Start early to grow your own gourmet onions from seed

Onions are a staple in our kitchen and I’m guessing are in yours too. While homegrown vegetables are always the best, it’s especially true with onions.

Those little onion bulbs, called sets, that you find in the garden center were grown last year from an onion variety selected for good storage characteristics, not flavor. I have to confess that I’ve used them plenty of times in the past during those years when I was not able to grow my own transplants.

Not only do homegrown onions in general taste better, you can pick and choose the variety you want without having to depend on what the local garden center has to offer. There are all kinds of gourmet onions available that you can only get if you grow them yourself. Just stay away from short-day varieties, they are not adapted to our latitude.

The secrete to growing onions from scratch is to get started early. I try to sow my onion seeds indoors sometime during January.

Onion seeds are fairly easy to grow. Compared to many vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers and others, onions don’t require as much attention. With most other vegetable seedling, transplanting from a crowded container into individual pots or cells is absolutely necessary, that’s not so critical with onions. They do quite well growing close together like a clump of grass during the early stage of their life cycle.

To get started, sow onion seeds into clean containers, I use six inch plastic flower pots. They’re easy to wash and sterilize and can be used year after year.

Fill your growing container an inch or so from the top with a good starting mix, other types of potting mixes may be used if the manufacturer didn’t add too much fertilizer.  Gently firm the soil down and moisten it.  Sprinkle your onion seeds evenly over the surface of the soil –about 50 -60 seeds will fit nicely in a six inch pot. Cover the seeds with about a quarter inch of the starting mix and firm it down so it makes good contact with the seeds. Lightly water the pot.

Onion seeds are fairly small so don’t cover them too deeply.

You should start to see the tiny seedlings begin to emerge in about a week to ten days at 70 degrees F. Once they’ve emerged, place the pot in a sunny area and drop the growing temperature to the lower 60’s during the day and upper 50’s during the night. If you grow your seedlings under artificial light only, give them ten hours of light a day. Keep them moist but not soaking wet.

Occasionally fertilize your growing plants according to directions on the fertilizer package. The onions will sometimes grow so much that they will fall over. If that happens l cut back the tops a little bit with  a pair of scissors. Our goal is to get the plants about a quarter inch wide at garden planting time.

Since onion transplants can tolerate frost and cold soil temperatures, you can plant them into the ground as early as April. That will give them plenty of time to grow lots of leaves. The larger the onion plant is when it begins to form bulbs, the larger the onion will be. At planting time you just knock the plants out of the pot all together in one clump and pull them apart as you plant.

If you haven’t done so, order your onion seeds now so you can get them started soon.

Bob

Three interesting tomato varieties

Earlier in this past growing season I took an informal survey of how a number of tomato varieties were responding to leaf spot diseases. You can go back and read the post to find out how things were going for them at that time.

I kept an eye on them through the season and watched their progress. In one garden I applied a couple of sprays of an organic fungicide, that didn’t seem to make much difference; it may have helped if I kept it up. As expected, on all of the plants, sprayed or not,  the leaf spot symptoms got progressively worse as the fruit on the plants began to grow and develop. It takes a lot of plant energy to produce a crop of tomatoes.

A curious thing happened on one variety at the end of the season. The heirloom variety, Granny Cantrell, began to shake off the fungal infection. While the other tomato plants lost pretty much all of their leaves and most of them actually died back, the Granny Cantrell plants shed their infected leaves and grew very healthy looking replacement leaves. That was something I’ve never seen in a tomato plant. Sure, many varieties struggle to send out more leaves but they never seem to amount to much. Not only were they growing leaves but they were also ripening existing fruit and producing new tomatoes to boot! Our growing season is too short for the plants to continue to grow so I’ll never know if the new shoots would have continued to grow without leaf spot symptoms. It may be a useful trait that tomato breeders could use to develop a new variety.

Notice the green foliage on the Granny Cantrell on the right compared to the defoliated tomato plant next to it.

Juliet was another noteworthy tomato. They had good resistance to the diseases throughout the growing season and produced a huge crop of tomatoes, far out pacing any variety I grew this year.

