Many of the Gardening Series blog posts will bring you through the life of a plant on my homestead. This is one of those posts. It not only gives you the common knowledge of the plant, but knowledge I gleaned from experience that refines the common knowledge in books. Some of the information will be tied to my specific environment, but can be useful similarly in another environment.
What I hope to give people are tools and descriptions of situations that they may confront should they decide to pursue some type of gardening. Some people will not like the format because I get very verbose at times. Why am I verbose? Because I explain situations that some will encounter and they may someday wish to refer to this blog for information that will help them in a similar situation. I could easily say, “Get some seeds, poke them into the ground, wait for a few months, and then harvest.” You see; I can be short and concise. However, that will not help beginners that are clueless. Furthermore, it will not help those with some experience if they are looking for new techniques that may improve their gardening experience.
Posts that will be created earlier in the Garden Series blog (especially this one) will be longer because I will be explaining things in more detail. I expect readers to remember some of these facts as they read later posts. Thus, I will not go into the same lengthy discussions in future blog posts. You can always come back here to refresh your memory.
At times, I will throw in genetics terms. (I am a self-taught poultry geneticist, but genetics also applies to plants) Don’t worry, I will not go into the bowels of genetics. (For now) The terms are put in here for you to become familiar with them. Good gardeners (especially seed savers) need to understand rudimentary genetics to understand their plants, especially if they are trying to create a new variety. And no, we will not be doing any gene splicing to create our own GMO plants. Genetic engineering can be done simply, like the old farmers did years ago. Note: Aunt Bea on the Andy Griffith show talked about crossing her Rosses to develop a new variety. If she can do it, so can you.
Onward we go…
Next to potatoes, the onion is the next vegetable that I would find difficult to give up. In-fact, I have potatoes and onions every day for breakfast/brunch.
In my previous post, you saw a flat of onion seedlings that looked like grass. They are planted 4 seeds to a cell and there are 92 cells per flat. That equates to 368 seeds. I know; that’s a LOT of onions! Not really. It depends on the germination rate. Oftentimes some cells have no seeds that germinate. And that is why I plant 4 to a cell; to hedge my bets.
When one gardens, you need to account for not achieving 100% germination. It is like hatching chicken eggs. When I teach youngsters about incubation in their classrooms, they all expect every egg to hatch. If they are not forewarned that some will not, then they get VERY upset when some do not hatch. If a gardener does not account for less than 100% germination, then they will have an insufficient harvest. So… what is a reasonable germination rate?
A good germination rate would be 75%. Anything below 50% is not good. I have even seen 15%. Yeah, that really sucks! Germination rates generally follow a bell curve. (Remember statistics? It is very important to use for plants and animals.) Rarely will you get 100% germination. Why not? The world is not perfect. Everything can affect pollination including rain, lack of bees, disease, animals, etc.. But wait! I was talking about germination, not pollination.
Pollination is the beginning of germination. Growing is a long process. If you have bad pollination, germination will suffer as well. Have you ever seen a misshaped apple? Chances are reasonable that some seeds did not develop because of the lack of pollination in that apple. Furthermore, if pollen is too close (genetically) to the existing plant, you will eventually get inbreeding depression. That leads to… poor germination! (Poor hatchability in eggs is the first sign of inbreeding.)
What else can cause poor germination? The storage environment for the seed. Storing seeds next to the kitchen stove over the winter will surely have a deleterious effect on the germination. Conversely, storing seeds in the refrigerator will have a positive effect on the life of the seed and the germination. Freezing will also negatively affect many types of seeds. And yet for others, they need it.
“But wait!” you might say, “I can run down to Walmart and get seeds. That will save me from worrying about pollination, germination, and storing seeds.”
Well, maybe. But within 3 generations into the future that will not be sustainable. Furthermore, seeds that you create will eventually outperform the ones from Walmart because they were proven to thrive in YOUR environment. In other words, they have a genetic advantage to do well in your yard. And if you are concerned about GMO produce, then begin to save non-GMO seeds now. Eventually many seeds that you buy will be GMO seeds and it will be difficult to get normal seeds.
