Monday, March 26, 2012

Stuff I Forgot to Post

I have a collection of photos I've taken in the past few weeks that I meant to use for update posts but didn't get around to.  Here's a quick share:

My damage to the blackberry filled back yard.  I made a path to the gate, but not much more.

The rest of the back yard, including the compost pile covered in black plastic.

Back yard from the other side, you can see what was cleared better from this view.

Still have a lot more to go but I think I can get ahead of them.

I suppose those pictures should have been posted with Battle Blackberry but my son was playing Angry Birds on my phone when I posted it and I couldn't get the pictures from it.

Garden on our snow day

Front yard March 22

My son playing in the snow.
These were from our late March snow day; I've never seen it snow here this late in the year, usually March in the Willamette Valley is a toss up of sun, rain, and occasional spatterings of hail.  Never snow, and never this much.

My rhubarb arrived in the mail last week and is now potted up and ready to grow.

Salvaged winter cabbage from the garden bed; potted and moved to a sunnier location in hopes of an early cabbage.

All the starts enjoying a bit of sunshine in the greenhouse.
Originally I had intended to plant the rhubarb and artichokes in the ground near the strawberries, but since our situation has changed and we may be moving to a new home next Spring** (/fingers crossed) I decided to pot the rhubarb instead to more easily take it with us.  I don't have enough large pots for the artichokes though so they will likely go into the ground and be dug up when we move.

**The management is looking to move a new house into the empty lot next to us; putting our neighbor's back door within 10 feet of our porch, and likely shading out my garden completely.  So we will be saving up to buy a house this year. With a big backyard and garden space!

Planting Has Begun

Finally we had enough nice weather to dry out the soil enough.  Digging in soaking wet soil can damage soil structure, smooshing the particles together and destroying air pockets in it.  Since it stayed dry for two whole days, my beds were moist but not wet and in perfect shape for turning.  I mixed in a 1.5 cubic foot bag of garden compost to lighten things up and add organic matter, then evened it out and raked it as smooth as possible.  Then I added in a well-rounded "Garden" organic fertilizer (5-3-3); it was surprisingly hard to find a fertilizer that didn't have high levels of potassium, which my garden already has in plenty.  With occasional doses of fish emulsion to keep the nitrogen levels up I think this fertilizer will work out nicely.  I gently mixed about 1.5 pounds of fertilizer into the top few inches of soil.
Close up of Bed 2 before being turned

Once all of the soil amending was completed I measured out my square feet, and used string and thumb tacks to mark them.  All ready for planting!

Bed 1 ready for planting
My garden beds are a bit of a crazy mish-mash to the untrained eye.  While they are laid out in a square foot grid, the plants are arranged based on my particular location requirements.  For example, the peas are all along the back row where they can climb the trellis on the fence.  Garlic and onions line up along each side of the bed because slugs don't care for them and the slugs seem to come from the bare ground to either side of the bed rather than the front edge where the patio is.  Working toward the inside of the bed from there comes celery which grows taller than most of the brassicas and can help to shade them a bit as the weather gets warmer.  Then the rows of lettuce, between the celery and the brassicas, shaded by their height and away from the slug-filled edges.  The lettuce is also within easy picking range from all sides.  Lastly the brassicas fill the center of the bed, with carrots planted between rows.  Broccoli being tallest is in the back, with cauliflower and cabbage closer to the front. 

All planted and ready to grow!
After things start to grow in it should make for a pretty picture of a garden bed, with everything well located for easy harvest and mutual health. 

If the weather holds out long enough for my back to loosen up again I'll be out digging up the other bed and getting it planted as well.  The pumpkin bed will have to wait a bit, only hot weather plants are going in it.  It is also the cats' favorite place to leave me "gifts" so I want to wait until the other beds have filled in and no longer need the cat-proof screens before working on it.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Sunshine Has Returned... For Now

After receiving two inches of snow yesterday, it is now bright and sunny and nearly 60 degrees out.  I removed the clear plastic I had over my garden beds to allow the sunshine to dry them out more, and set my seedlings out in the greenhouse with the door opened.  It's about 57 degrees in the greenhouse and they are happily enjoying some much needed sunshine.  Fluorescent lighting only goes so far in keeping plants happy.

