The onion harvest is in, sorted, cured and stored. There will be plenty of onions through winter and beyond.
The main lessons this year were to plant multiple varieties, keep them weeded and watered, and allow enough garden space to produce an abundance. The best results were from the starts purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I started my own from seed on Jan. 20, yet that wasn’t early enough. The fruit produced was smaller than the ones from the seed supplier, which are pictured above.
Onions started from seed, Rossa di Milano and Calibri Yellow, were small yet usable. I peeled, sliced and froze the yellow ones. They will be used mostly for winter soup. The small red onions are first to use for fresh eating in tacos and salsa, and sliced on sandwiches. Even though they are small, the flavor is outstanding. Every onion grown will find a home.
For the second year I produced a row of shallots, started from seed. They came out great. Shallots are long keepers and popular as gifts. If anything, I’ll plan to grow more shallots in 2022 and already bought the seeds.
I selected varieties mostly for storage qualities. I have had good luck storing Patterson, Ailsa Craig and Redwing, so they are repeats this year. Sierra Blanca is an experiment in white onions. All four varieties met growing expectations.
A bowl of onions is the heart of a kitchen. Growing one’s own onions is even better. There are four crates of onions in storage so our household is ready for cooking in the coming months.
The legacy apple trees, the ones I planted in the 1990s, are loaded with buds. A few have opened, although the big bloom is yet to come. 2021 has the potential to be a great year for apples. The pear tree looks to have a big bloom as well. We are not past the last spring frost, yet I’m hopeful some of the flowers will bloom long enough for pollinators to do their work.
Even the two new apple trees appear to have blossom buds. They aren’t big enough to support much fruit without bending over like a tree in a Peanuts cartoon.
In past years I put up every apple harvested. Eventually I learned to donate part of a large harvest to the farm where I work. Members of the Community Supported Agriculture project appreciated getting them, and I didn’t have to work as hard. A person needs only so much applesauce, apple butter and apple cider vinegar.
Yesterday I planted the onion patch. About 425 starts of seven varieties, a row for each one. Last year I had eight rows, yet they were closer together which restricted growth. Spreading them out on a larger plot is a second year of experimentation in a long process of being a better onion grower. The onions harvested last year tasted great, and I expect this year’s crop to be the same. I ordered too many starts from the seed supplier, so I’ll put in a patch for green onions from some of them.
Three of seven plots are planted. Next step is to plant cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and more broccoli once I determine where. Garden work is definitely on the agenda for today.
2020 was the first big experiment in onion growing. Onions are basic to cooking and until this year I relied on others to produce onions for the kitchen. It was time to take a step forward and grow my own.
I learned a lot.
Planting from seed at home on Feb. 7, Talon and Red Burgundy onions, and Matador shallots, failed to germinate. Luckily I had split the shallot seeds between home and farm. The farm seeds germinated well. To resolve the home issue I bought some channel trays from the farm and have a heating pad in my shopping cart at the seed store. Before the snow flies I’ll buy a bag of the special soil mix used for starting seeds in channel trays.
On March 21, I planted white, yellow and red onion bulbs bought at the home, farm and auto supply store. I started half in soil mix in trays, and the rest were to be planted directly into the ground. Planting them in trays helped establish roots more quickly. They went into the ground on April 8 and grew well. They produced a number of decently sized onions, yet they had little storage value. At the time they matured I had onions left from last season so these were going bad before I was ready to use them. I might try them again next year, although since I retired from the retail job I don’t get over to that store very often.
On March 23, I planted both pelleted and non-pelleted White Lisbon bunching onions in my newly assembled home greenhouse. They germinated but the wind knocked them off the shelf and ruined them. I have a lot to learn about this style of portable greenhouse. The greenhouse was destroyed in the Aug. 10 derecho so there is an opportunity to do something different next year.
I ordered onion starts from Johnny’s Selected Seeds this year. In the past I used leftovers from the farm. This year I wanted to control which varieties were planted. Ailsa Craig, Red Wing and Patterson starts arrived just in time for planting in our area. On April 14 the whole onion patch was in.