All of the tomatoes I grew were tasty, how could they not be? since they were vine-ripened and eaten right after picking. All the people who tasted the tomatoes; and there were quite a few, agreed that Cherokee Purple was their hands down favorite. Cherokee Purple however,  had little disease resistance and didn’t produce very many tomatoes at all. They also have very thin skin making the very hard to handle without damaging them. They are not a typical red tomato so their coloring made it harder to distinguish when they were ripe. Also their flesh inside has a distinctive purple hue that, along with their taste makes the quite memorable.

Bob

 

 

Sunflowers cause problems in garden

Plants have developed an number of different survival techniques that can give them advantages over other plants competing for the same growing space. For example, some plants have roots that produce chemicals that inhibit the growth of other nearby plants of other species. It’s a process known as allelopathy.

Black walnut trees are probably the most recognized allelopathic plants. Homeowners find that it’s impossible to grow many kinds of plants in the root zone of a black walnut tree. Although they work differently than black walnuts, many farm crops such as alfalfa, buckwheat, winter rye and others are alleopathic plants.

Sunflowers provide a wonderful backdrop in the garden as they tower over a space making them a favorite of many gardeners. What gardeners might not know is sunflowers are also alleopathic plants. Because they have the ability to suppress the growth of weeds, sunflowers and other plants are the subject of on-going research to develop organic herbicides for use in sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately, along with weeds, many kinds of garden plants are affected by sunflowers as well.

Tomatoes struggle to grow under sunflowers.

Until you know which of your plants can tolerate growing near sunflowers, the best thing is to grow them in a separate bed away from other garden plants.

Bob

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Don’t plant tomatoes to close together

“You planted your tomatoes too close together.” Have you heard that from visitors to your garden?  Not leaving enough space between tomato plants is one of the most common gardening mistakes. The good news is that it’s probably not too late to move them if you do it right away.

It’s so easy to look at those small tomato plants and forget how big they will get during the summer. Even after all these years of gardening I still have to resist the urge to plant them too close together.

Large commercial farmers who grow tomatoes for canning plant their tomatoes very close together. We often see them in double rows about 18 inches apart with the plants very close together in the row. The double rows are then spaced around four feet apart. Planting them like that allows farmers to get the maximum production from their land. Special varieties have been developed to allow them to be planted so densely. Those varieties also account for the difference in taste between tomato products. It’s why one brand of ketchup tastes different from another.

These young plants look far apart but will eventually grow to fill in the space.

Home garden varieties won’t grow and produce well if grown too close together. Older heirloom varieties will take up much more space than more modern varieties. They’ll keep growing all season long and can get pretty big by the time the first tomato is ready to be picked. That type of growth is referred to as being indeterminate.  I plant those varieties about four apart in cages and up to six feet apart if I let them sprawl over the ground without any support.

Plant breeders have developed tomato plants that will stop growing once they reach a certain size for their variety. Those are referred to as determinate, we used to call them “bush tomatoes”. Determinate types of tomatoes can be planted closer together, around three feet apart in cages.

Good air circulation reduces disease problems and adequate sunlight allows the fruit to grow and develop. I remember hearing a saying many years ago that went something like: “Plenty of air and light, grows tomatoes right”. Giving your tomatoes enough room to grow will provided them with the air and sunlight they need to thrive.

Bob

 

Best tasting potato variety?

I just finished digging the last of our potatoes last week. They were growing in a well-drained, sandy area so I was able to let them sit there in the ground for quite a while after the vines died down. Since I couldn’t get to them right away, leaving them right where they were was the best option. A few weeks in the ground did them no harm.

German Butterball potatoes are a bit smaller than our other potatoes.
German Butterball potatoes are a bit smaller than our other potatoes.

I’m always excited at potato harvesting time, it’s like digging for buried treasure. You can’t see what you grew until it gets dug up. The excitement starts when you lift the first cache of potatoes from the soil. It’s pretty neat that the humble potato can give such a thrill. I have to admit though, the excitement begins to wear a little thin when my back starts to ache and there’s still a long row to dig.

These potatoes are particularly treasured, they’re the wonderful ‘German Butterball’ variety.  They are absolutely the best potatoes I have ever tasted. The yield is small compared to standard potato varieties but the flavor and texture more than makes up for the smaller harvest.

They are so tasty, that in years past, I’ve had raccoons dig them up and devour them while leaving perfectly fine standard varieties alone. They dug up the Butterballs, ate them until they were all gone but then never came back for the other potatoes.

