Tuesday, 25 March 2014

#2 How to Grow Great Onions

I get asked this one a lot... How does one grow really great onions that size up well and taste great?

Here comes the how-to for a really successful onion growing year...

The secret to great onions is to have really great soil to grow them in...isn't it always? Great soil is always the answer : )

Start with great soil!

You want to start with rich and fertile, well-draining soil that is loose, friable and weed-free. The onions want a garden depth of lovely loose soil to at least 6 inches deep.

Amend your bed with manure or compost and add bonemeal and sulphate of potash for great onions (yes, these are organic amendments). Do not go heavy on nitrogen fertiliser though (blood meal, alfalfa....) as it will give you all tops and small bulbs.

Ensure that you have great drainage as onions will rot if grown in wet beds. Raised beds work well for onions, but if you do not have them and tend to have heavy soil, you can simply make a raised hump for your onions to grow in. Make this hump about 6 to 8 inches wide and 3 to 4 inches high. Plant along the centre of this hump.

Start your onions from seeds, seedlings, or sets

Seeds come in a huge variety, a virtual plethora of colours and tastes. They take much longer to grow, however, and thus may be more work than the others.
They can be directly sown into the garden or started ahead of time indoors.
Sets are readily available at most garden centres and even many box stores in spring. Generally available are multipliers (shallots), yellow, white and red. Though there is not a huge selection in varieties, they are super easy to plant up and care for, to get a decent crop of onions. 
Seedlings/transplants, though less readily available, are generally found at garden centres and tend to come in more varieties than sets do. Transplants are seedlings that have been grown on for several months from seed. They are the favourite of most gardeners. Simple to plant up in trenches and they grow better and bigger bulbs.
Growing onion from seeds
I grow all my onions from seed, annually as I love the great variety of  types to choose from ... all kinds of heirlooms, sizes, colours, tastes and shapes.
Start your seeds in flats, trays or 6 packs in early February to plant out in late spring, when the ground is drier (April in the PNW). Use a soil-less potting mix, with some compost added in. Do not use garden loam in pots or trays. Seed, lightly cover with your compost mix to about 1/4 inch in depth, water in. Place on bottom heat till you see shoots for faster germination, or simply place in a sunny spot and they will come up just fine. Keep soil moist.

Each time the green tops grow to about 3 inches tall, cut them back again to about 1 inch tall. This will encourage bigger and better bulbs later on. If you forget, this step can be done at planting time, as well.

Many, many varieties of heirloom onion seedlings available at my wee greenhouse operation,
the Nitty Gritty Greenhouse.

Picture of onion sets from www.green-talk.com

Growing onions from sets  .... sets are small onions, grown the season before and then put into dormancy. They are the easiest onions to plant and grow. 
Can be planted in the garden 4 to 6 weeks before last frost (mid to late March here in the Nanaimo area) if your ground is dry and ready to go. Do not plant in wet, soggy soil. They will grow just fine and size up just fine if you do not get them planted till mid, or even late, April.
Discard any onion set that is mouldy or shrivelled up, as it will not grow.
Push into your loose and friable earth with the root end down, pointy end up. Place about one inch deep, just deep enough that the tip of the set is showing. Plant 4 inches apart, in rows that are 12 inches or more apart.
Water in.
 Well rooted in onions seedlings...
Growing onions from seedlings/transplants
Make a trench about 3 inches deep. I usually use my Winged Weeder, but any kind of hoe will work to make the furrow or trench.
Lay the onion seedlings into the trench, about 4 to 6 inches apart. They will be lying on their sides along the side of the trench.
Push the soil into the furrow, up and over the bottom 1/3 of the seedling. Straighten up the seedlings by pushing the soil towards the seedling from the other side.
If the tops of the seedlings were not trimmed during the growing phase, cut the green onion tops to about an inch long. This will help you onion to form a bigger and better bulb. When the tops start to grow again, you know that your onion is well rooted in and is now in growing mode. 
Water in.
 How to grow and care for your onions
Water once every week or two to a depth of one inch. Do not over water or your onions will rot. Water once a week during really hot dry spells.  
Do not feed. If you have amended your soil and have great soil, you do not need to feed the onions during the growth period. You will get soft onions if you feed.
If you really feel that they are lacking and need a feed during the early stages of growth, spray with liquid seaweed as a foliar feed every two weeks in June and maybe once in July. Then stop.
How to harvest

You can harvest immature onions at any time during the growing phase for your cooking or kitchen needs.

