Radishes – The Perfect “Prepper” Plant

Yesterday I harvested a big bunch of radishes.  My wife usually gets excited when I bring things in from the garden.  However, radishes are an exception.  You see, she is a radish hater.  I have found that she is not alone.  If I ever have anything left over from the garden I generally have a list of people that are ready to take it.  Not so with radishes.  Seems like the world is full of two types of people:  those that love radishes and those that don’t.

A very lovely bunch of radishes from the fall potager. Photo by my lovely wife

I am proud to say that I am a radish lover.  I love how easy they are to grow and I love the way they taste.  I love the way their crispy texture and pungent flesh add a spicy little surprise to my salad.  I love to pour a mound of salt into the palm of my hand and dip raw radishes directly into it just like I did with my dad when I was little.  Heck, I even like radishes for breakfast!  One of my favorite breakfasts consists of a boiled egg, a big slice of sharp cheddar cheese and a handful of French Breakfast radishes.

As much as I love radishes, I will be the first to admit their uses are somewhat limited.  Google up radish recipes and you will not get too many interesting results.  I discovered this fact while trying to figure out what do with my latest harvest.  This lack of results got me to thinking.  What could I come up with to elevate the status of the lowly radish?  Something that is this easy to grow, tasty and good for you should be more celebrated.  Then it hit me.  Radishes posses a ton of traits that make them the perfect plant for “preppers”.


Every part of the radish is edible, even the greens. Photo by Sally White

Are you familiar with the “prepper” movement?  “Preppers are people that believe there is a very high probability that something really bad is going to happen to the U.S.  in the near future.  Whatever this really bad thing is (asteroid, nuclear attack, economic collapse), it is going to be bad enough that it will force all of us that want to survive to be a whole lot more self reliant.  In order to be prepared for “the undefined really bad thing that is most likely going to happen sometime”, preppers do things like stock pile food, water and seeds to ensure their families can survive the rough times. 

If you are a “prepper”, I believe radish seeds should be a pretty important part of your initial survival kit.  Below are three really good reasons why I believe radishes are the perfect “prepper” plant:

1.  Easy to Grow – Radishes are so fool proof that I truly believe their seeds have a 100% germination rate regardless of variety.  To grow radishes simply place the seeds about 2” apart in a sunny location and cover with about ¼” of soil.  Water in and keep moist until germination.  After germination, continue to apply about 1” of water per week.  The plants will go from seed to plate in as few as 30 days. 

One quick note, radishes are generally a cool season crop.  Most of the short cycle radishes will not grow during the hottest times of the year.

2. Nutritious – Every part of the radish is edible and every part is good for you.  Radishes can go from seed to seedling in 10 to 15 days and then to full grown root with edible top in two more weeks.  The “greens” and roots are high in Vitamin C (ascorbic acid), folic acid, potassium, vitamin B6 and calcium.   With their high germination rates, rapid growth rates and high nutritional content, radishes will allow you to quickly supplement your food stores with fresh greens and veggies.

3. Storage – Since radishes are root crops they can be stored in root cellars for very long periods of time.  The ascorbic acid in them is not depleted in storage and will fend off scurvy just as well as citrus.  Radishes can also be pickled to further extend their shelf life.

So there you go!  Radishes are tasty, healthy and versatile.  Their ease of cultivation and rapid growth rate make them a great plant to have with you if you need to quickly be able to start feeding yourself and your family.  I hope preppers every where take my advice and finally give the lowly radish some much deserved respect!

A mature radish next to radish foliage ten days after planting. These young sprouts are very tasty and very nutritious



Growing Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis )

Asparagus is an extremely long lived perennial.  A friend of a friend has a bed that has been producing for 36 years!  Now that is an extremely long time but it is not uncommon to find beds that have been in production for over 20 years.  Asparagus is tough, reliable, attractive and a joy to eat. So, if I am going to grow it, I am going to have to make a long term commitment to it.

I have never grown asparagus before.  But since my wife and I love it so, we have decided now is the time to get started.  Like most of you, if I don’t know how to grow something I do research.  I have been reading about how to grow asparagus for over year.  However, all of the research in the world is no substitute for having an actual expert to talk with.  I am lucky enough to be very close friends with an outstanding asparagus expert and grower.

