to release from the seeds. Drain, rinse, and dry on paper plates. Other fruit with internal seeds may require only a good rinse before the seeds can be laid out to dry.
Label the seeds by variety and harvest date, and store in paper sleeves or enclosed jars in a dark, dry, cool environment. Monitor regularly and remove any mildewed seed.
Seed life for some vegetables is as short as one year, but some can last many years if stored properly. The average life of seeds is three years.
Seed saving for some vegetables is more challenging, and there are many tricks and techniques to learn. For the best advice, consult Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth (Seed Savers Exchange, 2002). I also go into detail on saving vegetables in the Maritime Northwest climate in my book Edible Heirlooms.