2016 was a very disappointing year when it came to onions. The season started off badly and never seemed to get any better.
Firstly, I tried a different approach when I sowed the seed. Instead of using a plug sheet as in the previous year, I scattered the seeds in large 2"x4" cells. I was hoping to (1) gain space under the grow lights and (2) minimize drying out of the soil as it was more difficult to tell when the plug sheet needed watering and I would tend to let them dry out too much.
All was well and good...until I had an issue with damping off and lost a good number of seedlings. Of course, grouping seedlings into one large cell means that the disease easily spread and I likely lost more than I would have had I used a plug sheet.
|Conservor shallots in 2016, succumbing to damping off|
When it comes to how many onions we use, I actually think the total number harvested (177 onions) is an adequate amount IF the onions are a normal size. Unfortunately, this was not the case last year. Every variety ended up being significantly smaller than it should have been. The Copra's, for example, averaged 31 grams per onion vs. 110 grams the previous year.
|The curing rack was only half full this year|
The leeks suffered from more or less the same issues as the onions.
However, since leeks are a peripheral crop for me and it was only my 2nd attempt at growing them, I'm ok with the results.
So here we are in 2017 - another year and another opportunity to improve and correct the mistakes of the past.
The onions, leeks and shallots were seeded on February 19th. This time round, I decided to go back to using a plug sheet - at the very least, this would limit the spread of disease should damping off strike again which, thankfully, it hasn't.
I've been much more mindful when it comes to watering, checking the trays regularly both visually and by lifting them up. I find that weight is usually the best gauge of when to water...it just takes a bit of practice since a plug sheet is deceivingly heavy (compared to a cell pack, for example), even when bone dry.
|72 plug sheet|
All of the onions are storage types with the exception of Ailsa Craig which is a large - sometimes VERY large - sweet-type onion that only keeps for a couple of months. I don't grow many of these, but I keep them in the lineup since they do make me smile.
|Slightly out of focus photo taken by my daughter|
of one of my largest Ailsa Craig's harvested back in 2014
Red onions: Red Wing, Rossa di Milano, Wethersfield
Yellow onions: Copra, Jaune Paille des Vertus, Ailsa Craig
Shallots: Camelot, Ambition
Leeks: Lancelot, Autumn Giant
I decided to pre-germinate the onion & shallot seed and sow 3 seeds in each plug. Pre-germinating ensures that I have exactly 3 seedlings per cell (most of the time, anyhow) and there is no need to thin/transplant. The only exception is leeks - I have pre-germinated them in the past but, for some reason, seem to have better overall luck if I sow them directly into the soil.
|Onion seedlings after a haircut - just over 4 weeks old|
No growing season, however, would be complete without some germination issues, right? ;)
When it came to the alliums, the troublemaker was the new guy - the Wethersfield onions from Baker Creek. After only one day in their damp paper towel, many had developed a fuzzy mold. They were the only variety that had this issue so I'm assuming it was the seed. I decided to abandon pre-germination on this variety and sowed the remaining seeds directly into the plug sheet. I did get some germination but it was nowhere near 100%. Out of 52 seeds sown, only 29 came up - just a bit better than 50%, which is pretty darn bad for a fresh packet of seeds.
And this, my friends, is the reason why it's always a good idea to sow extras - the Wethersfield shortfall will be made up by the other varieties.
With the exception of the little Wethersfield hiccup, things are looking good on the onion front. This weekend, I'll be laying plastic on the onion beds to warm them up and it won't be long before the little seedlings are transplanted in their final spot. Hopefully Mother Nature cooperates and doesn't throw us another curve ball.
*I originally thought that the alliums were being attacked by onion maggots but have subsequently realized that, in fact, I was dealing with leek moths so have adjusted this post accordingly.