Onions - Three Little Changes
It's the beginning of March, so it's no surprise that the basement grow area has been a busy place lately. Peppers, eggplant, Browallia, Echinacea, lemon bee balm and a Baker Creek freebie called “Love-in-a-Puff” have been sown.
I’ve also started on the onions & shallots. This year, I’m only adding one new onion variety to the mix: Patterson. William Dam describes this variety as "similar to Copra but with larger bulbs and healthier foliage". It also says that it's a replacement for Copra which is being discontinued (although I have a feeling they are referring to not supplying it anymore rather than that it’s being discontinued in general). I am growing Copra this year as well so it will be interesting to see how the two compare.
The other onion varieties on my list are Ailsa Craig, Rossa di Milano, Red Wing, Jaune Paille de Vertus and Wethersfield Red. The problem with onions is that I can’t seem to get rid of a variety once I’ve tried it – I enjoy them all! So what I end up doing each year is simply reducing the quantity of each so that I can squeeze in another variety or two.
But lots of variety also means lots of $$, especially when the seed has a short shelf life, such as alliums (1 year). In an effort to keep my seed budget in check, I tried storing leftover onion seed in the freezer a couple of years ago and, surprisingly, I had fairly good germination the following year. I'm using leftover seed from last year for a few of the varieties so hopefully I have the same success this time round.
|Didn't do the best job of labeling the photos last year,|
but I'm fairly certain this is Red Wing
Sufficiently Tall Netting
In 2014 I didn’t net the onions at all, and they did quite well - the average size of the Copras was 118 grams/4.2 oz. But once they were harvested & cured, I noticed that many of the bulbs were damaged, leek moths being the culprit. Every year since then, I’ve netted the onion beds. The problem was that my netting was much too small and the onions pushed up on it which not only created gaps allowing the moths inside but also pushed down on the onion leaves.
|Onions bursting from underneath netting in 2015|
(obviously before I dealt with the jungle that was the pathway!)
This Year: I plan to use 3’ tall “cages” that I made using 2x1’s last year. This should give the onions plenty of room to stretch. Also, as the netting is attached securely to the cages, there should be no issues with leek moths (knock on wood!).
Back in 2014, the onions grew in a newly filled bed – Translation: the soil was nice and aerated. Since then, I’ve simply “forked” the beds when I prepared them and worked amendments into the top couple of inches of soil. In the last few years, however, I’ve noticed that some of my crops, specifically root crops, are not developing as well as they should and I’m wondering if compacted soil has something to do with it.
One of the tenets of no-till gardening is the use of a deep mulch layer which is supposed to minimize soil compaction. I use deep mulch (wood chips) in my ornamental beds, but when it comes to my raised beds, I don’t for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there are the slug issues which seem to get doubly worse when I use anything other than the bare minimum of mulch. Secondly, my beds don’t have the head room to accommodate several inches of mulch. It can get very windy around here so thick layers of mulch, such as what I use when overwintering the garlic and asparagus, need to be secured with chicken wire or netting otherwise they end up in the pathways or blowing away.
|Straw mulch on the asparagus bed stays in place with the help of chicken wire|
Timing of Sowing
Most sources indicate that onions grown from seed should be sown 10-12 weeks before the last frost date (which translates as mid-end of February around here). In my very best onion year, I sowed the seeds at the beginning of March. Since then, I've been sowing them earlier, in early-mid February - could sowing too early have negatively affected their growth? The William Dam catalogue makes a rather intriguing statement: “Tip: Do you want large onions? Don't start too early. We start ours in April". Hmmm – I think this calls for a little experiment 😁
This Year: I’m going to test the theory that sowing seeds later leads to larger onions. Since I had such good results sowing onions in March, the bulk of the onions were sown now, including about 1/3 of the Copras.
|The bulk of the onions were sown in March|
|One cell pack of onions sown in February|
The trick will be to make sure I keep the February/April sowings separate & label them properly when they are transplanted in May – it’s such a busy time of year in the garden and I’m usually in a rush so this is often where my “experiments” fall short.
And there you have it. Three little changes that will hopefully make a “big” - as in bigger bulbs 😉 - difference in my onion harvest this year.
P.S. In case you are wondering about that pesky basement leak, we are fairly confident that we know where it originated and are planning on doing some renovations that will take care of it for good. We are still in the information gathering stage, so I won’t go into the details...yet.