Friday, March 24, 2017

Allium progress


2016 was a very disappointing year when it came to onions.  The season started off badly and never seemed to get any better.

Firstly, I tried a different approach when I sowed the seed.  Instead of using a plug sheet as in the previous year, I scattered the seeds in large 2"x4" cells.  I was hoping to (1) gain space under the grow lights and (2) minimize drying out of the soil as it was more difficult to tell when the plug sheet needed watering and I would tend to let them dry out too much.

All was well and good...until I had an issue with damping off and lost a good number of seedlings.  Of course, grouping seedlings into one large cell means that the disease easily spread and I likely lost more than I would have had I used a plug sheet.

Conservor shallots in 2016, succumbing to damping off


Of those that survived and made it out to the garden, a good portion subsequently withered when the weather turned hot and I failed to stay on top of watering.  The result?  A 38 lb. reduction in the total harvest compared to 2015.


When it comes to how many onions we use, I actually think the total number harvested (177 onions) is an adequate amount IF the onions are a normal size.  Unfortunately, this was not the case last year.  Every variety ended up being significantly smaller than it should have been.  The Copra's, for example, averaged 31 grams per onion vs. 110 grams the previous year.

The curing rack was only half full this year


But that wasn't all - the onion bed was on the hilltop which is, as it turns out, much windier than the main garden.  Netting on the onion beds that keeps out leek moths* kept blowing off all summer.  So not only did I harvest fewer, smaller onions, but I also had a significant amount of leek moth* damage.  Didn't I say it was a bad onion year?

The leeks suffered from more or less the same issues as the onions.


However, since leeks are a peripheral crop for me and it was only my 2nd attempt at growing them, I'm ok with the results.

So here we are in 2017 - another year and another opportunity to improve and correct the mistakes of the past.

The onions, leeks and shallots were seeded on February 19th.  This time round, I decided to go back to using a plug sheet - at the very least, this would limit the spread of disease should damping off strike again which, thankfully, it hasn't.

I've been much more mindful when it comes to watering, checking the trays regularly both visually and by lifting them up.  I find that weight is usually the best gauge of when to water...it just takes a bit of practice since a plug sheet is deceivingly heavy (compared to a cell pack, for example), even when bone dry.

72 plug sheet

This year, I'm growing the same varieties as I did last year, plus one new one (Wethersfield) 'cause I just couldn't resist - you know how it is :)

All of the onions are storage types with the exception of Ailsa Craig which is a large - sometimes VERY large - sweet-type onion that only keeps for a couple of months.  I don't grow many of these, but I keep them in the lineup since they do make me smile.

Slightly out of focus photo taken by my daughter
of one of my largest Ailsa Craig's harvested back in 2014

2017 varieties:

Red onions: Red Wing, Rossa di Milano, Wethersfield
Yellow onions: Copra, Jaune Paille des Vertus, Ailsa Craig
Shallots:  Camelot, Ambition
Leeks:  Lancelot, Autumn Giant

I decided to pre-germinate the onion & shallot seed and sow 3 seeds in each plug.  Pre-germinating ensures that I have exactly 3 seedlings per cell (most of the time, anyhow) and there is no need to thin/transplant.  The only exception is leeks - I have pre-germinated them in the past but, for some reason, seem to have better overall luck if I sow them directly into the soil.

Onion seedlings after a haircut - just over 4 weeks old

No growing season, however, would be complete without some germination issues, right? ;)

When it came to the alliums, the troublemaker was the new guy - the Wethersfield onions from Baker Creek.  After only one day in their damp paper towel, many had developed a fuzzy mold.  They were the only variety that had this issue so I'm assuming it was the seed.  I decided to abandon pre-germination on this variety and sowed the remaining seeds directly into the plug sheet.  I did get some germination but it was nowhere near 100%.  Out of 52 seeds sown, only 29 came up - just a bit better than 50%, which is pretty darn bad for a fresh packet of seeds.

And this, my friends, is the reason why it's always a good idea to sow extras - the Wethersfield shortfall will be made up by the other varieties.

With the exception of the little Wethersfield hiccup, things are looking good on the onion front.  This weekend, I'll be laying plastic on the onion beds to warm them up and it won't be long before the little seedlings are transplanted in their final spot.  Hopefully Mother Nature cooperates and doesn't throw us another curve ball.