One of the things I will mention again, and again, and again, ….okay, I’ll stop. Is that we always need to concern ourselves with sustainability. Can the process perpetuate itself through time from generation to generation? Where would you get your seeds if there was a catastrophic event? Every gardener needs to learn how to save seeds. It really is not difficult and it is a lot of fun to see what YOUR plants will look like in 5 years. So exciting!
Back to onions…
So, we have 4 seeds per cell and we hope, on average, to get 3 to germinate out of 4. That gives us… (Come on mathematicians!) Yes, that gives us 276 plants. We have 365 days in the year, so if we use 1 onion per day… Yikes, we are short! Well… maybe. It all depends on how LARGE your onions are. Sometimes 1 onion can last for 3 days if they are large, while small ones will not be sufficient to provide enough for one day. To complicate matters, if you use store-bought seeds, there is simply no way to tell how large the onions will be when they grow. Only time will tell if your purchased seeds will do well… each year. It is always pot luck.
But wait! Can an onion be stored for an entire year? Why grow enough for a year if they only last for 1 month?
That is a valid point. And that takes us back to… YOUR own seeds. If you create seeds that give you long storing onions, then they will last through the winter. Have you ever tried to store Georgia Vidalia onions? You cannot. By the time you buy them they are already in break-down mode. They simply have too much sugar and too little protective skin.
To make things a bit more complicated, there are also long-day onions and short-day onions. The difference is that some onions are grown further south in the United States during the winter months. (Winter has SHORTer daylight hours) The onions we grow up north are grown during the summer where the days have LONGer daylight hours. The lesson here is to identify your environment and match the plant to it.
All right, so how do we make long storing onions? Firstly, you comb through your seed catalogs and do your research. (You may be a newbie and need to start somewhere) Find seeds that grow well in your plant hardiness zone. “WAIT! What is a plant hardiness zone!” you might ask. To make it simple, plants that thrive in Florida may not thrive in Maine. (And vice-versa) Here is a link to the USDA plant hardiness zones:
Simply enter your zip code and it will tell you what growing zone number you are in. For instance; if you live in hardiness zone 5, you can grow plants that are hardy in zones 1 through 5. Plants that are hardy for zone 6 and above may not thrive in your zone or may not be perennial. (Perennial means that they come back each year from the same roots.)
I want to point out that the hardiness zone numbers have changed from 50 years ago. (Maybe as close as 25 years ago) Climate change is real, folks. Just ask a farmer. Plants that would not grow in a particular zone 50 years ago can now be grown there. In other words, the numbers have shifted northward. This will keep changing if we do not change how we live.
Back to your seed search…
You now know your plant hardiness zone number. That may or may not eliminate several plants for growing in your area. Next, read the descriptions carefully. Learn to read around the “fluff” part of the description and get straight to the facts. Remember, they are trying to sell you every seed they have. You may find some comments that will tell you if they are long-storing onions. From that set, make the decision using the other parts of the description. Maybe you like red onions instead of white.
Let’s say you ordered your seeds, they have arrived, and you are very excited to plant them. Now what? Well, if you ordered EARLY, like you should, (December or January) you will have to wait. Put them in a zip-lock bag and store them in the refrigerator until you are ready to plant them.
Deciding when to plant them (in cells) is something you will need to experiment with to get right. If you plant too early, they will be spindly and root-bound. If you plant too late, they will be difficult to plant and might die for lack of root. The time to plant in Virginia will not be the same time to plant in New York State. In general, you want to plant ONIONS so they will be at the proper stage for transplanting out in the garden when the soil can first be worked in the spring. Again, this will be different for many areas, even as much as 30 miles away. If you are to err on any side, then plant them a bit early. With onions you can easily put the flats outside to grow as soon as the weather permits. Onions are very hardy and can take some cold. But do not let the frost get to them because the sides of the cells will let the cold to the roots too quickly. They can take light frosts in the ground because the roots are protected. You may need to bring the flats indoors at night.
Whew! Are we ever going to get through this?
Don’t give up. It really is not that difficult. Like any other thing you do, the more you do it, the more automatic it becomes. Remember the term “learning curve?” This is no different.