(WARNING!  The next three paragraphs contain EXTREME nostalgia. If you are not interested in tales of high school romance and rebellion, feel free to skip to the growing section )

Bobby Mitchell and I have been friends for more years than either of us thought we would live.  We became friends in Junior High and have stayed in touch ever since.  In high school, I had a 1955 Chevy Pick Up.  Every time Bobby got in that truck, something broke.  When we were 15, Bobby convinced the head varsity cheerleader (she was a senior and he was a sophomore) to go “parking” with him.   The problem was, he had neither car nor license.  Somehow he talked me into driving them out in the country and then sitting on the tail gate while he and the cheerleader “made out” in the cab.  For some reason, this sounded like really big fun so I agreed.

The quarterback and the cheerleader did a great job of steaming up the windows of my 55.  I enjoyed my first “dip” of Copenhagen snuff (which turned out to be a really bad thing in hindsight) while they enjoyed each other.  Since my dad worked the 3 to 11 shift I knew that if we got home before 11:30 no one would be the wiser.  So at about 11:00 I broke them up. Once we defogged the windows we headed home.  Everything was going great.  We had won the football game, Bobby had “scored” and I picked up a really bad habit.  The night could not have been better.

When you are 15 you don’t yet have the maturity to understand that when things are going this good, something has to go wrong.  After dropping the cheerleader off we headed home.  It was about 11:15 and we were only five minutes from home when the drive shaft literally fell out of the bottom of my truck!  Needless to say the rest of the night was almost as memorable as the first part of the evening had been.  My dad was not the least bit impressed with our performance that evening.  In fact, he was so unimpressed that I didn’t get to drive my truck for a month.  However, it was worth it.  This was the first of many, many memorable experiences that Bobby and I shared in that old pick up.


Growing Asparagus – I visited Bobby last summer and was very impressed with his 70’ row of asparagus.  When I told him I wanted to grow my own he was happy to share his experience with me.

Bobby recommends planting year old crowns.  Since it takes three years to get asparagus from seed, these older roots allow you to enjoy asparagus in year two.  To plant them, dig an 8″ to 12″ round hole (or trench) that is about 8” to 10” deep in full sun.  Place your plants about a foot apart.  Put two or three inches of high grade compost in the bottom of the hole.  The compost should be slightly mounded in the center.  Spread the roots of the crown out over the mound like an octopus.  Once the roots are in place, cover lightly with compost and gently water in.  Research has shown that if you plant asparagus too deep, your yields will be reduced so try and keep the crowns no more than 6″ below the soil level.

Keep the roots damp and in a few days the first little shoot will appear.  As that sprout grows, slowly add soil and compost to the hole.  Be careful not to completely cover it up.  In the first year you can expect each crown to produce 2 to 5 sprouts.  These early sprouts are small and delicate.  Bobby recommends letting 3 sprouts grow above soil level before completely filling in around them. You may also want to stake these young shoots to make sure the wind doesn’t break them off.  Once these three sprouts are a few inches above the soil line you can finish back filling the hole with a soil/compost mixture.  Asparagus is a heavy feeder so do not scrimp on the compost.  Tamp the soil in firmly to support your young sprouts.


A great picture that clearly shows how I prepared my beds and planted the crowns.

The first year the stalks will be pretty puny looking.  Continuously weed your beds and apply about an inch of water per week.  By the second year you will get a 3′ to 4′ tall plant with very attractive fern like foliage.  Asparagus foliage is so thick that it shades out most of the weeds in the second year.  In the first year, you can expect your roots to produce two to five shoots.  In the second year that number will double.  This is when you can begin to do a light harvest.  By year three you can expect to have 25 to 30 sprouts per root system.  After year two  let the first couple of sprouts of the season grow up and grow foliage.  You can start picking shoots after that. Once the mature plants start producing, the spears come pretty quickly.  If you wait too long to cut don’t worry.  Just let the stalk produce foliage.  There will still be plenty of stalks to pick

The first spears of the year in Bobby’s garden. Photo by Bobby Mitchell

Asparagus start producing in early spring and can be harvested for four to six weeks.  Do not over harvest.  Make sure and leave enough canes to make a large, healthy plant.  The foliage will feed the roots, which will in turn, store the food to put into shoot development next year.  Once you stop harvesting, “mulch” or top dress your plants with three to six inches of compost.  Top dress again in the fall.  The foliage will last until first frost.  You can prune throughout the year to control height.  Once a frost hits them, cut the foliage off at the ground and apply more compost.

