BY SARAH BARTHELOW ILLUSTRATION BY HILARY MCMULLEN
I am not a natural gardener. I didn’t grow up with carrots sprouting in the backyard. In fact, I looked with envy at my friends’ raised beds, with fence posts fashioned from driftwood logs and old fishing nets strung to keep the birds out, harbingers of the back-to-the-land lifestyle my parents and their contemporaries had flocked to the San Juan Islands hoping to find. We were more of a sort-of-near-the-land family.
When I took up gardening as an adult, the idea of growing vegetables right outside my kitchen window seemed so visceral, so simple, so true to the human experience. Plus it gave me a use for all of the chicken poop I was accumulating from my newly-acquired backyard flock.
In a small plot behind my Phinney Ridge bungalow, I grew peas and hearty greens the first year. A few tomato plants. Some onions. I spread radish seeds in the front row and gave the whole thing a light watering. I had made it back to the land! I was into this gardening thing. I couldn’t wait to harvest my bounty.
By summer, the onions were shaded by the now-towering tomatoes, and the crowded kale looked like a dwarf variety. I had planted everything three inches apart, spatially challenged by the idea that those little seedlings would grow to many times their size. The radishes were beyond hope. I’d neglected to loosen the soil, so they grew weak and spindly before finally giving up. And apparently you’re supposed to thin the seedlings once they sprout. Details, details.
Next spring, determined to improve, I spread out the kale, plopped the onions into a sunny spot, and added zucchini, broccoli, and basil. I dug down deep to pre-loosen the soil for those wimpy radishes. And I decided to ask for help. “What should a novice gardener plant?” I asked my expert gardening friend, Lupine. “Try radishes,” she offered. “They’re the easiest thing to grow.” Ugh.
The radishes seemed to be doing well. But when I pulled one for dinner, the slugs had beaten me to it. Taunting holes spread throughout each watery-white round. For the life of me, I could not seem to grow a successful radish. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a Brussels sprout had popped up in its place.
As my gardening career entered its third spring, I was no longer a novice. I carefully drew a plan, measured rows, and added fertilizer, manure, and compost. I rotated crops to keep the soil healthy. I built a sturdy pea trellis and set out slug bait. I even put in a drip irrigation system.
I dug up the rows for the radishes, carefully pressing each seed into the dirt and covering them with a light dusting. I thinned them after the first spouts. They grew pink and bulbous as they poked their globular heads above the soil. In just two weeks, they were ready. And they were perfect. I picked those radishes by the half dozen and sliced them paper thin. They were a bit prickly, with a surprising zizz! on my tongue as I crunched through one floating atop an airy salad of chiffonaded kale leaves and bright sun gold tomatoes. I washed the dirt off another and dragged it through a pat of butter before donning it with some flaky salt and taking a crunchy bite.
Like kale after a frost, success tastes sweeter after failure. You plant a radish, you get a radish. But not without a lot of learning in between.
Sarah Barthelow is a freelance food writer and the voice behind the popular food podcast And Eat it Too! She lives in Seattle and plans to conquer the turnip next in her quest for garden domination.