Oh, Onions.

Ode To The Onion 
by Pablo Neruda
Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
make you,
onion
clear as a planet
and destined
to shine,
constant constellation,
round rose of water,
upon
the table
of the poor.You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemoneand the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.
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Red Soldier Beetles making sweet, sweet love on an onion flower.

What would our meals be without onions? Like a kiss without a hug, I say! Sure, it lacks the structural necessity of eggs, or the  essential savour of salt, it’s not like you couldn’t live without the onion, I suppose.  But who wants to??  Cook up a pan of onions, and it already smells like FOOD in the kitchen, you pull drifters off the sidewalk and husbands from the yard, sell boy scout hot dogs by the pound, all because of the delicious smell of onions.  Now, I won’t go into the cookery of them (other than to say you can’t caramelize an onion in ten minutes no matter what anyone tells you so don’t try…) because that’s not my wheelhouse.  Nope, I’m going to talk about
growing them.
So, why can’t you grow big, fat onions like the grocery store sells?  WHY?? Onions are actually tough bastards.  Anyone can grow an onion and they’ll probably be okay no matter how terrible a gardener you are. But big, fat, juicy, resplendent onions luscious as the globes of a lingerie model’s bottom?  That’s trickier.
Firstly, onions grow in layers, which I’m sure you figured out already, but may not have realized that each leaf corresponds to one of those crystalline shells. If you have 12 leaves you get 12 rings.  Fat juicy healthy leaves make-well, you get the picture. Those leaves will transfer their carbohydrates into the bulb, making that sucker plump up- this is the ‘bulbing’ stage. After that starts no more leaves will be produced. So before you get to the big fat onion satisfaction part, you have to grow the top bits as big and green and leafy as possible.
So how d’you do that?  First, we must begin with where you live and what kind of onion you’re going to grow. We’re talking about Allium cepa here, the bulbing or common onion.  I’ll save the other members of the family for another post.
There’s short day, intermediate, and long day onions.  Which one will do the best for you depends mainly on your latitude, and a little bit on how early you get started. The goal is to pick a variety that gives you as long as possible to grow as many large leaves prior to bulbing. The variety, however, must not require so many hours of day length that your area will not reach the bulbing threshold needed to trigger the start of the bulbing process. In the Northern Hemisphere, the farther you are from the equator, the longer the days will be during the summer and, therefore, the longer period that you have to create foliage. In general, long day types are better keepers than short day types.
So essentially, if you live above 35th parallel of latitude you want long day onions, below it you want short day onions.  If you’re right on it, within a few degrees, there’s intermediates. Or you can try an intermediate pretty much anywhere as they start bulbing when the day length reaches 12 to 14 hours. Almost all areas of the country reach that range of day length.
SO which ones are those, Miz Helpful, right? I won’t be cruel and tell you that your nursery knows best and will automatically carry the ones best suited.  They might, but many companies are terrible at being specific about their onions.  For instance we get bags of sets listed as ‘red’ ‘white’ and ‘yellow’. Gee, thanks a lot. There’s too many damn onions to give you a really full and complete list but here goes with some of the most popular:
Short Day Onions:
Georgia Sweet (aka Yellow Granex, Maui, Noonday)
Texas Legend, Texas Early White, Texas Grano ( if it says “Texas“, it’s probably a short day, ok?)
Red Creole
Vidalia
Southern Belle
Red Burgundy
1015 Supersweet
Contessa
Pinot Rouge
Mata Hari
Rio Bravo
Milky Way
Intermediate Onions:
Candy
Super Star
Red Candy Apple
Cimmaron
Australian Brown
White Portugal
Southport Yellow Globe
Southport Red Globe
Early Yellow Globe
Italian Red
Flat Madiera
Rich Sweet White/Yellow Exhibition
Rossa Di Milano
Red Ruby
Red Amposta
Balajo
White Wing
Zoey
Long Day Onions:
Red Torpedo (borderline intermediate)
Ailsa Craig
Kelsae (if you’re trying to grow huge prizewinners, this is your onion.)
Spanish
Walla Walla
Copra
Highlander
Red River
Red Zeppelin
Red Bull
Cipollini
Big Daddy
Cometa
Calibra
Cabernet
So, aside from planting the correct type of onion, what else?  Fertilizing.
Nitrogen.
I know they’re growing under the ground, which means we tend to go heavy on the phosphorus as if it were a potato or beet, but onions actually like a very healthy dose of nitrogen, more like leaf crops.  See, we’re growing leaves to grow the bulb, right?  You want a very fertile soil overall to grow big onions, they are heavy feeders.  However, excess N applications can result in late maturity, large necks that are difficult to cure, soft bulbs, and poor storage quality. A higher percentage of fertilizer N is absorbed by the plant if the fertilizer is applied when the onion root system is well developed. Split applications of nitrogen are used more effectively by the plant than a single pre-plant broadcast application. Fertilizer N applied before planting should be banded well away (6″) from the seed on the furrow side of rows in two-row onion beds. Side dressed nitrogen applications or nitrogen applied in irrigation water can be an effective means of providing supplemental nitrogen to the crop during the season. If rainfall is very heavy, or temperatures are cool, you may want to increase it a little as both of these things will decrease available nitrogen.  Back off the nitrogen applications in mid July.  Too much delays maturity and affects storage quality. My favourite organic high nitrogen fertilizer is blood meal.  You can side dress with it and/or water it in, and it keeps the rabbits and deer away from new greens nicely.