It is that magical day when we can finally plant our seeds. Yippee! “Oh, wait; what do I plant them in?” you say, exasperatingly. There are a few options. Some people sprinkle onion seeds in an open flat (with no cells) and then separate them upon planting outdoors. Others use peat pots. I suggest not going that route. They are expensive and can only be used once. Furthermore, if you plant several seeds in each pot, you will need to rip them apart anyway. Plastic cells can be reused for many years. They also allow you to grow many plants in a flat; much more than peat pots. Plastic cells will also save on costs because you will get more plants for the same amount of soil in the flat. Peat pots require one plant per cell because the roots become part of the peat pot and will rip apart if you try to separate plants that are growing in one cell. Some plants require being grown in their own cell. Onions are not one of them.
Well, we already determined that we will use plastic 92-cell flats earlier in this post. (You can use larger cells and the number of cells will be reduced per flat) But what about the planting medium? (soil) You have a choice here. Garden centers have a plethora of options. There is seed starting medium, regular potting soil, and coco coir, to state a few. You can experiment with all of them to figure out which works best for you. Personally, I go with a large bag of potting soil that greenhouses use. (That does not have fertilizer in it) It is fine enough for starting seeds, yet dense enough to grow them out a bit before transplanting. I have used coco coir in the past, but it does not hold nutrients as well as potting soil and it dries out very quickly. One missed watering and your precious seedlings could be flat-lined. (Dead and flat on the pot cells)
To prepare your cells, slightly dampen your planting soil with water only in a plastic container. (No fertilizer) You can tell how much water to use by doing the “squeeze test.” If you take a handful of damp soil and squeeze it, only a very little bit of water should seep out. If it runs out, then it is too wet. If is is too wet, add more dry soil and mix well. Do NOT plant seeds in saturated soil! Plants need oxygen at the root system to grow. Water logged soil stops that from happening. Essentially, they drown. (For those of you interested in hydroponics, that might be puzzling. That is another topic all-together.)
When the soil is moist, but not too wet, fill a block of 9 cells with soil. Pack it down a bit so the soil level is about 1/8 inch below the top. If you put less in, you may get damping off. If you put too much in and decide to water from the top later, the water will run off the dry soil.
Now it is time for the seeds. Pour them into a small clear glass container so they are easy to see. Pick up one to four seeds at a time and place it/them on the soil. Put 4 seeds separated from each other per cell. Now take a pencil or other object and poke the seed into the soil about 1/8 inch deep. Tamp the soil back into the holes. Note: Some people will fill the cell to within ¼ inch instead of 1/8 inch and instead of poking the seed into the soil, they will cover the cell with vermiculite. I personally use the poke method because I don’t want to spend extra money on vermiculite.
Put a clear dome lid on the flat and set the flat anywhere in the house where it is heated. They do not need light at this point.
Okay, we have our seeds planted, we waited a few days, and they have germinated! How exciting! But wait… something is amiss… we only achieved 15% germination. Yikes! What happened to the 75% we hoped for? It could be one of many things. Too much water, too little moisture, too cold, or bad seeds. “Bad seeds! But I ordered them from a reputable seed catalog!” you might say.
Here’s the poop… seed catalogs contract out to seed growers to get their seeds. The seeds arrive, they are packaged, stored for a bit, and then they are dispersed to people that ordered them. How do they know if the seeds are good? Somebody is supposed to test the germination rate before you get them. It could be the seed grower or the seed distributor. (Probably the latter)
One year I got that dreaded 15% germination rate for my onions. When that happens you can call the company and get replacement seeds. They will generally send them for free. (If there are any left.) Or… you could put more seeds into the cells and hope for the best. (If you did not plant them all.) In my case, they sent me new seeds before I called them. They were proactive. Do not expect that type of service from every seed supplier. Most of the time you get a foreigner on the phone that can barely speak English because the phone lines are contracted out to another country. Generally, you end up giving up. I think it is part of how they save money… by frustrating you so you give up.
