Thursday, March 29, 2012

Planting Onions with Respect

In year’s past, we’ve always planted Onions in the inbetween places in our garden.  Frequently, this is the perimeter of some planter where they tend to get shaded out by whatever plant we’ve squeezed it in next to.  We are notorious for jamming as many plants into our planters as possible, often ignoring the recommendations for spacing.  

And, we also broke another cardinal sin – Onions have shallow roots that spread out wide from the plant.  They don’t like to have their surrounding soil disturbed.  We planted them immediately next to things that needed to be harvested earlier, or required a late-season replanting, we were interrupting their peaceful growth.  Head-slap.

Onions 2011, sharing with Cucumber Trellis space
Our Onion crops definitely have been weak, as a result of both of these factors.  It's a simple matter of respect.  If you want them to be filler around other plants, they won't be getting the full nutrients and attention that would make them the lead vs. second fiddle.

This year is the year for our Onions to graduate and take the lead.  So, we decided to rotate crops in our planters a bit, and take advantage of the new planters in our Berry Garden.  We consulted the Vegetable Gardner’s Bible to make sure we were not following incompatible crops.  That book is such a timesaver, because you can just look up any vegetable, and it will tell you what is safe to follow, and what is not.  No guesswork at all.
Small Onions near harvest time 2011

We decided that after 3 seasons on the front entrance to our garden, it was time to move Sweet Basil to a different 4x4 box in the OctoGarden.  Onions would now take their place.  This time, they would be spaced right, and we already have the drip irrigation in this box – a trend I will convert the rest of the garden to this season.

We removed the remaining Sweet Basil stalks and root balls from the prior season by using a pitchfork on the soil first to loosen it up.  We then turn the soil over more vigorously, breaking up the larger clumps by hand.  Once the old soil is broken down to a homogeneous fine granular state, then we mix in some compost until the color is even.   
Onion Box, divided into 4 sections with Plant Bundles
Using a Yardstick for spacing the planting
Finished planting with drip irrigation

There are two types of Onions you will generally find at your local Nursery or Farmer’s Market: Sets and Plants.  Basically, Sets are teeny weeny little baby plants, all wrapped in a bundle.  Plants are simply larger.  And, there’s a wide variation in both bundles.  But, as you can imagine, you get more plants in the Sets Bundle (usually 50-100) than the Plants Bundle (usually 20-30).

I went shopping for the Onions this year all on my own.  Deb said Sets, but of course I spaced out and bought Plants.  In the end, I think we actually come out better with the Plants, and here is why:  We always end up wasting Sets, as we want to have more than one variety, but it’s just way too many at once in the small spaces we’ve allowed.  So, while you pay less per Set than you pay per Plant, in the end you can spend slightly less by getting the right number of Plants with no waste. 

Not to mention the plants are weeks farther along so a bigger chance to get larger Onions.

We divided the garden into 4 sections, and then within each section measured out spacing to keep the onions 4 inches apart.  We used a wooden yardstick from Home Depot to measure, and just used our forefingers to poke holes in the soil.  The Onion Plants are narrower than a pencil, so a hole the size of your finger is plenty to get their roots into the soil.  Remember that they grow mostly out of the soil, with only their butts and the shallow roots into the soil, only a few inches at best.

We alternated the 4” spacing in 5 rows of 5 Plants, to create 4 sections with 25 plants each.  We planted Red  Zeppelin, Walla WallaCandy Apple Red, and Spanish Yellow Onions this year.  100 total Onions in our box that is approximately 40” by 40” on the inside.

We hope that by giving them the peace of having their own box, and a consistent soil that won’t be disturbed, we can get some full-sized Onions this year. 
Alternating spacing between rows
Make the holes first, plant later

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wallowaters Successfully Makes Annuals into Perennials

When we first started using Wallowaters in 2001, it was to help us plant tomatoes earlier because Colorado has such a late last frost date (May 15 in our area).  However, we found that they had another use that was pretty amazing - they allowed us to make annual herbs like Thyme, Rosemary, and Tarragon into perennials.  Yes, the plants themselves are technically perennials, but when they are planted in climates that don't support them coming back, they are in practice, annuals.

But, not any more!

Over the years, we've expanded this to include anything in the garden that we hope will come back the following year, having success with Oregano, Parsley, Cumin, and just about any other plant that will fit underneath.  Subsequently, our early and late-season photos of our garden always include Wallowaters.

Wallowaters in the OctoGarden Spring 2012

Besides having your plants come back in the spring, there are other benefits too.  In years like 2012, where we had Spring weather in January, and Summer weather in March, we actually have had useable fresh herbs for months before most in our area even consider planting their annual herbs.  This translates into larger and more productive plants for the rest of the season as well.  After doing this a few years, I'd never consider going back to buying new herbs every year, and if one doesn't survive, it's quite disappointing.  Wallowaters are that good.
So, how good do these work?

Well, we had a relatively mild winter overall, but we did have some particularly cold spells in November, December, and February.  Yet, across the board, all of our Wallowaters kept our plants alive and well.  And, now that it's March, you can see for yourself what is thriving.