Sadly this is not expected to last, the rain will likely return tomorrow and stick around the rest of the week.  Hopefully, since I have other plans for my day, the soil will dry out enough today that I can finally get it amended with compost and kelp meal tomorrow morning.  Then I can get the peas, onions, garlic, and maybe even a lettuce or two planted. 

The kale in my whiskey barrel is now the same size as the ones inside, and I transplanted a couple lettuces from inside out into the barrel as well.  Of course, they then got snowed on... not sure if they'll be okay or not, but hopefully they will.

That's the update for today, and now i'm off to help a friend move.  if all goes well I'll have more to update tomorrow.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Not Much to Report

The weather is still holding me back; the soil is still too wet to dig in, so I can't get it amended yet and start planting things.  I suppose it's for the best since we had snow over night last night.

I did manage to sneak outside during a brief interlude in the rain the other day and get the chicken wire attached to my cat-proofing frames.  I also applied the nematodes to the soil and transplanted a bunch of lettuce starts into larger pots to give them a bit more room to grow.

I would prefer to have my garlic and onions transplanted and my peas starting to grow by now, sadly that just hasn't happened yet.  Oddly, the potatoes I got started in pots a few weeks ago still don't seem to have sprouted.  I dug into the dirt a bit to see if maybe the sprouts just hadn't reached the surface yet, but didn't even see the beginnings of them on the eyes.  Can I hope that they'll still grow at some point?  This is my first attempt at potatoes and I am a bit concerned that I am doing it wrong.

 This morning I went out and made the decision to beat Mother Nature at her own game.  I put up the cat-proofing frames over one bed and threw a sheet of clear plastic over the top of the whole thing.  Hopefully this will warm the soil up and keep it dry long enough to stop being mud and become workable by the weekend.  Even if the weather keeps daunting me I am determined to get my garden started.

Fingers crossed!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mother Nature's Got Me Singin' the Blues

I'm singin the pouring down rain blues.  It was supposed to be sunny next Monday and Tuesday, but after checking the forecast this morning I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for the sun.  My garden beds are so wet there are puddles on top of them, luckily they drain well and one good warm day will leave them workable. 

Meanwhile, I ordered some beneficial nematodes that should arrive soon.  I figured the nematodes couldn't hurt, and I have some concerns regarding the spotted cucumber beetles I saw last summer.  If they laid eggs in my soil I'd better have some defenses in place; I don't really have enough room for good crop rotation so have to use other options to control problems.

I also took some advice on my seedlings and spritzed them with 1/2 strength fish emulsion to give them a boost, one week later it seems to be paying off since they are working on putting out new leaves and aren't showing signs of nutrient shortage.  I ran a quick soil test too, to see where things are in this third year of gardening in the same soil.  I usually add some compost during the growing season to keep the plants happy, but this is the first time I've actually tested the soil to see how it's holding up.  Turns out that my soil is low on Nitrogen and Phosphorus, but a little high in Potassium. 

Nitrogen is essential to good stem and leaf growth; phosphorus is for root, seed, flower, fruit growth; and potassium is for root growth and overall plant health.  So my soil is all set to keep plants alive, but they may not grow well, or fruit/flower/seed well.  From what I can find, it looks as though my best bets for keeping things growing well are a starter of fish emulsion to get them growing followed by compost added to the beds, and fish and/or kelp meal to add micronutrients and more phosphorus.  I really aught to just dish out the cash for a professional soil test to find out what levels of micronutrients and microbes my garden has.  I know it has more than its fair share of slugs, and it's no wonder with all of this rain.

Whatever the case, I am getting more and more disappointed by the weather and feel like I'm falling way behind on things.  Luckily I do have seedlings that are doing great and can stay inside longer if needed, it's worth the late start to protect them against powdery mildew (the scourge of too early plantings).  I just need them out of the house before they get too big!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

GMO Arguments Addressed

I have made no secret of my support of organic gardening, and lately I have been seeing more and more articles regarding genetically modified (or "genetically enhanced" as the companies call them) organisms.  I came across one today discussing the concerns of an organic produce grower in Southern Oregon.  He had concerns about infection by GMO sugar beets in the area affecting his ability to get organic certification for his chard crop.