Is it beginning to look a bit more favorable to make your own seeds? Oh… one more thing before we continue… do not order late! There is nothing more frustrating than to find out that every supplier has sold out of the one particular seed you wanted. You will lose an entire year.
Unless you have your own seeds.
Let’s pretend that we achieved our magical 75% germination rate goal. Now what?
We nurture them. All plants need light, water, and nutrients. Yes, plants require food; they really, really do. I know… we are all guilty (at some point) of only supplying water to our houseplants and they somehow hang in there, but barely. You will not get away with it with your seedlings. They need to grow and have exhausted their reserves to push up through the soil. At this point, you can water with a liquid plant fertilizer that you dilute by half. Again, do not let them set in water! I suggest adding water to the tray, let the water soak up through to the top of the soil, and then pour off the extra water so there is no water left in the tray. Use the half strength solution for a couple of weeks and then switch to full strength. Let the flat dry out (slightly) before watering again so you do not get damping-off.
We are not done yet. Yes, we achieved the 75% germination rate, but some cells have 4 seedlings and some have none. When the seedlings have second leaves, take a small narrow tool and lift out a spare seedling and transplant it into another cell that needs it. Do not wait until the plants are large or you will wreck the roots of the seedlings you leave in.
If everything works, we should arrive at my fist picture in my first blog post; those grass-like plants. Unfortunately, I generally do not take pictures of my flats, so the one picture is as best as I can show you at the moment. When I plant in 2016 I will take more photos and edit these posts to include those pictures.
Suffice to say that as the plants grow in the cells they will require more nutrients. The plants generally tell you by turning a bit yellow. If so, then increase the ratio of fertilizer in the water. Furthermore, they need light and lots of it. If you do not have bright sunlight through a south facing window then you will need to supplement the light by using florescent grow lights or LED grow lights. The more light you have the better it will be. Keep the light very close to the plants, but not to the point where it gets them hot and burns them. Aim for 18 hours a day to keep the lights on. Some growers also use small computer muffin fans to move air around the plants so their stems toughen. I have used fans for some plants like tomatoes and it does help, but for others, like lettuce, it breaks them off and kills them. Use more light if they get spindly. Onions are more forgiving than other plants, but you should give them their best chance at thriving instead of merely surviving.
Begin to bring your onion flats outdoors during the day as soon as possible after they are two weeks old. Start by putting them in a covered porch and then after a week you can put them in full sun.
When the frost is out of the ground (the ground is no longer frozen) and the garden is not mud, but workable soil, you can transplant your seedlings into the garden. There are still frosts at night, but remember that onions can take it.
Most gardeners plant in a row at ground level to plant their onions. They simply push their finger into the soil, place the onion into the hole, and then lightly tamp the soil around it. I have found a better method.
Start by flooding the flat with the same nutrient water mixture that you water them with. Leave them flooded during the planting process. Next, make a slightly raised row in your garden, similar to a raised bed. It should be about 18 inches wide and 6 inches high. Using the corner of a hoe, drag it down the center of the row to create a small ditch in the middle of the row. Sprinkle 10-10-10 fertilizer (or an organic equivalent) in the trench and then cover it with soil. Now you can plant your onions on both sides of the raised row near the edge. For spacing, you will want them to be about 1 inch apart at the time they are full-grown. Depending on your type of onion, that can vary. Poke your finger into the soil, place the onion plant in the hole, and then firm the soil around the plant. Be sure to bury the bulb part, but leave the green stems out of the soil. Water the row immediately after planting.
Water the row if you do not get water for 6 days. Lack of rain will stunt their growth. Unlike garlic, they will rebound, but growth gets delayed and some plants will die. Garlic will survive, but stop growing, even if the water comes back.
By June you will be able to have scallions from your seedlings. They should look like this:
...and like this on your plate!:
When the onion is scallion size, fertilize it again with a higher nitrogen fertilizer. Something like 34-0-0 will work well if your soil has enough phosphorous and potassium. Sprinkle the fertilizer down the center of the raised row. This makes the roots grow toward the center of the row. (Do not use lawn fertilizer that has weed killer in it!) You can eat small onions as scallions when they are that size. If they begin to ball-up, then they are not good for that use anymore.
