Ain't I smart?
Carelessness, poor planning and neglect leads Mariquita's Andy Griffin to discover the true value of a strange old heirloom crop--black Spanish radish.

By Andy Griffin


Mariquita Farm

Location: Land in Watsonville and Hollister
Years farming: Andy has farmed for the last 20 years in various capacities from farmworker to owner, from large farm to small.
Total acres farmed: 25
Key people: Andy, farmer and rave king; Julia, farm wife, CEO, mom, email elf, etc.; España, foreman, tractor driver, all around repairman; Jose España, head harvester; Lourdes Duarte, head vegetable packer
Range of crops: greens, root crops, tubers and herbs, berries, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, melons, artichokes, and more besides that.
Marketing methods: CSA and 1 farmers market, with a small number of carefully selected restaurants that pick up at the farmers market
Soil type: silty loam
Regenerative practices: cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing
Length of season: all year

May 10, 2004: Sloth, carelessness, and poor planning can be great teachers, as my most recent harvest of black Spanish radishes illustrates. The black Spanish radish is an antique radish, a throwback to a time when people counted on storing roots to survive the winter. To modern consumers the black Spanish radish is puzzling. Unlike the ubiquitous little red radishes that adorn green salads the black Spanish radish is a huge root that can weigh as much as a small cantaloupe. Black radish isn’t mild either, but can be harsh, especially right after harvest. Many recipes for black radish call for the root to be grated and marinated in salt water to dispel the mustardy bitterness.

I’ve read that it is traditional to slice black radish into pieces and eat it with a pinch of salt and a swig of beer. This recipe is ok, though I’ve usually wondered why I don’t just swig the beer solo. But I keep planting black radish, even though most of my customers probably don’t eat their black radishes anyway.

The root is so magnificently ugly with its rough textured black hide that it makes a fabulous conversation piece. Food stylists looking to take eye catching photos of table displays love it. I’m charmed by the black root myself and I’ve taken pleasure in growing an heirloom vegetable that seems more suited to a museum than a restaurant.

Over the years I’ve learned to plant black radish after midsummer so it will not bolt to flower before forming a root. And I’ve learned to religiously cloak my planting of black radish with a protective row cover from the day I sow it. Even if most people don’t care to eat black radish, cabbage maggots sure love it and without a row cover a marketable crop can be almost impossible to achieve.

This is where sloth, carelessness, and poor planning can make a big difference. Last year poor planning meant I didn’t have row cover on hand to protect the black radish crop when I planted it. The fabric came but then we didn’t do a good job pinning it to the ground. The wind blew the row cover off the seed bed leaving the tender young radishes exposed to the flies. The result was a crop of black radish riddled with pale white maggots. Out of two 40 inch beds planted in double rows 600 feet long, I only salvaged a couple of bags of radish worth saving. I threw the plastic sacks in the dark corner of my cooler, disgusted. This was a bitter harvest in more ways than one.

Recently I uncovered the bags where they had lain forgotten. I figured the radishes would be rotten after four months in a bag. But no. When I looked the roots seemed to look the same as the day I harvested them. I sliced a root open to see if it was rotten inside. The black radish in my hand had snowy white flesh. Then, cautiously, without even a can of beer on hand to wash away the taste, I tried a bite. The radish was great. The harsh mustardy flavor was gone and the taste was clean crisp, and mild!

I finally understood. Black Spanish radish needs to be stored to reach its full potential. Back in the old days black radishes would have been heaped in the cellar with carrots, turnips, celeriac, etc. In the spring after sweeter roots had been eaten up the black Spanish radish would be waiting, ready and good. Beer brewed with the previous fall’s grain harvest would be ready to drink, too.

My constant companions--sloth, carelessness, and poor planning--had come to my rescue again. Now I have a good plan. This July I will plant black radish right on schedule and I’ll care for it assiduously. In November we will harvest and clean the crop, then store it. Come next spring I’ll have a crop to sell just when my fields are empty and I’ll need money. Maybe I can even make back the dollars I lost last year.

Ain’t I smart?

Previous Journal Entries

April 20, 2004
Hats off to the many sombreros of a farmer Quack lawyer, truck driver, fake chef, and borderline carnival barker: all in a day’s work for a farmer like Andy Griffin … and once in a while he gets to contemplate nature.

April 2, 2004
The watermelon radish: Conspiracy from the left or the right … or just a darned good heirloom daikon? Those were among the suspicions raised by this ancient veggie at a recent event in Santa Cruz designed to introduce consumers to local food producers.

March 4, 2004
Guerilla garlic
Battling the influx of cheap Chinese garlic—even in to Gilroy, the “Garlic Capital of the World”—Mariquita Farm grows green spring garlic, and banks its garlic dollars long before the garlic festival in July.

February 13, 2004
New riders of the purple goosefoot In Watsonville, California, the founders of Mariquita CSA discover the value of this antique cousin to spinach.

March 23, 2004
NOW is the time for shameless self-promotion He can't plant, cultivate or harvest--the fields are a swamp--but Mariquita's Andy Griffin can sell shares and hustle publicity.