For mature onions that you are going to cure, you know that they are ready once the tops begin to yellow and fold over. When most of the onion tops have folded over (80% or more), give the others a hand by pushing them down yourself. Leave in the ground for another week to 10 days to finish maturing.

If you leave them in the garden for too long after the tops flop over, they will begin to rot and die as they are no longer growing, their job is done, they are maxed out.

On a sunny day, pull the onions gently from the ground. They can be left on top of the garden bed for a day or two to start the curing process. Do not wash or spray down with water!

How to cure your onions

Onions can now be braided and hung to dry in a shaded area, somewhere with good air flow and no direct sunlight... carport, open sided shed....

They can be also be laid out on tables to dry. This is how I dry mine ... place them in a dry, shaded area with great air flow (I set up drying tables under the carport).

You can also simply lay cardboard or newpaper on the carport floor and spread the onions on top to cure.

Leave to dry completely for three weeks. If they are not completely dry, they will rot in storage. When dry, they will feel lighter and the skins will be papery and dry.

Clean up the onions by removing the roots and the tops. 

Place into mesh bags or crates or baskets (I use baskets) and store in a well ventilated area.

Note: Any onions with bull necks (thick, fat necks) will not dry and thus are not suitable for storage. Take these ones into the kitchen with you, clean them up and use them up first. They will store in your fridge for a week or two. Can also be chopped and thrown into the freezer for soups or stews.

 Garlic is already cured and cleaned up
Onions pulled to cure...

Tropeana Lunga or Red Torpedo onions are Italian heirlooms.
One of my all time favourites.

What to do with all those onions?

Anything you want! Pickle them, freeze them, de-hydrate them, or simply leave in storage and use as needed. That what I do!

White Cippolini Heirloom Onion's 

Monday, 24 March 2014

Growing Shallots

Pic from secret-garden-club.blogspot.ca

What are shallots?

Shallots are mild, sweet onions that grow in clumps, like multiplier onions do.

They can be eaten raw or cooked. The bulbs are great to use in all cooking as they are so delicate in flavour and so do not over-whelm the other ingredients.

The shallot greens can also be used much in the same way as you would use spring onions, harvested to use in salads or soups or omelets, etc... 

Shallots are easy! You can grow them! They are undemanding and so worth your while to grow! Delicious!

Shallot bulbs/sets ready for planting.
Sorry, I had been painting earlier ... 
and did not want to run back into the house to wash up before taking the picture.  
Hah, yes, such a classy chick am I ; ) 

When to plant ...

In fall, at the same time as you plant your garlic ... OR in spring, as early as you can, so that they grow! Shallots need cool ground for 3 or 4 weeks in order to form bulbs.
You can also plant your garlic in spring, if you ran out of time in fall.

How to plant ...

Plant into soil that is rich and well-draining.

Loosen up your soil so that it is loose, crumbly, and friable. Shallots and onions have very shallow roots systems so will not thrive in heavy, compacted soil.

Push the shallot bulb into the ground so that the very, very tip of it is just showing above ground, or so it is right at soil level. Plant them about 6 inches apart so that they have room to grow and multiply.

Rows should be about 10 to 12 inches apart. Or plant them like I plant my garlic and stagger the rows so that they are about 7 inches apart from each other on all sides.

Water in.

How to grow ...