The two biggest arguments surrounding GMOs are labeling and contamination. 

Many people are fighting right now for GMOs in our food to be labeled; despite claims by their producers that GMO crops are no more dangerous than normal crops, that they are safe to eat and to grow; and that labeling products containing GMOs would reduce their ability to sell them.

I'm not a fan of mass hysteria, I don't buy my food based on the latest fashion for whole grains, low fats, organics, and whatnot.  I primarily buy what's inexpensive and tastes good because I have 4 people to feed on a small budget (that seems to get bigger every year).  I do make a point of supporting organic farms when possible, because I know the demand for organics of non-organics will swing the pendulum of demand toward organics being the norm and their prices will go down over time.  I grow my own veggies in the summer, visit farmer's markets, and buy organic milk, eggs, and veggies over the winter at the grocery store.  I want to know that within my limited budget I can still support farmers who are making an effort to provide healthier food, and raise healthier animals.

I have no doubt that the sale of GM crops will be more challenging if they are labeled, and I think that is an important part of how the market functions.  Until there is hard fact, and supporting evidence, to prove to the American people that GM foods are absolutely safe generation after generation at the levels they are being eaten every day, buyers want to have the option available to avoid them. 

My biggest problem with GM crops (and I have no proof that they are or are not healthy) is that I don't feel there was adequate testing done before they were introduced to our supermarkets to guarantee that they will cause no future health issues.  The second problem I have with them is that one of the reasons for GMO crops is to make these staple crops nearly indestructible.  Which seems fine at first, but over the long run this means farmers can grow more and more of them on the same piece of soil, which is detrimental to that soil.  As the soil becomes less fertile, more and more fertilizers will be added to it, and more of them will run off into lakes and streams.  If pests build up resistances to the genes in these crops we will lose a majority of our staple crops.  We also don't know what effect these GM crops have on soil microbial life, earthworms, birds, and beneficial insects.  For all we know the genes spliced into these crops are actually killing off all the things needed to keep plants healthy and protect them from pests.

There are already signs that pest insects are becoming resistant to GM crop protections. 

I don't want my dollars to support this industry; it's an industry built on making money, not on protecting the health of the environment, the people, and the future.  I want my store to label these products so that I can make an informed choice when I shop.

The other major controversy regarding GMOs is the contamination of non-GMO crops.  For a crop to be certified organic it cannot have any genetically modified material in it.  Some crops however can cross-pollinate from several miles apart.  While it doesn't seem like a big deal to some, the mixing of pollen between GMO and non-GMO plants could potentially be very serious.  What if it is discovered in the future that these new plants were toxic over time and they were outlawed?  All of the GM crops could be destroyed, but what would be left if the non-GMOs were carrying the same genes and had to be destroyed as well?  Genetic diversity in plants is nature's way of ensuring the species will survive.  When you narrow that diversity you increase the risk of a major loss and possibly even the complete destruction of that species.  If pests become resistant to these GM crops' defenses they could destroy them in no time, especially since lack of crop rotation in the big monoculture farms means ample opportunities for pests to keep coming back year after year for a guaranteed feast.  If we have no available alternative crops then we just may not have any corn/soybeans/sugar beets at all that year, or for several years afterward.

 Traditional organic growing methods have been proven over the centuries to be effective in managing pests, and in growing food that is healthy, safe, and environmentally friendly.  I don't believe there is any reason, other than to make more profits, to change those traditional methods.

One of the arguments made by proponents of GMOs is that they are necessary as a means to provide an adequate food supply for the Earth's ever-expanding population. 

To this I say three things: first, stop having babies! I don't mean ANY babies, but really, until the rest of the world figures out that population growth is out of control and slows down to replacement levels (that is 2 children per couple) we will have concerns over feeding the population.  I know, a lot of people will argue this opinion with me, but from a logical standpoint it just makes sense. 

Secondly, I don't honestly believe that GMOs are the way to sustainably provide for the human population.  Yes, they improve yields, and protect plants from pests and disease; but can they do this for the next hundred years? Or even the next fifty?  GMOs have been available for only a handful of years and already the pests are developing resistance, how can they expect to continue this way for generations?  Not to mention the damage of monoculture farms on the environment, we may not starve... we may be slaughtered by climate change long before we starve.