The flavor is hard to describe but trust me they will delight even those who are ho-hum about potatoes. And the texture — wow! You’ve probably heard that the perfect potato should be crisp on the outside and mealy on the inside. These go way beyond that. They tend to form a delicate outer crispness when baked in wedges. The inside texture is so finely textured, it is almost creamy. What a taste experience!

Because of the comparatively low yield, I would not suggest growing this as your main crop, especially if you are trying to grow potatoes for storage. They do however, make a wonderful addition to the flavor palate of a vegetable garden.

Now you know one of my best kept gardening secretes. If you have a favorite potato variety that you think is better than German Butterball, share it with us in the comment section below.

Bob

 

Gardening as an investment

In our garden this year we had two hills, with five seeds per hill, that produced over 60 pounds of winter squash. Considering the seeds cost 14¢ each that is a tremendous return. However there are other expenses besides the price of seed that should be looked at.

Buttercup squash gave us a very high return on investment in the garden.
Buttercup squash gave us a very high return on investment in the garden.

The largest expense would be the labor involved in preparing the soil, planting the seeds, caring for the plants, harvesting and storing the crop. Some people would also factor in the opportunity cost of their labor. In other words, “what could I be doing with that time that may make me more money?” If gardening is looked at as part of person’s recreational or exercise time, then there are no labor costs. It certainly has more income potential than watching TV.

Now, on the other hand, if we hired someone to do the tilling and irrigation the costs would jump up dramatically.  If you were to make these calculations on your own plot of land, those costs would have to be taken into consideration. Business people would look at other things such as value of the square footage of the land, property taxes for that area, equipment amortization, and other items.

Even if all of the other expenses are factored in, the return on investment is still very high especially compared to other activities. A CEO of a large, well-known horticultural business figures the return in a garden can be up to 25,000% annually. Of course we’re looking at production on a small plot of land tended by a person during their off-hours.

So why aren’t all farmers multi-millionaires if the return on investment is so great? Once you start scaling up production the economics changes. At that scale much more needs to be invested in machinery, energy, labor, taxes, interest on borrowed money and all of those other things that go into operating a farm.

For us gardeners though, we can have the satisfaction of knowing we are such shrewd investors.

Bob

Warty French heirloom pumpkin

I’ve grown a lot of different varieties of pumpkins in the past, big, small, orange,white, striped and everything in between. None ever got the number of comments that my warty pumpkins have.

It’s easy to understand why people are so interested in them once you see them up close and personal. I get many people asking,”what’s wrong with them?”.  Well, there’s nothing wrong with them, that’s just the way Gladeux d’Eysine pumpkins grow. Most varieties pumpkins of course, are orange and round. Some are flattened, some are striped, some are white, these happened to be warty.

To tell you a secrete, I wasn’t even expecting to see these pumpkins in my garden. I got the seeds from some one who was giving away some envelopes of unlabeled seeds. Even she didn’t know what was in the envelopes.

French heirloom variety
French heirloom variety Gladeux d’Eysine

I planted the seeds as I usually do, five or six seeds to a hill. They came up and grew like common pumpkins, growing pretty good sized vines. Nothing about growing them was out of the ordinary until the pumpkins started to mature and grow those interesting bumps.

Gladeux d’Eysine is a French heirloom variety that French chefs use for soup and  baking. Some people consider them a kind of winter squash, others call them pumpkins, I’m prone to referring to them as pumpkins because of the large, pumpkin-like stems they have. Either way, as do all pumpkin and squash, they belong to the gourd family Cucurbitacea.

I’m looking forward to doing something with them in the kitchen this fall, squash soup most likely. I also plan to save the seeds to plant and give away next year.

Bob

Accidentally saving radish seeds

Our garden is big enough for things to go unnoticed plus I’m not as tidy a gardener as I should be.

This week I found a radish that had gone to seed. Somehow, one radish managed to escape being harvested with the rest of the crop. It continued to grow, flower and produce seed pods right under my nose. Apparently, it got left behind when I was pulling radishes this spring.

If it is left to grow past the eating stage, a radish plant will  eventually send up a flower stalk. The  resulting flowers are then pollinated by insects. Seed pods that superficially resemble peas or beans arise from the pollinated flowers.

It takes nearly the entire growing season for radishes to produce seeds. This one’s pods were already dry and contained mature seeds.