*I originally thought that the alliums were being attacked by onion maggots but have subsequently realized that, in fact, I was dealing with leek moths so have adjusted this post accordingly.

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things” ~~ Robert Brault

18 comments:

  1. I still buy onion sets, so it's very interesting to see how you start onions from seed. I had a sad onion year last year, too. It got too hot too fast and I had to pull them much too early. Here's to a much better onion harvest in 2017!

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    1. Here, here! Growing onions from seed takes a bit of time and there is a leap of faith when you plant out those itty bitty seedlings in April. It seems almost impossible that they will grow to onion proportions in only a few short months.

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  2. Your onion seedlings are looking great. I've only had success with leeks and have pretty much given up on onions. It's fun seeing how such tiny wispy things grow to be so big given time and luck.

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    1. Is that because of the heat? I've heard that in hot climates, you need to set out the seedlings in the fall or winter, so that may be something to consider in the future :)

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  3. Gosh, seeing that curing rack and your harvest records really shows your success! I always start with onion sets--I've never tried to grow onions from seeds. Well, I take that back: Sometimes when they start to go to seed, I pinch off the tops and scatter them in the garden. Now I'm hungry for scallions and onions!

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    1. Sets are certainly easier & less fiddly - just plop them in the ground and away they go. Around here, we don't get much of a selection though - the only set "varieties" are "red, yellow and white"!

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  4. Here's to a great onion year for both of us! I've got about half seed grown and half seedlings from Dixondale this year, and almost all are new in my garden. It will be interesting to see how the seed vs seedlings compare and if there are any keepers amongst the newbies. It's the same around here so far as sets go, the selection is dismal. It's so much more fun to grow from seed simply because of the choices. Plus growing from seeds means I can grow a lot of extras, hopefully, for harvesting as spring onions.

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    1. If we had a source like Dixondale, I'd likely use them as well. The only choice we have other than sets are cell packs from a nursery - and the selection on those is just as bad as with the sets. Most people are surprised by the variety that I grow, not so much because I grow a lot but rather that they didn't realize there were so many varieties out there.

      I'm planning to use the extras as spring onions this year as well & will be comparing those to the perennial bunching onions (although it looks like one of the varieties I grew didn't fare very well over the winter).

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  5. That's a big onion! Judy just made some braised leeks for dinner - they were really good.

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    1. Yum! The great thing about leeks is that they are very amenable to freezing - I wash, slice, bag and then I can enjoy the harvest even in the middle of winter.

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  6. Our onions and shallots did well last year - we are still using them. The autumn planted ones are growing well too.

    Maybe one year we will try growing from seed.

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    1. I bet of you try growing some interesting varieties from seed, you will never go back :)

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  7. Fingers crossed that you have a good year this time round. I always found onions hit and miss and I couldn't put the failures down to anything specific, some years they seemed to do well and others they didn't. Red onions were the bane of my life though, I rarely got them to do well for me.

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    1. There always seems to be some less than perfect aspect of the growing season that I can pin the blame on when things go wrong, but it's always hard to say with certainty as so many things can influence how well a plant grows. I can't say that I've had issues with red onions specifically though - they did just as well as the yellow onions back in my good onion years.

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  8. I do love your curing rack (never had enough to really need that type of setup myself). I am just thinking of the few onion seeds I have and better get them into some soil soon (but mostly grow from sets). Hard to believe you are thinking of transplanting onions soon, I still have chunks of ice and snow cover all around!

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    1. Oh, I do love my rack - it was inspired by Daphne who built a similar one. It sure does make curing onions easy! FYI - it would be super-easy to build a smaller version :)

      Our weather looks to have finally turned and my "schedule" says that I should be transplanting the onions around mid-April. That means I will start hardening them off in another week or so...which is very good news as they are a space-hog and I really need to free up some shelf space under the grow lights!

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  9. Even if it was a disappointing allium year for you, it seems very impressive to me. I have never figured out the growing of onions and leeks. For onions, I was never able to get much of a bulb, despite trying different techniques. I even tried one year with sets... nada.
    Anyway, hope you have a great gardening year! (I hope we all do).

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    1. Thanks Jennifer - onions can be tricky and it's sometimes hard to tell (as with most things, I suppose) exactly what went wrong.

      If you were to consider giving it another go, perhaps try a day-neutral variety and only sow one cell pack (i.e. minimal commitment), just to see if it works for you.

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