When planting the onions I measured the width of my stirrup hoe and allowed space on either side to fit it between rows while weeding. In theory this was a good idea because it maximized space usage. Next year I’ll follow recommendations and plant rows further apart. It was difficult to fit the hoe in between rows once the plants matured. I planted starts closer together in the rows so I could harvest spring onions as they grew. This part of the process worked well.
Once the rows were planted I used the rest of the onion starts in four or five places, planting them close together to use as spring or green onions. This ensured every spot in the garden plots was used. We had a steady supply of green onions in the kitchen well into summer.
The three varieties purchased as starts produced reasonably well both as green onions and as mature bulbs. The amount harvested will last well into winter if they store as expected. That remains an open question as of this writing, although so far, so good.
The results of this experiment were a step along the way to better onion production. I bought some channel trays from the farm and next year will use a more controlled process to start from seed. I will likely combine home starts with starts from Johnny’s again. The home process for starting from seed needs proofing. Planting rows further apart should help the size of the final product.
The shallots grew well and plenty for kitchen use are in storage. Next year I’ll get shallot seeds and try again to start them from home. I assume the channel tray will foster proper germination and I can use my own starts next year.
With a year’s experimentation behind me, key challenges to address in the 2021 gardening year are:
Achieving proper, uniform germination.
Variety selection to enhance storage properties.
Allow some varieties to grow longer into the season and hopefully get larger.
Should onions started from bulbs play a role in the kitchen garden?
Replicate the relative success of the shallot crop.
Onions are a basic part of American cuisine and growing them well should be high on a gardener’s to-do list. Good progress was made in 2020, as evidenced by the crates of stored onions by the furnace. I’m already thinking about next year.
I like my lawn. It is a great source of mulch for the garden, although it seems like there is never enough.
What is there transitions throughout the growing season. We are currently in clover and around the edges native plants come up like the ones in the photograph.
These are weeds, but they look nice on the counter.
When basil comes in I make pasta sauce of last year’s canned tomatoes, onions, garlic and basil. I’m trying to use up the old tomatoes to make room for new. Pasta sauce varies from preparation to preparation. Near as I remember, this is what I did yesterday.
Summer Pasta Sauce
Drain six pints of canned, diced tomatoes in a funnel. Once thoroughly drained, put them in a slow-cooker, reserving the liquid for another dish. Whizz them with a stick blender until somewhat smooth yet with a few chunks of tomato.
Ribbon all the basil you have (about a cup and a half of chiffonade). Put the basil in the slow cooker and incorporate with the tomatoes.
Dice two cups of onions and mince three or four large cloves of garlic.
Heat two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan. Once shimmering add the onions and stir gently until they begin to turn translucent. Salt to taste. Next add the garlic and cook until the aroma of garlic rises from the pan. After a couple more minutes transfer the mixture into the slow cooker and incorporate.
Turn the cooker on high heat and let it go throughout the morning. Around lunch time stir and turn the heat down to medium. Once it’s dinner time, cook pasta noodles, put the drained noodles in a mixing bowl and ladle a couple of generous servings of pasta sauce on top and mix gently with tongs. It’s ready to serve topped with Parmesan cheese, pepper and maybe thinly sliced green onions.
We served the pasta with steamed green beans picked that morning and simple cucumber salad. We’re in the cucumber season so we eat them constantly. There’s no room for more pickles in the ice box or pantry.
New potatoes are in so I tried a new recipe for potato salad. I cut it back to make less for two people, so it could be doubled or tripled for a dish for potluck. In the time of the coronavirus, there won’t be any potlucks soon.
Summer Potato Salad
Boil a pound of peeled, cubed new potatoes. Don’t boil them to mush. Hard cook an egg and put both in the ice box overnight.
Dice the potatoes into a bowl. Grate the egg into the same bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste, a quarter cup prepared mayonnaise, a tablespoon Dijon mustard, and a generous tablespoon of chopped sweet pickles. Stir gently with a spatula until incorporated. Put the mixture in a refrigerator dish, level it out, and sprinkle paprika on top for decoration. Leave it refrigerated a couple of hours before serving if you can resist eating it at once.
Potato salad has many variations and this is most like what Mother made for us when we were graders.