Eventually the bulbs will expand and push up through the soil to rest on top of it. The roots will be anchored well into the raised bed because they will have grown toward the center of the row to get at the fertilizer. This method allows the bulbs to expand easily when they are above the soil line. Being that they are at the edge, the soil will wash away a bit, helping the bulb to come up.
A bit of discussion about the fertilizer is warranted here. Many gardeners think that they should use low nitrogen fertilizer with onions because they think that the bulb is the root, and nitrogen will make the top grow and root will not. That is completely false in regards to onions. Think of onions as grass. The bulb and the stem are actually just a stem. (Blade of grass) The roots are actually BELOW the bulb. The bulb is not a root. When you cut an onion you see rings. Each ring is part of a stem above the bulb. The more stems you have, the bigger the bulb will get. If you get strong thick stems, you will get big rings in your bulb. Therefore, like grass, it LOVES nitrogen to get those stems going.
Be sure to keep the onions weeded. Onions find it difficult to compete with weeds. They will certainly be stunted if you do not.
If all goes well they should look like this in July:
Eleven days later, they will look like this:
But wait! How did those onions on the right get so big!
Those are the seed onions. What is a seed onion, you might wonder? It is an onion that was harvested in September and stored in a refrigerator until spring, when it is replanted into the garden. You see, onions are biennial. That means they grow green the first year, and then they bolt and have a flower in the second season. The seeds are then harvested about one to two weeks after the first-year onions are picked in September. The round white ball-like things on top of the stems are onion blossom balls that contain hundreds of flowerets. Honeybees LOVE onion blossoms. If you want to see honeybees, then plant some onion bulbs in the spring.
This is a picture of the seed-onion plants after their seedpods were harvested. I pulled the plant up and laid it on the ground after clipping of the dried seed heads. Eventually the dead stems will be rototilled into the soil.
The picture below is a seed head that was harvested a few days ago. Notice how each floweret holds a seed. The seeds can be brushed off and packaged away in a paper envelope. Leaving them in the seed head is okay too, but sometimes the heads harbor bugs that could eat your seeds during storage. It is best to shake the seeds into a paper envelope or bag and then store that in a zip-lock bag that will go in the refrigerator.
When everything comes together, you will finally get to harvest your onions! Hopefully, most of them will look like this:
Harvesting is wonderful to do! You are rewarded for your hard work with food for your family. Harvesting onions is one of the easiest crops to do. When you see that half of the tops on your onions have fallen over, that is the sign to bend them all over. This sets the plant up to stop growing and to toughen the skin. Leave them in the ground for another week. Now you can pull them out, cut the top off just a bit above the bend in the stem, and then trim the roots to be only 1/4" long. Place them in a dry area and lay them out to dry for another week. The stems should lose any green and be dry before you store them. You can also put them in crates to dry, just so long as they are well ventilated.
The onions should be stored in hanging nylon netting bags. Do not store them in plastic bags from the grocery store. They need air circulation. You can hang the bags in your basement where it is cool, dark, and dry.
If any bulbs begin to send out shoots during storage, discard them. They may rot. This is an indication that they do not have the proper genes for long-term storage. It may also indicate that they are getting too much light and/or warmth. This goes especially for your seed bulbs. You want to plant your seed bulbs with no sprouts if possible. Seed bulbs should be stored in a refrigerator; however, I have seen some last very well in the cool dark basement.
Be sure to save the very best onions for next year’s seed crop! (At least 4 bulbs) Look for good outer thick dried skin, no rotting around the roots, and a firm bulb. In general, oblong (taller) bulbs will store better than doughnut shaped flatter onions. If you use only the best bulbs for seeds, you will be inadvertently narrowing down the genetic diversity with your plants. To a point this is a very good thing because it keeps the best alleles for your environment. However, do not save seeds from only one plant! Too much in-breeding leads to in-breeding depression. Plant seeds from multiple seed onions. One onion plant will give you more seeds than you can use for the next 5 years, but save seeds every year and from multiple best plants and you will always have decent germination and healthy plants. Furthermore, your germination will be better if you have pollination from more flowers in a small area.