A mature asparagus plant produces about ½ pound of asparagus per year.  If you like it as much as we do, four to five plants per person should be adequate.  There are several varieties of asparagus that do very well for us here.  I am planting some New Jersey sterile (all male hybrids) and Mary Washington (a popular heirloom variety).  The Jersey hybrids produce large, flavorful spears and will not spread.  Mary Washington produces yellow flowers and red berries.  The spears are very tasty.  However, it spreads so you will have to do more “weeding” with this variety than you will with the all male hybrids.

Hollyhocks (Alcea rosea)

In my opinion, if you are going to have a cottage garden, you have to have three plants: roses, larkspur and hollyhocks.  While many other plants will fit nicely into the cottage plan, these three are what I believe most people picture when they close their eyes and imagine a cottage garden.

Hollyhocks, with their tall upright stalks and big showy flowers, are the perfect plant for the back of a bed or border.  They come in a variety of colors and flower types (singles, semi-doubles and doubles) and will grow in just about any type of soil.  Some people say that the plants with deep colored flowers prefer sandy soils while the pinks, whites and other lighter colors prefer a clay soil.  So, wherever you live, there is a variety of this flower for you.

Here I am in May with three different varieties

Hollyhocks are members of the mallow family (Malvaceae).  This family includes the shrub Althea (Rose of Sharon) and hibiscus.  The flowers are edible and some folk remedies suggest making a tea out of them to treat “throat problems” and digestive issues (diarrhea).  Hollyhocks have been popular with gardeners for centuries.  They are believed to have originated in Asia but were brought to Europe by the 1400s.  The English really took to them.  In fact, the name hollyhock comes from the old English “Holyoke”.  Maybe this is the reason that my grandmother grew them and I love them so.  Since we are of good English stock I guess something in our genetics predisposes us to these lovely plants.

A volunteer hollyhock in my potager

Not all in my family have wonderful hollyhock memories.  My Aunt Sarah loves to tell the story of how my Uncle Bubba pulled up a hollyhock and used it to give her a whipping.  She still cannot look at a hollyhock without remembering what her brother did to her 70 years ago.  According to my Aunt Sara, hollyhocks were not just for corporal punishment at my grandparent’s house.   Evidently, my grandmother grew hollyhocks to hide their outhouse.  Their tall structure (some varieties can get 8’ tall) did a great job of camouflaging a very necessary but often maligned out building.

I don’t grow hollyhocks to hide anything or punish anyone.  I grow them simply because I love big showy plants that are easy to grow.  Hollyhocks are planted in the late fall or early winter.  They prefer full sun but can tolerate some light shade.  They can also survive temps in the teens for short periods.  The plant takes about six months from the time it first appears until it blooms.  It is also a good re-seeder so once you get it established you will have it forever.

This lovely arrangement featuring hollyhocks was made by my daughter Whitney

Hollyhocks are pretty heavy feeders so they do best in a bed that is well worked with organic material.  They are fairly drought tolerant but do require at least an inch of water per week to be fully productive.  You should not overwater or water from above as they are extremely susceptible to rust.  Rust is a very bad deal in the garden.  If you see reddish, powdery spots on the leaves of your plants, you have rust.  You can try and control it with a fungicide.  However, this is not organic and not always effective.  The best thing to do in my opinion is pull out the infected plants and burn them.  It is also recommended that you not replant in the area where the rust infection was spotted for three years.

It is still not too late to plant hollyhocks from transplants.  Many nurseries have them available now.  Why not pick up a few this weekend and plant them in the back of your beds.  These living antiques will instantly add charm to any bed and their tall form and beautiful flowers will delight you throughout the summer.

The $70 Vegetable Garden

I recently read the 2009 survey results of the gardening world by the National Gardening Association (http://www.garden.org/).  One of the stats that I found very interesting was the amount of money the average person reportedly spends on their food garden.  According to the NGA survey, the average vegetable gardener only spends $70 per year on their garden.  Now I realize that I am not the average gardener, but $70?  Really?  I spend an average of $30 per month on just compost.  So this got me thinking.  Could I create a vegetable garden (on paper) with just $70 worth of supplies?

