Planting onions

Onions (Allium cepa).

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April 2, still the last week in March according to the calendar, and the onion plants arrived from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, just as promised. Today is also the first day that the temp reached 60° F. and stayed there for several hours. Although onion plants can survive without being planted for 1 to 3 weeks, it’s best to get them in the ground as soon as possible.

Just like last year, I ordered Patterson, a yellow storage onion; Red Zeppelin, a red storage onion; and Red Marble, a red cipollini onion. Also arriving in the same box is a bunch of King Richard leek plants, which will get planted tomorrow, weather permitting.

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As usual, Daisy accompanied me to the garden. She rolled in the grass, which until recently was covered with snow and ice. She barked at the neighbors. She slept in the sun. She chewed on a fallen tree branch. What a lucky dog..

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The soil in the raised beds was in reasonably good condition from last fall. The soil temp was above 40° F., quite a surprise considering the recent cold and snow of March.

I assembled the necessary tools–broadfork, 5-gallon bucket, rake, dibble, shovel, garden fork, wheelbarrow, and screener. How nice to get re-acquainted with my favorite tools–feel their weight and balance again. Also nice to feel the warm sun on my back.

The broadfork is my go-to tool for loosening soil in the raised beds. With 10-and-a half- inch-long tines, the broadfork loosens the soil without disrupting layers of topsoil and subsoil, at the same time providing bulbing plants like onions plenty of room to expand. It’s also an excellent tool for my raised-bed environment. This model is 27″ wide, which works great in 3′ square beds. As I hope you can visualize from the photos above, the broadfork is pressed down into the soil, using your foot, and is then rocked forward and backward to loosen the soil. Johnny’s website has a video demonstrating the use of the broadfork. Then back it up maybe 6″ and repeat pressing it into the soil and rocking it forward and back. After I complete a 3″ bed one way, I usually turn the broadfork 90° and loosen the soil the other direction. In between, I scatter a couple bucketsful of compost on top of the soil and work it in with the next pass of the broadfork. When the soil seems loose and just to an onion’s liking–think like an onion here–I rake the surface smooth and am ready to plant.

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Now I need to back up and talk about compost. This compost has been mellowing through the fall and winter and is ready for use. I had to work around the outside of the pile because the center is still frozen. A few more days of 60° weather will fix that.

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Now, about screening the compost. I bought this incredible screener a few years ago online. I have to try to find the website again. The screener fits a wheelbarrow perfectly.

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Use a shovel to dump compost on top the screener. I rub the compost through the screen with my gloved hands. Rocks, twigs, and intact leaves remain on top.

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The good compost falls into the wheelbarrow. Isn’t it lovely. I think so. A shovel or a hand trowel is also an option for rubbing the compost through the screener. Experimentation will discover the best method for each gardener.

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I use a 5-gallon bucket to transfer the compost to the garden since, unfortunately, my garden gate and 18″ walkways are too small for wheelbarrows. It’s a small garden. Larger gardeners will do it differently. Compost is much lighter than most soil and is not that hard to lug around. Works for me.

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Dump the compost into the raised bed, and work it in with the broadfork and rake as described above until the soil seems ready for planting. With beds this small, it’s important to work the soil close to the edges. Failing to do so will waste valuable space. Either the space around the inside perimeter of the bed will be too compacted to plant, or you will persist and use it anyway, and the plants will not do well. Better to spend the time to prepare all the soil well. I speak from experience.

Now it’s reward time. Take up the dibble and make holes as directed or as you desire. A quick explanation of the dibble. It’s a 1″ dowel with one end cut at a 45° angle. Dowels are made of soft wood, so making the 45° is not difficult. When the dowel is twirled making the hole, it makes a deeper hole in the middle. Johnny’s instructions say a 1″ deep hole for onions, but the onion plants are taller than that. I make the dibble holes deeper, then hold the onion plants so where the green tops start is at ground level. Holding with one hand and pressing the soil firmly around the plant with the other gives them a nice start on their life in the garden.

Using a dibble is nicely illustrated in Damrosch and Coleman’s The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.

As I mentioned in the post Onions, last year I planted the onions too close together. Some of the onions were still small at harvest time. So, I made elaborate plans to do better this year. Well, guess what. I didn’t. Just too many onion plants, I guess. I still planted them too close to get them into the beds I had allotted to onions. The good thing is that the onions are planted in the back half of 6 beds, which is supposed to establish a barrier against critters like meadow voles, who, it is said, do not like onions. But the plants are close together–maybe 3″ apart, with the rows also close together. Johnny’s directions, which came with the onion plants, say that planting close is OK if you want spring onions to eat. That sounds good. So, this year I will try to harvest every other onion plant early for green onions. Good for salads. Then, if the remaining onions grow larger, I will still have onions to last through the winter.

In The New Organic Grower, Eliot Coleman suggests planting multiple onions per space. If the soil is loose enough–friable enough–the bulbs will push away from each other and still grow to their potential. In this way, more garden space is utilized. I did that, both last year and this year. Some of the onion plants are really small, so I paired the small ones up in one dibble hole.

In future years, should I be realistic and just throw a third of the plants on the compost pile because I don’t have enough garden room for them and do a quality job of planting the other two-thirds. Maybe. I could give them away, but I don’t know anyone else who plants onions.

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Back to this year, I planted approximately 60 dibble holes of each variety–Red Marble cipollini, Patterson, and Red Zeppelin. 180 onions of varying sizes to harvest, eat immediately, or store and eat later. What riches. If they grow.

Because the hoses aren’t out of winter storage yet, I didn’t water the newly planted onion plants. The ground is pretty moist already. Rain is predicted for tomorrow, so that may solve my problem with watering. If there’s no rain, getting hoses out will be a priority.

The instructions that came with the onion plants say that onions are shallow-rooted, and watering is crucial. 1″ of water per week, either rain or irrigation. Drip irrigation is best to avoid foliar diseases. This is true for most vegetables. Also, Johnny’s warns that lack of water will result in small bulbs. Maybe that was my problem last summer with too many small bulbs.

I’m content tonight that April has arrived and the vegetable garden is started. A new season has commenced. It’s about time. Lots to do.

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