Daikon: Exploring the Asian Winter Radish

Daikon radish growing.

When they're this big, daikon are just warming up.

Most vegetables you plant, you’re tempted to plant twice as much as you think you’ll need, in the hopes of harvesting about half as much as you want. Daikon radishes vary from that pattern, so be warned: if you plant them, you have a very good chance of getting way more back than you expected. In general, American gardeners aren’t fully prepared for this vegetable, having grown up using radishes as a garnish for occasional salads. One daikon makes a heck of a lot of garnish. Think of daikon as more of a staple crop, like potatoes without so many calories. The first time you grow daikon you may wind up wondering what to do with them. Fortunately, they’re also a very good cover crop for the garden.

After a few encounters with the daikon radish you might be more inclined to eat them, and this unusually vigorous plant does offer plenty to eat. Daikon radishes make good pickles, dried daikon strips, kimchee, salad radishes, stir fry, hash browns, soup “noodles” and cooked greens. Almost none of those forms make it into the average American diet, but anyone from Asia knows the winter radish well. In many places, it’s unusual to have a meal without daikon in some form. Tonight I had a delicious winter vegetable soup made from storage onions, grated daikon root, dried shaved tuna and a home-grown Fresno chili pepper. Added a little red miso, a dash of white pepper and a spoonful of corn oil to keep nutrients in the stock. The daikon in the soup resembles clear bean thread noodles and probably few people would know it’s actually a radish.

young daikon plants

A thin layer of hay keeps the ground moist and shields the seedlings from grasshoppers.

Many daikon varieties grow best in the fall garden, making August the optimal planting time. In the American Midwest, August might not present the best climate for a new garden, but if you’re willing to put some simple tricks to work, daikon grows amazingly well and requires little care. In the springtime, many daikon varieties bolt and send up flower heads before reaching an impressive size, but other types selected for fast growth and bolt-resistance yield best in the Spring and early summer. This year I tried Miyashige White Neck daikon in the Spring and had marginal luck with it, but the same variety planted in August thrived. I already have seed put aside for next year, including a packet of Ta-Mei-Hwa, a Chinese daikon that grows better in the summer. So far, I’ve not tried Sakurajima daikon, a Japanese variety currently holding the world’s record for largest radish. Sakurajima grows to about 20 inches in diameter in good soil, and the globe-shaped roots can approach 100 pounds. The flavor is best when the radishes reach only six to eight inches in diameter. That’s maybe a little too much radish for me, and I’ve been doing well this winter on the smaller Miyashige, some of which did reach the size listed on the packet — about 18 inches long and three inches across.

For more about growing Daikon click

Maturing Daikon in Raised Bed

Mature daikon leaves attract few predators, although deer might learn to eat them after a couple of years.

There are some important things to know if you plan to grow daikon. Like carrots, daikon roots diverge when they hit obstacles, so if you want long well-shaped roots you need to dig deep and work the soil thoroughly. Daikon can make a crop in good soil without extra fertilizer, but in challenged gardens a balanced slow-release fertilizer gives the plants a much better start. Tap roots go deep, far beyond the tip of the storage root, so daikon survive dry weather in late fall with only a little help. Starting the plants out in August is the tougher part.

In August, the heat and the grasshoppers can make short work of a new row of daikon seedlings. If you’re lucky and have a couple of weeks when the temperatures drop into the low 90’s in the daytime, germination rates climb. If you plant when the temperature tops 100, that’s a tougher problem.

I managed to get a very good stand in my little patch by watering the ground very deeply before planting. I made sure the ground was soaked about 18 inches down before I dropped the seed in the ground, about half an inch deep. Although I’ve read that planting a little deeper helps, it did not seem to work out that way this past summer, possibly because this soil bakes hard on a hot day. I watered lightly once a day after planting to prevent that crusting and over 90 percent of the seedlings emerged.

Daikon Greens

If you don't eat the greens you're missing one of the best parts.

Heat didn’t seem to bother the daikon, although the plants put their first efforts into deep roots instead of leaves and for awhile it looked like not much was happening. Grasshoppers found the patch quickly and would have mowed it to the bare ground if I hadn’t laid a thin layer of hay over the top. Grasshoppers don’t dig through hay to get at things, they just sit on the top of it and eat anything that pokes through. I kept pulling the hay layer higher to keep the daikon leaves underneath it, and when the rosettes were about six inches across I quit worrying about it. Daikon leaves develop little hairs that keep most creatures away. The patch never needed insecticides and soon crowded out all but a half dozen weeds.

Daikon roots at harvest

Lucky I didn't plant Shogoin Globe, they run a lot bigger than Miyashige. This is enough for the winter.

By the last week of September I had fresh daikon roots and leaves to eat, and now it’s the end of December and I’m still able to harvest from the front garden where I left a late planting to grow. The daikon seem unaffected by temperatures down to 20 degrees Fahrenheit or a little lower, although when the ground eventually freezes solid that probably will do them in. The rest of the crop I dug and stored in a tub full of damp tree leaves, and thus far the roots are keeping well. The daikon patch yielded about 24 frozen pints of greens, plus seven quarts of canned greens. That doesn’t count the greens I ate fresh or made into kimchee in the Fall. I expect to not run short until March, but only because I do want to eat something else now and then. By the time I plant the Spring daikon, I ought to have quite a few good recipes worked up.

If you’re new to daikon, one might be enough for the first year. This isn’t like growing tomatoes, where you can easily give away or sell your excess. Most people look at you skeptically if you offer them a basket of daikon radishes. You might need to raise goats.

Some links of interest to those considering growing the Supervegetable:

  • Recipeland.com: 42 Daikon Recipes — http://recipeland.com/recipes/list?q=daikon
  • Ohio State University Extension: Oilseed Radish — http://ohioline.osu.edu/sag-fact/pdf/Oilseed_Radish.pdf
  • Evergreen Seeds: Oriental Root Radish and Leafy Radish (Daikon, Lo Bok) — http://www.evergreenseeds.com/orientalradish.html

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About JTHats

Avid backpacker and outdoorsman with old skills and interests in old ways of doing things; equally fascinated by electronics, from the days of Sputnik, to the Zilog Z80A, to the present day of black box circuitry. Sixty years of experience with growing my own food and living simply. Certified electronics technician, professional woodturner, woodcarver, and graduate of two military survival courses — Arctic and Jungle.

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