There really is nothing better than home grown tomatoes

To do this, I had to make some assumptions.  Using the NGA data, I decided to be average.  According to their report the average vegetable garden in the US is 600 square feet.  Using this I decided to have a 21’ X 30’ (I know that is 630 square feet, but go with me) virtual garden.  This garden would contain 4-30 foot rows.  Each row would be 3 feet wide and there would be 3 feet wide walk paths between the rows.  In this space I would plant the Top Ten vegetables grown in US gardens (based on results from the same survey).  Those vegetables are tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers, beans, carrots, summer squash, onions, hot peppers, lettuce and peas.  I also assume that this $70 experiment only covers the spring garden.  Finally, since I garden organically, my $70 garden will use organic principals as well.

Below are the four rows that I have designed.

Row 1 –English peas the 10th most grown veggie in the American garden.  Normally I plant them in January.  For this garden, I am going to recommend putting them on Feb. 1.  A little late here, but this is just an experiment and they will probably still produce when planted this late (especially if you live north of Dallas).  Carrots can go in at the same time.  Beans are a little less cold hardy so I am going to virtually plant them Feb. 15.

All of these veggies will be planted by seeds.  The beans and peas will be spaced at 6” and I will get three rows in each three foot bed.  To plant this many beans and peas, you will need to buy two packs of seed for each.  I selected “Contender” bush beans from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.  They were $2 per pack so the beans will cost $4.  I found 100 “Green Arrow Peas” from Seed Savers Exchange for $2.75. The carrots will be planted in a staggered grid plan at 4” spacing.  You will need 2 packs of seed for this many carrots.  Since the seeds are so tiny it is difficult to get just one seed per hole.  I chose “Danver” from Seed Savers Exchange.  The two packs were $5.50.

Row 2 –Around here, we plant our onion sets in November or December.  For this garden, we are going to assume that we planted 300 10-15Y onions in November.  They are stagger planted 6” apart in three rows that are 20’ long.  This would require two bunches of sets and would have set us back about $6.  Now 300 is a lot of onions.  However, I love them and they keep well so I also plant a lot.  I planted the onions in the middle of the row.  This leaves two 5’ beds on either side.

In both of these beds I am planting lettuce from seed.  I love lettuce and there are a ton of varieties.  All do well in the cool season so you can plant whatever variety you choose.  I always plant two different varieties of leaf lettuce.  To plant beds this size, you will need about four packs of seeds.  At $1.50 each, that is another $6.

Row 3 – This whole row is dedicated to cucurbits.  30 feet is a lot of room for our squash and cucumbers,  especially since they are both so productive.  Each of these plants need about 3’ of space.  I will plant six  hills of squash (2-yellow crook neck, 2 zucchini, and two patty pan).  I will then plant four trellises of Poinsett cucumbers.  I grow these every year and they are awesome!  They are very productive and are great as slicers and for pickling.  I build thee-legged trellises for them out of cedar limbs.  Four trellises will allow us to have 12 vines.  This will be more than enough.  For this row we will be using 4 packets of seeds at $2.50 each so the whole row will cost just $5.

Row 4 –Tomatoes are the stars of most summer gardens.  They are the number one grown vegetable in the home garden. For the last row of our gardenwe will buy and plant six tomatoes, two Jalepenos and two Bell pepper plants.   I usually buy plants because it is much easier than planting from seed in January and then nursing to April.  I always plant my tomatoes and peppers the first week in April.  I usually make sure and plant at least two plants of each tomato variety that I select.  My favorite for slicing tomato is an heirloom called “Black From Tulia”.  I also usually plant a cherry variety and a grape variety.  We also love Romas so we grow a yellow variety called appropriately “Yellow Roma”.  I do not have a favorite Bell or Jalepeno variety.  I typically plant whatever they have at the nursery.  I buy well established tomatoes in quart containers.  Each of these usually cost about $4 a piece so you are going to have to part with $24 for this row.  I buy peppers in 4’ pots and they are usually about $1.5 a piece.

My little experiment has proven that you can have an average garden with the ten most common plants for under $70.  Including the 8.25% Texas sales tax, my total came out to $64.13.  That leaves enough for 5 bags of compost (which I highly recommend).  I know this doesn’t account for water or mulch or about a million others things you can spend your gardening dollars on, but it does prove that if you have decent soil you can have a very nice garden for a small amount of money.  According to the NGA survey, this $70 garden will produce $600 dollars worth of food.  So, this garden is good for both your health and your pocket book!  February in Central Texas means it is time again to go outside and get dirty!  Happy gardening y’all!

P.S.  If gardening stats fire you up then you can read my full analysis of the results of the NGA survey in next issue of Texas Gardener.