My five years of outdoor gardening have proven a crapshoot. Indoors, I ran a hydroponic sprouter big enough to provide at least 40% of my food, grew medicinal plants from the world over and raised habanero bushes 3’ tall and bearing 30-40 peppers per. I naively thought the same results could be obtained outside with the same effort.
Squirrels, shade from a centenarian oak, extreme rain, high nighttime temperatures, and countless other complications have made it difficult to get consistent results. There have been just enough surprises to keep me going.
I thought when I planted 3 horseradish plants in spring of 2011 that I would have some roots to experiment with, but when I harvested my first one I learned a lot that I could have read somewhere—but it wouldn’t have been as fun:
- Plants whose taproots are frustrated from direct downward progress will reroute as possible, which makes them a lot easier to harvest—but probably smaller. This took me an hour to dig up with minimum damage or disturbance to nearby plants, like this poor Dalmation Sage whose root bundle was cleft by the detoured taproot.
- Horseradish plants spread by runners. As you can see from this photo, this 18 mo. plant sent out a runner that became another plant just 18 inches away, probably in spring or summer. I left that one in to harvest next year. I’ve found five plants but that may not be all.
- I lamented tearing off the leaves to dig up the plant; they were the greenest and biggest thing in my garden this year. Against my better judgement, I nibbled on a young one, and found that it exploded with horseradish zest. Research yielded the consensus that the leaves are edible, with a small minority claiming they are poisonous—but a more credentialed majority saying they can be eaten young in salads and steamed or sauteed like collard greens when older. One post even claimed Hungarians stuff them like cabbage leaves. I can’t imagine that a member of the Brassica family (which includes broccoli, cabbage, radishes, mustard), widely sprouted and cultivated for vegetables, could have a dangerous leaf. Young ones taste like horseradishy young spinach, cooked adult ones have broccoli rabe’s bitterness with the toothsomeness of mustard greens. Yum! (May 2013 addendum: There is no horseradish taste to the leaves in spring.)
- The earthworms in my yard congregate around horseradish roots. As soon as I pitchforked the soil to loosen it, they emerged. I pulled five of the largest worms I’ve seen outside of the compost from the area immediately around the taproot.
- Eating raw juvenile leaves made both a Guinness and a single malt scotch—three hours apart—taste like sandalwood smells.
- The root is delicious grated into vodka. A Microplane works best. Friends came over for brunch the day after the harvest, and naturally we spiked our Bloody Marys with fresh horseradish by infusing it grated into the vodka for a couple of minutes. I tasted sandalwood again, but was alone in that. It was so exciting we took a shot-bottle of it to an Oktoberfest party later, where it was again marveled at.
Not many plants reproduce themselves, have edible young and old leaves of totally different characters, and provide a root that can be eaten raw as a condiment, in cocktails or – though it seems a waste – cooked as a parsnip substitute. As I eat sauteed adult horseradish leaves with golden tofu and sprouted black lentils in black bean sauce, I’m grateful for both the bounty of nature and the networked information that saved my 4 meals’ worth of leaves from the compost heap. Sorry, worms.