Phosphorus is essential for early growth and best applied before planting, banded 2″ below and to the side of seeds.  That way the rather stubby roots can get to it easily. Bat and bird guano is about the best source possible, rock phosphate is pretty good, bone meal is too slow unless it’s powdered. Fish emulsion or meal is just about perfect if it’s around 4.2.2. or 5.2.2.
Potassium isn’t a huge need in most soils, but it is needed, and as long as your soil isn’t alkaline, a sprinkling of wood ash in the soil before planting is great for onions.  (From a nice clean fire obviously, not one you threw plastic wrappers or garbage into because eeeew.) You could also use greensand, granite dust, banana peels (composted), & kelp.
Magnesium.  Epsom salts is not a magic cure for everything- but in this case, it can be really helpful as onions need a decent amount of it, and in the PNW where I live, soils are often magnesium poor. Acid sandy soils often need a little extra.
Sulphur.  Since sulphur is what gives onions their characteristic smell and taste (And tear-inducing qualities) it stands to reason that they need a good dose of available sulphur. Careful with it though, as sulphates acidify soil and onions like it on the sweet side. If you use flowers of sulphur on your soil do it well in advance of planting as soil bacteria can take up to a year to convert it into a form that plants can use.  Plus you’ll get a big bounce in pH as it works that can be hard to keep track of. Kitchen veg scrap compost generally has plenty.
Irrigation: Onions usually have smallish root systems, (although very loose soil can help them grow much bigger,) so attention to irrigation is absolutely necessary for big juicy onions. There’s lots of veg you can force into growing huge deep roots to compensate for less frequent watering, but onions are not one of them. Also, maintaining an even soil moisture is important in reducing incidence of double-centred bulbs. Moisture at the very top of the soil is quite important, so a good mulch (I like straw) is helpful if not essential.  Onions also do not do well with competition from weeds, so- mulch.  You can quit watering when the green tops fall over, which means the onions are imminently ready to come out.
Seeds or Sets?
Most people do buy onion sets, (Those mesh bags with teeny little onions in them) because it’s easy and they’re widely available. Technically, sets are second year plants and they can flower instead of growing a nice bulb if not treated well, or if you get a solid drop in temperature after they start to grow. But hey, if you’re late to the game and feel like the spring is definitely sprung, go for it. I like to know what I’m growing and they are quite often inadequately labelled. I prefer, if I remember to do it early enough, to grow from seed. It is also ridiculously cheap. Your nursery will probably carry young onions ‘in the green’ in pots in spring, looking quite a lot like tufts of grass and those are just fine too. Separate them!  Each little onion needs some space to become a nice big bulb. 4-5 inches apart is good.
Starting Seed
Do it early. February or March is about right for spring sowing.  You can also do it Octoberish if you have very mild weather and plan on planting in fall, or a great growing area indoors to overwinter them in. It’s a good idea to use fresh sterilized starter mix to be on the safe side.  I have also completely disobeyed this rule and been fine. Worm castings enhance germination and I like using them in my starter mix to start seeds.  This is anything but sterile.  It also complicates things, in that any seeds in the castings already will germinate and grow like crazy, so you might have to weed it a bit and that can be irritating (and confusing if you have grass seed germinate).  So- duly warned, make your choice.
Bottom heat is extremely helpful to get even, fast germination of seeds (not just with onions, with pretty much everything.) Onion germination is fastest as 68-77°F (20-25°C), with slight temperature drops at night. You can cheat if you don’t have seed warming mats by putting trays on top of the refrigerator.  Put tops on the trays or put them in a bag so the moisture stays even- in just over a week you should have sprouts. After they sprout though, you need some light.  A couple of fluorescents are totally adequate for this. Seedlings are ready to transplant to larger containers (or possibly outside, with protection like reemay or row covers if you have an early spring) when they have three leaves each. If it is too cold out- definitely wait! Consistent exposure to temperatures below 50°F (10°C) for more than 10 days can cause onions to bolt (produce flowers) rather than producing big bulbs.
Planting out
Not too deep!  The neck of the bulb should be just under the surface. Space 4-5 inches apart for large onions, you can crowd if you just want green onions. Make sure you’ve banded your fertilizer or soil amendment into the soil before planting. Mulch to suppress weeds, or sow some fast growing greens like lettuces, something you plan on pulling/cutting young so it doesn’t shade out the onions too much.
How MANY?
Important question- if you’re going to try to grow all your onions for a year, how many would you grow? Average consumption is somewhere around twenty lbs. per person, per year.  Assuming you do a good job you can expect 10-15 lbs per 10 ft. row. Always expect lower than average yields to be on the safe side.  You have no idea what’s coming your way. So if you really want to be hedging your bets with extra onions to give away or french onion soup all winter, twenty feet per person!
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Gardeners are, as is well known, eternal optimists.