Do not over water or the bulbs will rot. Keep them on the dry side, watering only when really dry. Here on the west coast we get no summer rains so I would water about every 1.5 to 2 weeks.

Do not fertilise, just have good soil and they will thrive.

Keep the bed weeded as they have such shallow roots that they are unable to compete with weeds for water and nutrients.

If fall planted, pull soil up to the bulbs so that just the tops are showing till spring.

How and when to harvest ...

The greens can be harvested as needed, while they grow, starting about 30 days after planting.

The young bulbs can be harvested at any time from the garden for your cooking, salads, etc...

The mature bulbs can be harvested when the tops begin to brown off and fall over. The bulbs are usually mostly on top of the ground at this time and the skins tend to be golden in colour, papery. This is about 90 days after planting. 

Lift gently with a garden fork, shake off the soil. Do not wash with water unless you intend to use it right away.

How to cure ...

To dry and cure for storage, treat them much as you would treat garlic.

It does not really matter if you leave them in clumps or separate in order to dry and cure. I tend to separate mine now.
Place in an area with good air flow, in a shaded area, not in direct sunlight. I use my carport or open ended potting shed for this purpose, laid out on long tables. They get great air flow yet shade, too.

They can be cured by laying out on tables or mesh, in open crates, etc.. well spaced. The main thing is that they have good air flow.

After two or three weeks of curing, cut off the dried up tops and the dry roots to clean the shallots up for storage.

They can also be braided and hung to dry for two to three weeks... or till needed ; ) Roots can be cut off at the time of braiding, if you want.

    Here's a yummy pickled shallot recipe from the local kitchen blog.
Happy growing!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

March Ramblings

Holy smokes, March sure did come in roaring like a lion in most parts of Canada!

As March is a big month for gardeners in the PNW, fingers are crossed that all snow melts quickly, rains slow down, and gardens begin to dry up a bit...

So, as ever, optimistically planning for a great gardening season ahead ...

A chitted potato

What to order and buy this month ...

- Regardless of the snow, rain and cold, buy your seed potatoes this month and put them out to chit.
(I usually plant out my potatoes early to mid-April so try to get your spuds out to chit sometime between mid to late March.) It is not essential to chit your spuds, so if you do not get to it, do not fret, they will grow fine nevertheless!

Chitting is simply setting out your spuds to sprout a few weeks before planting for an earlier harvest.
Take your seed potatoes out of the bag or box and place on a tray, or in a low shoe box, or in an egg carton. Set out in a warm and bright place (though not in direct sunlight) for two or three weeks. The eyes will soon begin to grow little nubs. Once these nubs or sprouts are about an inch long, carefully plant the potatoes out in the garden.
See HERE for a link on how to grow really great potatoes.

Summer Bulbs

Garden centres will now have boxed or bagged summer bulbs for sale...  like dahlia's (above), canna lilies, calla lilies, eucomis (pineapple lilies), glads, begonias, etc... Buy now and pop into pots for earlier blooms this summer.

Do these things this month if the snow melts, the rains stop or slow down, the beds dry up, and it warms up a bit. 

Please note *  Do not muck about in wet soil! You will cause all kinds of soil compaction problems, and besides, your seeds/plants will not thrive if planted in soggy soil. 

Buy and plant asparagus roots.
- Asparagus from seed will take 5 to 6 years till first harvest, roots will only take two years. The bigger and older your roots are, the sooner you will harvest asparagus.  How to plant asparagus can be found HERE.

Buy and plant your horseradish roots as soon as you can get into the garden.
- Be careful when planting the horseradish as it grows quite vigorously. This perennial will need it's own contained space.

Garlic - if you did not get your garlic in last fall, you can plant it this spring ... plant as early as you can get into your garden.

Fruiting shrubs and canes (raspberries, blueberries, currants, gooseberries, etc... ) can be bought and planted this month.
- Often if you buy them at this time of year, you will be buying shrubs or canes just breaking out of dormancy. They will not yet have foliage on them.