Thyme is thriving, and looks better than some mid-season!

Tarragon is very sensitive to cold, yet look at this beauty!

Oregano is big, mature, and ready to bush out!
So, for those of you reading this, you might be asking whether this informations comes a bit late, as you didn't put these on your herbs last fall.  Well, there is always next year.  But, you should also be considering purchasing Wallowaters now for your Spring planting.

They will allow you to plant your tomatoes and peppers up to 2 months before your last frost. You can use them for a wide variety of other plants, including your spring greens like lettuce, spinach, and kale.

And, you can also use them to get a head start on things like Zucchini that are harder to germinate due to a need for higher soil temperatures.  You can put the Wallowater out on the prepared soil, and raise the temperature for germination.  This works for row-planting, as well as single plants.

If you would like a deal on these for your garden, use the coupon codes below to get a discount at

25% OFF 1 Package of Wallowaters (3 units): WOWSALE

30% OFF 3 or More Packages of Wallowaters:  WOWSALEX3

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Happy Equinox: Time to Plant Lettuce, Spinach, & Kale

Deb and I have had a busy travel schedule this Winter, with trips to Mexico, Aspen, Orlando, and Chicago for both business and pleasure.  Normally, we are on top of our early-season planting for tomatoes and peppers indoors, but we are just at the point where we are gathering our seeds.

Last year, we had tomatoes planted outdoors on March 26 (store bought), and while the weather looks great for doing that, we have some major plans to improve the drainage and soil over there this year, so we might be delayed a week or two.

In the meantime, one of our gardening friends in Fort Collins reported having a harvest of things like lettuce and spinach already, gambling on the unbelievably warm weather we have had since February.  It paid off.

So, with that motivation, we set out on St. Patrick's Day to jump start our garden and kick off the 2012 season.  We decided to move some greens over to the Berry Garden, which is on the opposite side of the original OctoGarden.  Here's what it looked like after clearing out the dead stuff.

Greens Box for 2012
One of the reasons for the move is to start doing something we are very poor at: crop rotation.  While some say we have this "huge" garden, in reality, we feel quite constrained about where we can put things.  While the OctoGarden has as much "full sun" as anyone could ever expect (12+ hours in summer), this actually is an issue for plants that like cooler weather and are susceptible to bolting.  We do great until June or so, when things like lettuce and spinach go bad as they sprout their flowering stems.

So, we are giving the other side of the house a try, as it is somewhat shielded from the sun during early morning and mid-day sun (at least the next couple weeks) while it is lower in the sky.  It's on the North side of the house, but the garage is only one-story tall, so by June it will clear the height by 9-10am.  That said, on the OctoGarden side, which faces South, they are blazing in the sun often by 7am!

After clearing out the root balls from last year's crop of Zucchini and Nasturtium, we then break up all large clumps of soil by hand, and then mix in some compost.  Next, we lay out the area to handle not only our first planting, but also our next planting in a few weeks.  Planting in succession is a strategy to give yourself continual fresh produce, so that you don't just have abundance all at once, then rotting veggies weeks later.  

This box is about 6 feet long, and has an irregular shape due to the angular edge of the property.  If you'll notice in the pictures above, the far side (middle of box, where you see the divider) is wider than the near side.  So, we divided the box approximately in half, and then subdivided each half once again to create 4 sections.  We had 2 types of Kale, 2 types of Spinach, and 4 types of Lettuce to plant this day.

As you can see above, we then used 2 alternating strips to plant the seeds, and then "x'ed out" two strips, where we will plant again in a few weeks, depending on how this crop goes.  We used landscaping rocks to mark off the sections because the lines we drew in the soil will disappear quickly after watering.  This will more or less define the boundaries between different plants.

The seeds are simply sprinkled onto the top of the soil, and then we just rub them in, and top off the area with a light dusting of compost again.

After watering, you can see that the drawn lines are mostly invisible, with only the rocks showing the divisions between sections.  It's always a good idea to use markers as soon as you plant, as it's much more difficult to identify what you've planted after you've put the seeds down.  Well, at least for those of us who have issues with short-term memory and overthinking!

The final tip is for early-season sprouting.  One of the challenges of planting in Colorado in March is that the soil temperatures are often still a bit too chilly to guarantee germination.  In addition, we've had a particularly dry winter, so keeping the soil moist is yet another issue.  So, my trick is to tack down clear plastic over the planted area which both increases the soil temperature, and keeps the moisture from evaporating off quickly.  It's quite effective, but you must remember to remove the plastic once you have established sprouts - as the plastic can damage or kill the young seedlings.

Who likes the "vivid" setting on our new camera?

I use landscaping staples to hold the plastic in place, and this one even survived 40mph winds the day after I put it down.  You can see that it's working when the soil remains moist, and there is moisture building up on the underside of the plastic - it kind of rains back down on the soil.

The plastic is 3-4mm thick (3-4 "mils"), and was purchased from Home Depot.  Here's a link to a larger roll.  You can work with thinner plastic, but I find that it would not survive our Colorado winds very long, and I often re-use the plastic.

I hope that this helps you all get some greens going early as long as we appear to be on the path for a warm Spring!