Here are my seed onions for next year:
I also have a small bag of backup bulbs hanging in the basement just in-case these don’t make it. In fact, if I see that the backups do not rot or sprout by spring, I might decide to use those because they survived the winter in a basement environment and not a refrigerator. The refrigerator is an artificial storage device that may suppress deficiencies in storing quality. However, a refrigerator guarantees me seeds for the next year. So, I hedge my bets.
Not every bulb will survive the winter. That is okay. It is a good thing because it weeds-out genes that are not conducive to long-term storage. As you should be able to detect by now, sustainability is always one of the variables I will address for my plants.
Some of my onions have been stored in the basement for up to 12 months. I have also had butternut squash do the same. In a time of famine, that will be an important trait.
I should note that you can leave an onion bulb (that will be used for seed production) in the ground over the winter instead of storing it in the refrigerator. From my experience, it is better to store them indoors. Left in the ground, voles will eat them, bugs will eat them, and sometimes they rot after being frozen and then thawed. And if you do not dig them up, then they will lie on the surface and may not root again in the spring. Therefore, if you decide to leave them in the ground over winter, you have to dig them up and then replant them deeper. Mulch them over as well for winter protection. (Wait to mulch until the ground is frozen or you will be making a really nice home, with food, for a vole family) I’ve had much better success with storing onion bulbs in the house.
In the spring, you can plant your seed bulbs as soon as the soil can be worked. Bury them to the top of the bulb, but have a bit of the stem poking above the soil line. It could take them a month or more to push up a new stem. Be patient. They grow their roots well before they will grow a stem.
It is obvious that I am on a seed collecting bandwagon. That is a sustainable way to garden and over time you will grow better vegetables. There is one caveat that I did not mention, however. When you first begin to save seeds you may experience a lot of variability in your plants. What does that mean? The plants will take on many independent characteristics and not look uniform. That is because 1) the seed grower’s plants were open pollenated, or 2) the seed growers plants were planted alongside another variety to produce a hybrid.
Hybrids are purposely created to make a plant that shows characteristics (phenotype) from both parent plants to create an offspring that is “better.” However, these hybrids do not produce seeds that are true to itself. In other words, the seeds created from a hybrid will not grow plants that have characteristic like themselves. Nevertheless, that is not entirely true. Some will look like the hybrid, but others will look like one of the grandparent plants, or have a unique characteristic all to itself.
Seed distributors will tell you not to collect seeds because of this situation. I, on the other hand, will tell you to go for it! It just might be one of those weird looking plants that will create a wonderful plant in your environment. That is how you create new plants for the future. After 3 to 5 years of selecting seeds from only the plants that show the characteristics that you desire, you will have a variety that continues to generate seeds that are relatively true to your plant. That is when you know that many of the alleles on the chromosomes are homozygous. In other terms, you have created a reproducible genotype that matches your phenotype. It will no longer be a hybrid.
So there you have it. I took you through selecting seeds all the way through harvesting the onion. You may never look at an onion the same way ever again.
And that would be a good thing.
January 8, 2016 update:
This is the time of the year when you go through your stored onions and weed out the bad guys. Referring back to my statements regarding seeds, every seed will have its own fingerprint (genotype). Therefore, you will get some odd traits in a certain percentage of plants regardless of where you obtained your seeds. In the case of my onions, even though they are long-storing onions, that only means that the greater percentage will store for a long time. There will be outliers that will not. And those outliers are the little buggers that we are going to weed out so they do not cause problems for the normal crowd of onions.
The bad onions will be those that think it is time to grow and the ones that died an early death. The ones that decided to grow will already have stems and the dead ones will be... stinkers. Literally. You REALLY need to get the stinkers out of the bags. Eventually the growers will turn into stinkers, so get them both out.
The bad onions in the picture were very obvious. The ratio is actually excellent! The bag they came from weighed about 25 lbs. and the rest of the onions were as hard as they were when I took them out of the garden in the fall.
Onion seed planting will commence in about 10 days!