I’m determined to grow shallots and onions this year. I took the solar powered radio to the onion patch, took down the fence, and weeded until it was done.
The onion starts purchased from the home, farm and auto supply store are growing but not yet forming bulbs. The shallots growing from seed look like they will be something, and soon three varieties of storage onions started from plants will need thinning so there is room for them to grow.
If the garden produces storage onions it would be for the first time. I’m following the guidance of my mentor so there’s hope of success in the form of a bin full of onions stored near the furnace over winter.
A few dozen onions from 2019 remain in the bin. I am so confident of onion success I’m planning to caramelize a big batch of them and transition to reliance on what I grow. More than anything, onions are a mainstay of our kitchen and growing them a key part of making our kitchen garden more relevant.
Among the weeds I found was lamb’s quarters, which grows in abundance without doing anything but planting other things. Lamb’s quarters grows everywhere in Iowa on its own. While culinarians forage these leaves to include in gourmet preparations, in a kitchen garden a cook needs only so many greens. I ate a few of the tender top leaves and composted the rest. They are a tasty green, less bitter than some I grow intentionally.
Around the country protests continue in the wake of videos of the May 25 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported large turnout for demonstrations in nearby Cedar Rapids and Iowa City last night. No one knows how long demonstrations will continue or how long it will take government to act on them. The expectation is government will act.
In 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and ensuing riots in American cities, it took six days for President Johnson to respond by signing the Civil Rights Act. I don’t see any such action coming out of the Trump administration whose reaction has been to build a fence around the White House and seek to retain power by winning the Nov. 3 election.
While we need to eat, the progress of my onion patch may be the least of our worries. What happened to George Floyd shouldn’t happen to anyone. There is systemic racism in the United States, and we must each do something to address it. What will be the enduring legacy of the Black Lives Matter movement? With our current federal government that remains an open question.
Growing large storage onions has been challenging. I yearn to grow large onions and use them throughout the year.
Spring onions? No problem. Larger red, yellow or white, the kind we most use in the kitchen, have eluded me.
I’m determined this year will be different. Toward that end I’ve launched some experiments to see how I can do better.
Friday, Feb. 7, I planted Talon Yellow and Red Burgundy onions at home from seed. After six weeks the yellow germinated, the red did not. After chatting on line with another grower, they pointed out fresh onion seed is important. The Talon Yellow seeds were this year’s crop from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Red Burgundy were end of season discards at the home, farm and auto supply store. Lesson learned: get fresh onion seeds.
That same day I split my Matador shallot seeds with the farm. They are growing their half in the same environment as the rest of their onions, I started mine in a tray at home. Mine don’t look that healthy although they germinated. If the targeted planting time is mid-April, there is time for them to grow and hopefully survive transplant. I’m looking forward to comparing results.
I bought red, yellow and white onions starts from the home, farm and auto supply store. These are the same variety I bought every year since working there. I divided them roughly in half and planted some in soil blocks to give them a head start, and reserved the rest to plant in the ground as soon as it is tillable.
This year I ordered some onion plants from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. They are to be shipped in a couple of weeks and then direct planted in the soil. The varieties are Ailsa Craig, Patterson and Redwing. While more expensive than seed at about 30 cents for each plant, I’m hoping to find something that works in trying it. I would much rather grow everything from seed yet I want other options as back up.
Finally, this morning, I planted six 3 x 3 containers with White Lisbon Bunching Onions from Ferry-Morse (60-110 days). I mixed both pelleted and non-pelleted seeds and broadcast them in the pots. If they germinate and grow, I’ll transplant the entire pots as groups of spring onions. It is a month behind where they should have been started, so we’ll see what happens.
The last part of my experiment is twofold. I am researching types of soil nutrients which support onion growth. My normal process is to hand till composted chicken manure into the soil before planting. If the several garden books in my library suggest another approach, I may try it as long as it is not a commercial, chemical fertilizer. This year I bought a small tiller which will break up the soil more thoroughly than handwork.
I am also planning a disciplined approach to watering and weeding the crop once it is in the ground. Because of our climate, I plan to mulch the crop to retain moisture in the soil. Weeding and regular watering has proven to be challenging, partly because weeding gets away from me and partly because my approach to watering is sparing. With a framework of “experimentation” perhaps I can do better.