Last of all, it is long past time for people to stop living in a sheltered world where they have no contact with their soil, their growing food, and the balance of life on this planet.  We have removed from our forefathers so far now that I actually know people who won't eat meat if it LOOKS like an animal at all.  No chicken on the bone, no fish that isn't ground up and fried into a "stick", no ham hocks just deli meat "ham"...  What has happened to people?  Why is it so hard to grasp that plants grow in dirt full of bugs and bacteria, and meat comes from smelly animals that take years to grow just for you to have a pot roast?  It's time to go back to those roots and really understand again what it takes to feed oneself.  The time, effort, and sweat of it.  Maybe we'd stop wasting so much food if it didn't just come to hand with the swipe of a debit card; maybe we'd eat less meat and fat and sugar if we had to raise and butcher and preserve it, or grow and harvest and press and process it.  I think we'd have less reason to support GMO crops if we had to produce more of our own food. 

It takes about 5 acres of land to supply a family of 4 with food for a year.  We have 7 billion people on the planet (roughly), there are 7.68 billion acres of arable land on the earth.  That's just over 1 acre per person.

If we made worldwide efforts to do 3 things we could stop any worries about overpopulation.
1. Stop reproducing at such high rates.
2. Grow more food at home.
3. Create more arable land rather than destroy it.

If every family limited themselves to two children, put in a garden plot the size of a small balcony (4x8) and composted both plant waste and human waste, we'd be in much better shape.  Population growth would begin to reverse, we'd reconnect with our food and waste less; the gardens would relieve the burden of feeding the world from the farmer's shoulders, and from the already overworked soils.  Composting would not only reduce the strain on water treatment systems, but would provide nutrients for farms and home gardens.  And small gardens for each home would help increase the arable land and give more rotation time to other soil areas allowing them to recover more between plantings.  People with actual yards could even grow their own chickens for eggs and meat.  How much oil would that save?  How much water?  How many chemicals?  Now... how hard would it be?

Instead we flush away or throw out food for ourselves and our plants every day, we glorify couples who can outbreed rabbits, and we buy GMO processed foods from supermarket shelves with little thought about the food itself or the amount of gas, chemicals, and water needed to bring it to our door in that little plastic or cardboard package.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Some Days the Writing Doesn't Come So Easy

I'd like to say I've been busy in the garden and that has slowed my postings.  Sadly, that's not the case.  Instead I've had to deal with chores, kids, planning dinner, washing laundry, and the weather.  This week has gone from rain and hail (Monday), to snow (Tuesday), to bright sunny days w/ freezing temperatures (Wednesday and Thursday).  It is supposed to warm up on Friday, it is also supposed to start raining on Friday.  I just can't seem to win against the weather, either the soil is frozen or so waterlogged it can't be dug in.

Despite the fact that I desperately need to turn my beds over and amend the soil I will have to wait out the weather for that.  This means I can't plant my peas, garlic (yes, I know, I should have planted it in November) or onions yet.  In fact, while other gardeners are planting things left and right, I am stuck waiting for soil to warm and dry out a bit, and the shade to move.  The only thing I can plant right now is my potatoes since they are going in pots; of course the potting soil I have for them is frozen solid, which means they too have to wait.

The cherry tree and camellia don't seem to be the least bit phased about the weather, in fact they are both starting to show signs of new leaf buds.  I must've done something right!

Hope things improve outside soon, if my starts get too big I won't have room for them under the grow lights.

Today's seedling update:  Things are doing well; I planted too many lettuces in each pot, after some thinning I have decided I'm just going to have to move a bunch into other pots.  The final sprouts to pop up were the leeks, which are just beginning to show. 

Tray 2-planted 2/27 most of these have sprouted, though some aren't above the soil yet.

Tray 1- 2/25 everything is sprouted, lettuce are putting on first true leaves.

Who knew artichoke made such pretty little sprouts?  Hoping these won't get too big before I can move them outside and separate them.
 I ended up adding the 4' light fixture to the upper shelf because the littler ones just weren't cutting it.  it hangs over the washer a few inches, but really, who cares about clean clothes when there are plants to grow? I just have to remember to lift it out of the way to wash clothes; we don't really have to go without laundry.