Next year will always be better.  Winter is filled with luscious dreams of larger, earlier warm season vegetables, because THIS year you’ll remember to start them in February. The seeds that arrived in the mail beckon with splashes of rainbow coloured tomatoes, untried squash and obscure greens promising heavy yields of THE BEST EVER…well, the best ever whatever it is.  The garden plan has been re-drawn in a new configuration with coloured pencils, intercropping planned meticulously, and flagged with notes from last year. You’re sure you have that deer problem nailed.

Of course, you generally do a little better every year in fact as well as fantasy, barring droughts, floods, locust plagues and marauding great danes- because you’ve learned a little something.  You noticed the cucumbers like this spot rather than that one, or that you’ll remember to pick the snap peas if you plant them within reach of the walkway, rather than a row back where they don’t scream at you “Pick me!” every time you put away the hose. Your soil should get a little better every year, if you’re doing it right. You should have a bigger, better seed bank because you’re saving seed, and hopefully swapping your extras.

frozen-footprints

January is both the best and worst month in gardening, in the Northern Hemisphere.  It’s likely everything is utterly at rest, frozen or just biding it’s time.  The cold hardy vegetables are pickable, perhaps, but growing?  No. There’s little you can do, or even should do- this is the time to think about the garden and what it could be.  Like a new baby, all full of promise and without mistakes-yet.  (At least you get the chance to start fresh every year with a garden!)

So what to do when there’s nothing to do? Get that map done.  If you haven’t started a garden map, do it. Permaculture mapping is a great aid to more efficient gardening.  If you’ve never heard of it, here’s a link. https://www.milkwood.net/2015/11/09/permaculture-design-process-2-making-a-base-map/

Now, when days are long and dark, you can get a clear idea of what the nadir of the season is like in terms of pooling water from rain or snowmelt, scant light from a horizon skimming winter sun, freezing water barrels, feed storage and heat for livestock if you have them.  Observation and note taking are key to making everything less work for yourself in the long run.  Get out there and take pictures of your garden once an hour from sunup to sundown and you can plan much better for next winter’s crop and any evergreen plantings.  (Yes, even in winter evergreens like rhododendrons and fir trees photosynthesize. Winter sun is important too.)

Check out the bloggers and resources.  Your local university agricultural extension is probably chock full of science based information that pertinent to your climate, but there’s probably others that are close to your conditions in temperature and precipitation, but not actually close in distance.  Finding out who is dealing with the same conditions you are can open up new worlds in horticulture- for instance, I live in Vancouver (actually Abbotsford but it’s 45 mins away) Canada, which means that the Washington and Oregon Universities in the USA have information relevant to me- but also parts of Nova Scotia, North Carolina, Serbia, the UK, Denmark, Yantai, China and Vladivostok, Russia. There’s plenty more, but you get the idea. When looking up solutions to your garden woes, information has to be relevant to your conditions.  Advice on your recommended plants or soil amendments will vary  depending on what soil and climate you have to deal with, so try to match conditions when you’re looking up how to deal with your own issues.

Where to get that special heirloom fruit tree? Who else is super into Andean root crops?  You’re going to spend time staring into the screen during winter anyway, so maybe pass on the celebrity botched nose jobs and look up links that are going to help you in the coming year.  There’s probably nurseries right under your nose on a left turn you’ve never taken.  No list of anything is ever complete- just because you’ve seen the ‘Complete Garden Center List’ in a news article or your favourite blogger does NOT mean it’s actually everything out there. Do your own looking.

Start Fresh.  It’s a new year, a new season, you get to start over if you want to.

I know I am.

~Leila

burning-pampas-grass

Burning Pampas Grass. After it’s been below freezing for a while, it’s nice and dry, and it’s sure a hell of a lot easier than cutting by hand. Be careful though, flying bits can go everywhere so make sure it’s not windy and you’re not setting your shed on fire by accident.