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

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