So that's the news for now, I am chomping at the bit to get the garden in action.  I'll just have to rein it in a little longer.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Question of Survival

I just stumbled across a blog about survival; how to be prepared in the event of a catastrophe.  I think this is something we all wonder about now and then.  If the power goes out for more than a few hours; there is a hurricane/tornado/tsunami/flood and we can't get out; the car breaks down while on some long forgotten road in the woods; and of course, my favorite, the zombie apocalypse.  All of these things are possibilities yet too few people are prepared for them.  I've met very few college students that kept more than a package of ramen and spare bottle of barbecue sauce in their cupboards. 

The topic made me consider some of the reasons that I garden.  Yes, I grow plants because I like them, because they are pretty, and because my veggies taste better than store-bought veggies.  I also grow a garden because it's good for the planet, and my family's health.  I'm putting in plants, not concrete; I'm not using harsh chemicals to care for my plants; I'm growing veggies that come from healthy soil, and are healthier for us.  I'm also saving on my grocery bill, though the upfront costs are steep.  If I weren't partially gardening for aesthetics my costs wouldn't be so high though. 

But, in the back of my head, behind the thoughts of "oooh pretty!" and "mmm, yummy!" are thoughts of survival.  I'm thinking to myself "bring it on, zombies! I've got enough dry pasta and canned tomato sauce to last a year, I can build a good high fence from the scraps of deserted mobile homes and be stocked up for months!"  I'm also thinking if the world economy crashes I have something stockpiled that is very worthwhile in a barter economy.  I have seeds, knowledge, and a shovel that wasn't made in China. 

Now if only I were allowed to have chickens I would be in great shape for the coming apocalypse.  At the very least I know that in the event of a natural disaster (which really isn't very likely here in Oregon) I will have adequate food and water supplies to get my family through a week at the very least.  We might have to eat a lot of beans and rice, and strawberry jam, but we'd survive.

Survival is one of the reasons I grow organically too; organic methods of gardening are far more sustainable in the event of a collapse of the economy.  I make compost, and need no other fertilizers; don't use pesticides except for the slugs and I could hand pick them if needed; a rain collection barrel or two could water my small plot for several weeks; and this year I'm moving away from hybrid plants and planning on saving as much of my own seed as possible.  Not only does this all reduce my costs of gardening but it also ensures that my garden will go on, even if all of the garden supply stores go under.

Does the idea of survival inspire your garden at all?  What else inspires you to plant and design the way you do?

Today's Update

The weather today has been cold and cloudy, which is a good thing.  After all the work in the yard over the weekend my body is trying to tell me I'm too old for this.  So I will take a break and recover a bit today, in preparation for the rest of the week, which is supposed to be sunny and cool.

After planting the cherry tree and the camellia I even managed to get out back and tear out another swath of blackberries.  It's starting to look like I will need to take a trip to the dump though to get rid of the last of the junk back there, and the blackberry vines I removed.  I also need to try to find a source for old newspaper.  I plan to use it to smother any remaining blackberries along the back of the house so I can put the lava rock back there and have a clear path across that yard.  Maybe I'll put a post on Craigslist and see if someone's got a stockpile they're willing to part with.

Once it's a bit nicer out I'll get some pictures up of the blackberry disaster, and my progress in removing it.

I have a lot of plans for the yard this year that have been put off for a while as I was investing in the garden itself.  This year it's time to spruce up the rest of the yard though.  Edging the grass, removing all the lava rock, adding bark mulch, laying new gravel in the paths.  Those areas have all gone a long time with little maintenance, and as the garden is expanding into them it's becoming time to finally get them up to snuff.  Also the mobile home park has a new manager who is more determined than ever to make this place look appealing to new tenants.  So I am forced to pay more attention to the public areas in front of the house.

For today, I will relax, and do some planning.  Making a list of stuff to buy for the garden needs to be done.  More bark, a bag or two of compost, and old newspaper are on the list already. 