The seeds are a bit smaller than typical radish seeds.
The seeds are a bit smaller than typical radish seeds.

Pollen from one variety of radish often will be carried by insects to a different plant and can easily cross-pollinate another variety of radish. Radishes don’t care if they are pollinated by one variety or another. The seeds resulting from the random cross may or may not produce a desirable eating radish when planted next year.

Since the one in my garden was the only one I found, the seeds should be OK — unless the pollinators brought in unknown pollen in from somewhere else. Professional seed growers separate their different radish varieties by a half mile or more.

Anyway, I’m keeping a few seeds to try out next season.

Bob

Powdery Mildew on Squash

Growing pumpkins and squash has changed sine the early days early days of my career. Back then, pumpkins rarely had any problems whatsoever. You could just plant some seeds, keep the patch weeded and you were pretty much guaranteed a fine crop.

This year demonstrates how times have changed. In addition to the squash vine borer and squash bug that I talked about the last couple of weeks, we are now seeing powdery mildew on our pumpkins and squash.

Powdery mildew shows up as a white powdery-looking coating on the surface of the leaves. It eventually cause the leaves to turn yellow and die. Under certain conditions it will eventually kill the entire plant.

We’ve had textbook weather conditions for the development of powdery mildew. This type of mildew is a fungus that thrives when daytime temperatures are high and nighttime temperatures are low enough to form morning dew.

Unlike most other fungi, powdery mildew does not need liquid water to infect a plant and grow. High humidity within the leaf canopy provides the environment powdery mildew requires.

We do not see much powdery mildew during rainy years. As a matter of fact, one non-chemical approach to controlling powdery mildew takes advantage of this. Spraying the surface of the leaves with overhead irrigation will wash off much of the infection. It also will cause existing spores to absorb so much water that they burst, greatly reducing the source of new infection. This method only works if the area is well drained, otherwise you will end up causing other problems due to excess water.

Some varieties are more resistant to powdery mildew than others. Here two different squash varieties growing side by side.
Some varieties are more resistant to powdery mildew than others. Here two different squash varieties growing side by side.

Commercial chemical and organic formulas are available on the market to control this disease. I’ve been using a homemade concoction that has been working pretty well for me. I mix one table spoon of baking soda and two tablespoons of Murphy’s Oil Soap to a gallon of water. Spray it onto the leaves no more than every seven to ten days. It’s important to use this ratio, a stronger solution will damage leaves.

The spores from the species of powdery mildew that infects the squash family of plants does not survive Michigan winters. Spores are blown in to Michigan on southerly winds each spring to start a new cycle of disease.

Powdery mildew is very species specific, meaning each species of plant is infected a specific strain of fungus. For example, the powdery mildew that infects lilacs cannot spread over to squash and vice-versa.

This, I hope, will be the last problem we’ll have to deal with on our vine crops this year.

Bob

 

 

Look for squash bugs on pumpkins and squash

The squash crop is looking pretty good so far but has had its share of problems.

Earlier in the season we were worried about squash vine borers moving in. Now we have a new pest that we need to take care of, squash bugs. A few days ago I spotted a very familiar sight, squash bug eggs. Once you’ve seen them, you’ll have no trouble finding more.

The eggs are small, shiny, metallic-looking usually found on the underside of the leaves. Many egg clusters I’ve seen this year however, are appearing on the top side of the leaf. Usually, the female lays clusters of eggs that follow the outline of the veins of the leaves giving the clusters a roughly triangular shape.

Here's a couple of squash bug egg clusters. Down in the whorl of the leaf is a group of squash bug nymphs.
Down in the whorl of a squash leaf is a group of squash bug nymphs. To the left and right of the nymphs are two small egg clusters.

Squash bugs can do a lot of damage to your vine crops if you are not careful. Several years ago I had nearly half an acre of pumpkins that became infested with squash bugs. We tried battling them with the first line of attack, crushing their eggs whenever we came across them. After crushing literally hundreds of egg masses, it became apparent we were not going to be able to keep up with the insects. We ended up having to resort to applying an insecticide to save the crop.

The eggs hatch about ten days after being laid. The young newly hatched nymphs have a very soft “skin” making them very susceptible to contact insecticides. Spraying the nymph stage is your best chance to control these pests since the adult bugs are very tough and hard to kill.

Bob