Spring came early: In defense of aggressive gardening

Mackensy Lunsford
Nashville Tennessean

I used to follow all of the old-timey weather advice: Tax day was also ramp day, as in the wild allium often eaten in Appalachia. February thunderstorms meant a freeze in May. And you never, ever planted your tender vegetables and flowers before Mother's Day.

But that was when I lived in the volatile weather of the mountains. Now, I'm done with all that. I live in Nashville where we have tornado threats in the winter but at least the growing season comes early.

This year, I planted my radishes, kale, lettuces, beets and other cold-weather vegetables in February, which is pretty bold. It's not unheard of where I live in Zone 7a, but it's certainly a gamble. The local garden shops made sure I knew that when I began calling around for seed potatoes in February.

"Do you want to check back when it's not, uh, winter?" one of them asked.

A fistful of mature radsihes, harvested from the author's garden April 12, 2023.

Undeterred, I ordered fingerling and purple seed potatoes from a farm somewhere even deeper in the South. While waiting for them to arrive, I poked English and snap peas in orderly rows, and dug furrows where I planted mustard, tiny, black kale seeds and row upon row of radishes.

When the seed potatoes arrived, I set them aside and promptly forgot about them for a few weeks. That probably ended up being my saving grace when the inevitable deep freeze dropped, but I'd never let on to the garden center people.

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During that freeze, I protected what sprouts had emerged with bedsheets and hoped for the best while March snow fell. Since it's snowed in March for as long as I can remember, I'm not sure exactly why it surprises me each time. As far as I know, nothing died during that freeze except a tiny bit of my dignity as I crawled around in the dirt making sure all my plants survived.

And surely enough, a few weeks later, the first radishes were ready to pluck. They've continued to arrive in waves throughout April in almost zucchini-like abundance. I'm wracking my brain for ways to use the windfall of vegetables, a not-problem I don't usually have until August. There are quarts of trimmed radishes in my refrigerator and, I would guess, another 100 or so waiting to be harvested when they're big enough for it. They're sweeter than spicy this year, which I attribute to the lack of exposure to heat.

The peas are stubborn to bloom, but the lettuces are getting big. Not only that but there are barely any pests right now to turn them ragged, few slugs to munch on them and make them slimy. The kale yields a daily harvest and there are enough beets to torment my daughter into thinking she'll have to eat them for dinner.

Since I also started my seeds indoors in February, I have tomatoes, winter squash, peppers and eggplant that will be ready to go once I pull back the radishes, kale and peas in late April. By then, I will have had weeks and weeks of produce coming out of the ground before the point at which I would usually feel safe to plant anything.

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Mostly I got lucky this year. We had some unseasonably warm late winter days and precious few serious cold snaps. I chose some really tough, cold-hardy plants and seem to have gotten them in the ground at the exact right time. The gamble paid off in enough vegetables for at least a few daily salads and an insane bumper crop of radishes starting in March, which to me is unheard of.

Are you similarly loaded up with radishes? Here are ideas to use them up in ways that extend beyond the salad bowl (though I've been eating my fair share of dressed spring vegetables).

Radishes and a bit of mesclun mix on April 14, 2023.

Other ways to eat radishes

On tacos: Shave them and then marinate them in diluted rice wine vinegar with a little salt, sugar and sliced red onion.

In sandwiches: When sliced thinly, radishes add crunch and flavor to garden variety sandwiches. In tea sandwiches, radishes can stand in for cucumbers. Just add cream cheese and fresh dill.

On crostini: Spread toast rounds with good salted butter or boursin cheese, then top with shaved radishes and a sprinkling of chives.

On a crudite tray: Whole or halved radishes are perfect with most savory dips, including softened butter, hummus and soft cheeses. They look beautiful when paired with other colorful vegetables, including sliced carrots, peppers and cucumbers.

Roasted: Season and oil trimmed radishes, then roast them on a baking sheet at 400 degrees until they're a bit browned and softened, about 15 minutes. I like to add a little butter to the baking sheet at the end. You could also add honey.

On avocado toast: Top toast with avocado slices, thinly sliced radishes and some slivered red onion. Drizzle with olive oil and/or honey, then finish with good, flaky salt and a pinch of red pepper flakes.

Mackensy Lunsford covers food in USA TODAY's South region and is the editor of Southern Kitchen.