The sign said, “Radishes at Work,” and we couldn’t help but stop and see what it was about.

Susan and I were visiting Winterthur (pronounced “Wintertur”), a lush thousand-acre estate at the northern tip of Delaware, a few miles northwest of Wilmington and about 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

Winterthur was one of several homes and estates developed by the wealthy du Pont family, who made a fortune from gunpowder before getting into the chemical and automotive industries.

A large home was constructed by Henry Algernon du Pont and further expanded by his son Henry Francis du Pont, a visionary who also developed a 60-acre garden and expansive farming operations. The odd-sounding name reprises one of their favorite towns in Switzerland.

The house eventually encompassed 175 rooms, many of which were never used, but built primarily to display du Pont’s extensive collection of early American furniture, paintings, silverware, china, and crafts. Much of the extravagant mansion was built, according to the local guides, with the intention of turning it into a museum – but only a small fraction of it is on display.

We were more interested in a nice stroll through the gardens than the house, but we also took in the short tour and perused the museum exhibits. Afterward, we were walking past a string of largely inactive greenhouses when we saw the sign.

“Radishes at Work.”

The sign was posted by the unusable corner square of an employee parking lot, where radishes had been planted in a grid pattern of holes drilled through the asphalt. The sign explained that over-paving is a growing problem: it leads to flooding when rain runs off the hard surface rather than soaking into the soil, and it also reduces the area available for vegetation that could reduce greenhouse gases.

Using heavy equipment to break up the asphalt brings its own environmental problems, so some researchers are experimenting with ground-busting plants like radishes to break up unneeded pavement naturally, if more slowly.

I’d never thought of radishes as particularly powerful, but I was thinking of the little red ones that show up in salads.

A garden outside an Amish home.

(Visiting an Amish home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The thick green plants at right are radishes used as a cover crop. Credit: Tony W. Cartledge)

I learned more about it when we visited an Amish farm and noticed a large section of a kitchen garden covered with beautiful radish plants. The greenery was thick and close to two feet tall, while the radishes were clearly huge.

When we asked if radishes were a popular local dish, we were told that few people eat them. Known as “forage radishes” or “tillage radishes,” they are less-tasty cousins of large daikon radishes, and commonly planted as a cover crop to break up hard ground and improve the soil of garden plots. When winter freezes kill the plants, they decompose and amend the soil with organic matter.

The large roots are huge, growing three feet long or more, according to Indiana extension educator Jeff Burbrink. They can capture nitrogen held deep in the soil – as much as 150-200 pounds per acre. As the large roots rot, they leave holes behind, allowing water to soak in and the soil to shift, naturally tilling the ground to keep it loose.

Tillage radishes lying on a table.

Inedible tillage radishes for cover crop. (Credit: University of Delaware Carvel REC / Flickr / CC BY-2.0 / Cropped /

Seed companies developing new strains for that purpose give them names like “Jackhammer radishes,” “Sodbusters,” “Nitro radishes,” and “Bio-till radishes.”

Who knew that radishes could give a whole new meaning to the term “power plant”?

Radish seeds are tiny, but they can sprout and grow with sufficient force to break up the hardest clay and even crumble asphalt – all while enriching the earth.

I’ve never been a big fan of radishes, though the little red ones are good when roasted, but now I have a new appreciation for them.

Radishes are not alone in having work to do. I’m reminded that Christ followers may think of our individual influence as very small, but we can share love, advocate for justice, and pursue reconciliation in ways that have the power to soften hard attitudes, to enrich others’ lives, and to bring change to our corner of the world.

Together, we can have an ongoing and positive impact as we seek to live into the kingdom – or “kin-dom,” as my friend Starlette Thomas likes to say – of God.

We don’t need to erect a sign declaring, “Christians at Work.”

We just need to do it.

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