Rhubarb- plant out once garden is drier and warmer. If you buy bare root rhubarb, pot it up now and transplant to garden when drier.

Onions - plant your transplants, seeds or sets in the garden.

What else to do in the garden/yard during this merry month of March?

Top dress garden beds with compost or manure, do not dig or turn in.

Test your soil and top dress your beds with amendments accordingly (bone meal, blood meal, lime, etc..)

Gently rake the dead foliage away from your perennials, trees, and shrubs.

Move winter mulch away from the crown of your plants, including your garlic if you mulched it in!

Prune roses.

Cut back ornamental grasses.

Top dress lawn with lime and compost.

When the snow melts, you can start warming up the soil for your tomatoes and peppers. Lay down black or clear plastic in your tomato planting beds. It soaks up the heat and helps to dry the beds out.

To help you feel like spring...

Buy some potted up, blooming tulips, daffs, primulas, etc... and pop into your tired winter planters for a quick pop of colour.
Or a pre-made spring planter! Pop them in your urns or planters for instant spring.

Love these cute little peppers ... start your pepper seeds this month.

Growing and Seeding...
What to start indoors this month...
- Peppers
- Eggplants
- Tomatoes (mid to end month)

If you have not yet started them you still have time to start these guys, too... but do it quick!
- Broccoli and Broccoli Raab ( my fave!)
- Cabbage
- Cauliflower
- Celery
- Onions and leeks

- Chives
- Parsley
- Borage
- Chamomile

- Marigolds
- Zinnias
- Columbine
- Campanula
- Gaillardia
- Asters
- Sweet Peas

Be careful if you are starting Zinnia's indoors to grow on as transplants. They are difficult to grow as they often get root rot, stem rot, or mould. They must be kept on the dry side and grow in an area with good air flow.
I always direct sow my zinnia seeds straight into the garden beds.

Move these guys out into the cold frame or unheated greenhouse now to grow on for another month or so ...
- Onions
- Broccoli
- Cauliflower
- Cabbage

Sow seeds outside this month ...
- Swiss chard
- Turnips and Rutabagas
- Radishes
- Lettuces and Spinach
- Peas 
- Carrots
- Beets
- Onion seeds

- Sweet Peas
- Poppies
- Larkspur

Greenhouse Ramblings

Finally, greenhouse is up and running again ... Yay! So here are just a few bits of Greenhouse Ramblings for this month ...
Sadly, I lost most all of my mother plants during the cold snap in November  ..  my mother plants were plants that I had been saving for ever, that I loved and adored. I always planted these guys up in my own planters, to enjoy on the deck, either for fragrance or flavour, depending on the plant.
I would also take cuttings off of these plants and grow them on. Was thus able to offer up these great treasured plants to you all at a lesser price.. plants like the Waspinator! So very hard to find anywhere else! I think that I have sourced out a new Waspinator though, so rest assured!

Roses came in at the middle of Feb and have all been planted up. They are starting to leaf out now and will look amazing by May. My goal is always to have buds and/or blooms for Mother's Day!
When my kids were younger and asked me what I wanted for Mother's Day, I would always ask for a rose bush. Therefore, it remains important to me to have blooming or near blooming roses ready for when your kids bring you that perfect rose bush on Mother's Day! 

Pepper seedlings are forming their second set of leaves, their 'true' leaves. 

Some seeds have been sown and are sprouting up nicely. Early March is still pretty quiet but come mid to late March and both greenhouse and garden time goes crazy busy. Hot weather seeds are being planted this month, peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants.

The interior of the garden shop is being readied for workshops and seed and seed potato sales. It will be ready for set up in a weeks time. Yay!
We had to start this room from scratch... put on a new roof, new electrical everything, poly, insulate and dry-wall, heating, and a new floor.... but is starting to look spectacular!

Moving Thyme

Sadly, the Nitty Gritty Potager blog is no more... but the good news is that I can now be found at my new blog called the Olde Thyme F...