My rhubarb root division should arrive in a couple weeks too, I cleared out the area for it yesterday while planting the camellia.  The artichokes will also go in that area, at the end of the strawberry bed.  I'm trying to keep my perennial edibles in one area so I can easily water and harvest them but they aren't mixed in with the annuals (where the soil is turned and amended yearly and would disturb them), it's a nice sunny spot too that should have excellent soil under all the lava rock.

Lastly, I scattered my packet of beneficial bug mix flowers in the empty lot in hopes of improving it's look, and attracting more beneficials to the area.  We shall see if that is helpful or was a waste of money soon enough.

That's my update for now; still planning a garlic culture post soon and an onion and garlic harvest post as well, so stay tuned.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cherry Tree Achieved, And Other News

With two whole rain-free days over 50 degrees, I have made the most of the nice weather.  Yesterday my daughter and I finished up weeding the beds, cleaned out the strawberry bed, laid down another bag of bark mulch, and trimmed the candytuft and dead daylily leaves from last summer.

Cleaned up strawberry bed, only the strong were left behind. Still looks pretty messy.

One of the reasons I didn't join in the garden frenzy of getting things planted this weekend, like so many other gardeners, was that my beds are still completely shaded by the fence.

A few more weeks and the front edge of the beds will finally see some sun.

More importantly, my dwarf Bing cherry tree finally got put in the ground.  My husband was kind enough to do all the hard work of raking off the top layer of lava rock and digging the hole.  Then we poured in a small pile of compost, spread the roots around the pile, and held the tree in place while filling the hole in around it.  My fingers are crossed and I'm hoping it will do well. 
View of the cherry from the road.  Not much of a view yet.
Cherry tree, between the new sprouts of the daylilies.

The next thing on my list of garden to-do items is planting the camellia.  If I don't collapse in agony after that, it's back to work on the blackberries.  I might just be able to get ahead of them before they really start growing. 

Tools are all ready for the camellia.
Camellia all ready to be planted. Only one not ready is me!
Hope everyone's out there enjoying some sunshine!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Onion Culture

Allium cepa a.k.a. the bulb, common, or garden onion, is the most widely cultivated species of AlliumAllium cepa only exists in cultivation; though there are a few Allium species in the wild, often referred to as "wild onions" they are NOT Allium cepa

Traces of onion have been found in Bronze Age settlements dating as far back as 5000 BC (about the time the potato was being developed on the other side of the world; because what is a potato without an onion?).  It is uncertain if these traces were of "cultivated" onion; true cultivated onions can be traced to about two thousand years later in ancient Egypt, leeks and garlic also had their beginnings at this time.  Ancient Egyptians believed the onion's spherical shape and concentric rings represented eternal life.  Traces of onion have been found in Egyptian burial chambers and it's believed that the workers who built the pyramids ate onions and radishes.  In Greece, onion was believed to lighten the balance of the blood.  in Roman culture, gladiators were rubbed with onion to firm up their muscles.  In the Middle Ages they were so important they were used to pay rent, and given as gifts.  Medicinally onions have been used to treat constipation, erectile dysfunction, infertility, headaches, coughs, snake bites, and hair loss.  Columbus brought cultivated onions with him to the Americas, only to find out later that the natives were already using wild onion for everything from food, to dyes, to toys.

You should never give onion to pets or other animals as it may poison them.

Onions contain chemicals known to have anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, anti-cancer, and anti-oxidant properties (in humans).  Studies have shown that eating onions may lower the risk of head and neck related cancers.  The more pungent an onion is, the greater its ability to inhibit cancer cell growth.  Onions may also be beneficial in reducing the risk of osteoporosis in women. 

Lacrimatory Factor, or LF, is the gas created when an onion is cut into or bitten that causes your eyes to tear up.  This can be reduced by using a sharp knife to cut them, or by chilling or freezing them before use, or by cutting them under running water or in a bowl of water. 

Onions are propagated by seed, or by bulb set.  Onion sets are small bulbs of onion grown from seed the previous year, planted in the ground these will grow into full sized bulbs in a shorter time frame than seeds.  Sets are reputed to grow bulbs with less durability than seeds though.

Onions that produce seeds are "day-length sensitive", this means they require a certain number of daylight hours before they will begin to bulb.  Long-day onions require 15 or more hours of daylight, intermediate day onions require 12-13 hours, and short day onions require 9-10 hours.  Often, short day onions are planted in the fall in mild climates and will bulb in early spring. 

