Radishes are a tasty crop with a short growing season that is considered relatively easy for first-time gardeners. But, sometimes, when you eagerly pull up the leafy radish greens, you don’t find the bulb you’re expecting. Instead, it’s shriveled, skinny and woody.
What might have gone wrong?
According to Kate Garland, horticultural specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, there are several reasons that your radishes might not fully develop their bulbs. The first is that they were not allotted proper spacing. Generally, radishes need between two and four inches of space between plants in order to properly grow, but Garland said that spacing will depend on the variety.
“You’ll want to try your best to space seeds when planting and thin them early in development if they happen to be too close to one another,” Garland said.
Another reason that your radishes may not have formed bulbs is that you pulled them too soon. Radishes can require anywhere from 28 days to several months to grow to a harvestable size. Garland said to read the seed packet carefully before planting, and keep it on-hand throughout the growing season to make sure you don’t harvest your radishes prematurely.
“The seed packet is loaded with important information,” Garland said. “Be sure to include planting dates on your garden labels so you can keep track of the target date for harvesting.”
Heat will also cause radishes to dedicate their energy to “bolting” — flowering and laying seed — instead of forming bulbs, but Garland said that is unlikely to be the issue at this early stage of the growing season.
Finally, the soil in your garden or raised bed may also be too compact for the radishes to properly grow. In addition to loosening the soil when preparing your bed for spring planting, Garland said that incorporating an extra inch of compost into the top of plots with heavy compacted soils will help improve your next crop of radishes.
In general, for the health of your radishes in the early days of their growth, Garland said that it is also a good idea to cover them with row cover as soon as you sow the seeds to minimize problems with flea beetles when they are vulnerable, tender seedlings. Lightweight row covers (as opposed to heavier grade covers used for frost protection) can be kept on the entire growing season, or removed once the radishes develop three to four fully-developed leaves.
Radishes can also be grown for their greens exclusively. Tender radish shoots can be eaten as microgreens, and some leaves can be eaten as well as their bulbs by blending them into pesto or sauteing them in a stir fry.
However, many bulbless radish greens, particularly if they are bolting and trying to set seed, are defensively prickly and best left off the dinner plate for the sake of pleasant mouthfeel.
“I believe the radish leaves that are the best to eat raw are the tender, young leaves instead of the more coarse leaves,” said Katyrn Yerxa, Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) coordinator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “I believe that the hairy leaves have a different texture than the young leaves and aren’t good cooked, either.”
Luckily, Garland said that these prickly greens can still be composted. Plus, she said you can start a new crop of radishes in late August for a fall planting if you really want to get your radish fix this season.