Last month I dug my first harvest of horseradish, an event that I have been anticipating for more than two years.
Horseradish (a member of the brassica family) is incredibly easy to grow. It is is a hardy perennial that will come back year after year and requires virtually no additional effort to maintain during the growing season.
While the size of the plants look impressive throughout the growing season, most of the root growth occurs in the fall, so it is best to wait until at least mid- or late October, if Mama Nature will allow. This only adds to the convenience of growing horseradish, as you can focus your energy on the bulk of the rest of the garden harvest first, knowing there is plenty of time to get to the horseradish (there’s no reason to worry about an early frost; horseradish is quite hardy and will hold its own long after everything else in the garden has come to a natural end–remember, this is the plant that starts coming up even when the ground is still frozen in the spring).
This is what my horseradish plants looked like on harvest day (about three weeks post-first frost):
When I planted this horseradish two years ago, I started with the tops of two large roots that each had two crowns, so what you see here is essentially four plants, though sometimes there will be more than one plant growing off of a larger root and other times each crown will grow separate roots.
Even though it is a bit flattened out by its own weight, you can see there is a lot of foliage on the roots. This can make digging a little cumbersome, but it is not terribly difficult to work around and you certainly can cut back the foliage before you dig if you prefer.
Horseradish roots tend to grow more horizontally than vertically, so start by gently loosening the soil about a foot around the plant with a fork, being careful to yield to any resistance you might feel from the roots. Gradually work in towards the crown until you are able to dig around a bit by hand and identify the location of the roots and the direction they are growing in. Then work around the roots, loosening the soil until you are able to pull the root, maintaining as much length of thick root as possible. It will take a bit of effort to get the roots out of the ground, but it will be worth it.
This year I chose to harvest all of the roots because I want to re-locate the horseradish to another area of the garden for next year, but you certainly can leave some of the roots in place over winter if it is more than you can use. Leaving some roots in the ground will gradually increase the size of your horseradish patch over time, while harvesting everything and replanting what you need will control its spread.
And here it is, my first horseradish harvest:
The final step in the harvest is to trim back the foliage to just an inch or two above the crown. The greens are edible and can be used in the same manner as other greens. Though they are at their best (more tender and sweet) in the spring, mature greens can be cooked, added to soups, and incorporated into pesto.
But the real treat is the beautiful roots:
To prepare your fresh horseradish, clean the roots (a vegetable brush comes in handy, but keep in mind that you will be peeling the horseradish, so it doesn’t have to be perfect), trim any broken ends or scratches in the roots where dirt has entered, and of course, save the top portion of the root to replant in the garden.
Some sources say to store the reserved crowns in damp sawdust over winter and replant in the spring, but since I’ve had good luck replanting in the fall, that is what I did again this year. I figure it gives me a bit of a head start in spring and eliminates the possibility that I will misplace or forget about it in the next few months.
Use a vegetable peeler or sharp knife to remove the skin from the remaining root. You can then grate the horseradish root by hand or cut it into one inch pieces and pulse it in the food processor until it is broken down into a fine shreds. Which ever way you go, be warned that fresh horseradish is incredibly pungent, and the fumes will clear your sinuses and make your eyes water, so standing back a bit from your work–especially when opening the lid of the food processor–is helpful.
You might notice that right out of the ground, horseradish root isn’t all that strong. The pungency comes once the flesh of the root is ground and the enzymes that give it its distinct aroma are released. The science behind it is pretty fascinating, and you can actually control the pungency of your prepared horseradish by how long you let it sit before adding vinegar to the ground root (mileage will vary, as there can always be some natural variation with each piece of root).
Once the horseradish root has been finely ground, and you have let it rest to your liking, add a generous splash of apple cider vinegar and a generous pinch of salt and pulse the mixture a couple of more times.
If you are not using the horseradish immediately, pack it into a glass jar and top it off with a bit more vinegar. This will preserve the horseradish for longer term storage (several months) in the refrigerator.