Green onion, or scallion, refers to either an immature onion that has not yet bulbed, or to the Welsh onion, an Allium species which does not bulb at all.  You can differentiate between a Welsh onion and a common onion scallion by the cross section of the leaves; Welsh onions leaves are flattened on one side, while the common onion leaf is round.  Tree onions, top onions, topsetting onions, walking onions, or Egyptian onions refer to the species Allium proliferum; this onion plant forms bulblets on top rather than a flower and seeds.  These bulblets can then be planted to grow more onions, or eaten like a normal onion bulb.
Tree onion

Green onions and leeks should be refrigerated after harvest.  Regular bulb onions can be stored at room temperature in a cool, dry, dark, ventilated area.  At room temperature onions have a shelf life of 1-5 weeks depending on variety; in the fridge this can be extended up to 4 more weeks.  In storage, onions can absorb the smells of apples and pears; they should be stored away from moister vegetables as they can draw that moisture from the air and will spoil sooner.

Onions generally come in 3 colors: red, white, and yellow.  Yellow onions are full-flavored and are usable for just about any culinary purpose.  Red onions are best chopped fresh, or as grilled or char-broiled onion.  Red onions have a sharper flavor.  White onions are traditionally used in Mexican food, they sautee to a golden color and develop a sweet flavor when cooked.

Small bulbed onions are used for pickling, or eaten as vegetables; these include pearl, boiler and pickler onions.  Onion seeds can also be eaten as sprouts, similar to alfalfa sprouts.

For longer season onions (those that make a regular bulb) you should plant seeds in the fall; or plant sets instead in cold climates.  Short season onions like scallions and pearl onions can be planted early in the spring.  Starting them inside can help you get ahead of the game when the weather stays cold late in the season.  Seeds can be planted very close together (my pearl onion seed pack said to plant up to 100 seeds per 4"-6" pot) then thinned after sprouting.  Thin to about 1-2" apart, further for larger onions.  Sets can be put into the ground as early as January, or as late as April depending on variety and climate.  Tops will grow up, when tops die back the bulbs are ready for harvest.  The whole onion can be harvested at any time too, for use as scallions.  Don't waste your thinnings! Chop them up into a recipe that calls for green onion. 

Onions are a great addition to any garden, they can deter some pests, look pretty both in growth and in bloom, take up very little space, and can be added to nearly any recipe.  If you're going to grow tomatoes, you'd better grow onions too.  You can't make salsa or spaghetti sauce without them.  I have never heard of a pest or disease problem with onions either, though I may be mistaken (Note: the SFG book says onion fly maggot can be a problem).  My only issue with them  in years past has been that they just don't want to bulb, so this year I'm giving them a head start in the house, both the pearl onions and the sweet Spanish white onions, in the hopes that I'll actually have some onions for all my summer recipes.  In an SFG garden plant 16 onions to a square foot.

After harvesting lay onions out in a single layer in a warm dry place, this will allow them to cure and the skins to dry, ensuring they will last longer in storage.

My onion growing knowledge is kind of slim, so if anyone can add to this please feel free to let me know.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Photographic Evidence

Just wanted to share a few quick shots of my indoor starts, and some of the stuff outside.

Seeds started 2/25, all of the brassicas and lettuce are up.

Tray 2 - seeds started 2/27.  Nothing sprouted yet, I expect to see something this weekend.

Kale planted outside 2/1, still only the first leaves on it, after a month has passed.  It's still cold outside, and short on sun.

Cabbage planted back in August, it didn't get big before the cold started, still tiny after being out all winter.  Slugs have eaten the crap out of it too.

Just goes to show how much difference starting seeds indoors makes.  My kale inside will likely catch up to the ones outside in another week, maybe two.  And I may have to put the poor cabbage out of it's misery soon, so I can turn that bed.

Potato Culture

There is a wealth of information out there about potatoes, the Wikipedia entry alone is full of potato facts.  In fact, reading up on them has given me a whole new appreciation of french fries.  It's kind of amazing to think that the potato we eat today is the descendant of potatoes first cultivated between 7 and 10 thousand years ago in Peru and Bolivia.  Even more amazing is that there are over 5000 varieties of potato today 99% of which were developed from a subspecies that grew in south central Chile.  That's quite a history.  The Spanish brought the potato home with them after their conquest of South America.  From Spain and other ports of Europe the potato spread across the world and today it is eaten in nearly every nation on the planet. 

One of the reasons for its popularity is that the potato is well-adapted to most climates; it can also be grown in a backyard garden in quantities adequate to provide for a family's sustenance; it grows easily; and is much less expensive than grain crops.  The potato has been a crop to grow at home for centuries, since potatoes have particular storage requirements they didn't keep as well as cereal grains and therefore were less market-worthy and more likely to be found in individual gardens.  This is part of what led to the Irish Potato Famine, the poor Irish tenant farmers fed their families on milk and the potatoes they grew on their small allocated plots.  Nearly all of the potatoes grown in Ireland at that time were a variety known for large harvests, which made sense when you were short on growing space and had a family to feed, but not at all resistant to late blight.  A particularly nasty year led to rampant infections of late blight taking out nearly one half of the potato crop in Ireland; and leading to the deaths of nearly a million Irish, and the emigration of more than a million others, effectively reducing the population by 20-25%.

Potato plants
Why mention the Irish Potato Famine in a blog post about potato gardening? Yeah, it is a little morbid.  But it's an important example of the folly of dependance on a single cultivar, or a single staple crop even.  Genetic diversity in food crops is something to be coveted, having a multitude of available cultivars offers people protection in the event of another devastating loss like the Potato Famine.  With that in mind, if you plan to grow potatoes, make an effort to try some lesser known varieties and get familiar with potatoes all over again.  One of the major reasons Russet potatoes are so common in grocery stores is not their flavor, or nutrition, or ease of production.  Can you guess why the Russet is found everywhere?  Because it can be shipped everywhere.  Russet potatoes are one of the longest-storing varieties, they can be bounced around, stored for months, and are none the worse for wear.  I am looking forward to getting familiar with my German Butterball potatoes, and learning what traits they have to offer other than shipping stability.

I recommend doing further reading on Wikipedia to learn more about the history of this plant, but I think I should move on to growing information at this point.

Potato plant in planting bag
Potatoes are grown from "seed potato" which is not a seed at all, it's a potato.  The "eyes" on a potato sprout and grow into a new plant.  You don't even need whole potatoes for this, just chop them into chunks with at least one eye on each.  Bury them in rich soil about 6-8" deep.  Keep them well-watered, with good drainage to avoid overwatering. 

Potato growth happens in 5 phases: first sprouts grow from the seed potatoes and roots begin to grow as well.  The second phase involves photosynthesis as the plant's leaves grow.  Phase 3: stolons develop from lower leaf axils on the stem and grow downwards into the ground and on these stolons new tubers develop.  Often, this phase is also when flowering occurs.  Tubers will stop forming when the temperature hits 80 degrees, this is why potatoes are considered cool weather crops.  The next phase involves the tubers growing larger.  The final phase involves the leaves and stems dying back, the skins of the tubers hardening, and the tuber sugars converting to starches.  You can harvest at this time, or during the fourth phase you can hand-harvest "new" potatoes while leaving the plant to continue growing more.

An important thing to remember about potatoes is that they are from the nightshade family and do contain small amounts of the toxin solanine.  To ensure that you don't become sick from your potatoes, never eat green potatoes.  Tubers will turn green when exposed to light; in the garden you can prevent this by keeping tubers that show above ground covered with dirt or a heavy mulch; once harvested store potatoes in a brown paper bag to reduce light exposure.  Also, after flowering the potato plant may develop fruits on it, these are toxic and should not be eaten.  For the home garden it may be best to pick all of the potato flowers when they fade to prevent accidental ingestion of the fruits by children or visitors.  Potatoes are generally cured in order to allow for skin-set, and increase storage capability.  Similar to winter squashes curing is done by setting them out in a warm, almost hot! place for several days.
Potato flowers

Potatoes make a very pretty flower and could be interplanted with annual or perennial flowers easily, without it being obvious that they are food plants.

I hope this has been as helpful to you as it has to me, and look forward to getting my potatoes started and seeing how well they do.