I know growing storage onions is possible as I get them from the farms each year. With effort, maybe I can grow my own.
This is my first attempt to grow onions at home and there’s a lot to learn. Once the seeds germinated, I moved them upstairs into sunlight. They grew long and spindly, laying down over each other in the tray. Carefully, I trimmed the tops to about two inches and they sprung up. The expectation is they will start to right themselves and grow more vertically. The backup plan is to buy and beg some onion starts in case these don’t mature. For the time being I’m not giving up on them.
January and February are usually months to read books. I’m working on my fourth but it seems like I’m running behind.
Political work has taken a bite out of my time.
Ambient temperatures have been warm. Absent a cold spell of temperatures below zero, I’m planning to prune our fruit trees this coming cycle of days off. As I lean into retirement I work two days at the home, farm and auto supply store with five days in a row to do what I please. The days are filled with activity.
Sunday I’m scheduled to soil block at the farm, the first time this winter. I bought a small soil blocking tool for home use and planted onions and shallots. It’s the first time doing it at home and what the future holds as I wean myself from greenhouse use over the next few seasons.
Our ice box is getting down to carrots, turnips, bread, dairy and pickles. There are mostly jars of things. Light permeates the glass shelving, revealing what’s in the bottom drawer. Growing season is a couple of months away.
Our cooking is from the pantry and freezer. We have storage onions and potatoes and lots of garlic. Apples from our trees and the orchard have been gone a few weeks. There are plenty of canned goods. We have enough to last us until spring arrives, supplemented by weekly trips to the warehouse club and grocery store.
Winter in Iowa has changed. It’s weird. It’s not consistent from year to year. I try to adapt and still find the new experience a bit sucky. Are you winter or not? No response.
As I finish this post, a prelude to getting ready for work, I feel ready: ready for what’s next, ready for something different, ready to move on. In this winter morning I’m ready to emerge from my book-lined writing space and ascend to the kitchen, and all that happens there, midst a winter lament.
We are in peak apple season at the orchard where I’ve been working more hours compared to August. Time at the home farm and auto supply store continues to be predictable work and a regular paycheck. I’m working more volunteer hours in politics as the general election is just six weeks away. The garden is finishing with some plots ready to be cleared.
September was a month of plain living.
People don’t often use the phrase “plain living.” Most don’t want to be plain. I embrace it. I don’t know why I’m walking this blue-green sphere, but I am, and want to get along as I get by. Maybe that’s enough of a goal. It makes a life.
On Wednesday I read Anthony Bourdain’s “Appetites: A Cookbook” from cover to cover. I needed to get away. Many of his anecdotes have been out there, although there is always something new to learn. While meat is not on my bucket list of culinary adventures, there are a dozen Bourdain recipes I’ll try and hopefully adapt to our kitchen.
I’m usually on my own for Thursday dinner and had Bourdain in mind as I prepared a burger. It began after work at the home, farm and auto supply store with a trip to the warehouse club. I selected S. Rosen’s Plain Mary Ann hamburger buns. This bun is not a wonder of nutritional value. Like me, it’s plain. The warehouse club sells them in bags of 16 for a couple of bucks, which means I froze most of them to use later. Bourdain said bun selection is very important. This made in Chicago and trucked to Coralville bun fit the bill.
Our burgers are commercial veggie patties and like the bun, plain and utilitarian. They fill in for “burger” in the iconography of consumer life. I cooked the patty, and prepared the bun with Dijon mustard on the bottom, ketchup on the top, thinly sliced onion from the CSA and a thinly sliced tomato from the garden. As the burger warmed, I put a piece of Swiss cheese on top to melt. The goal in ingredient selection is to make the burger so it can be eaten without a bib. Served with a side of corn chips and salsa and apple cider it made a meal. It reminded me of childhood.
September was also the month I harvested my best crop of tomatoes, ever. There were enough to free me from any single preparation so I have several variations of tomato sauce in the ice box and freezer. Enough to last most of the next year. A few remain on the kitchen counter but they won’t last long. I have salsa with the abundant crop of Jalapeno peppers in mind.
One could do a lot worse than to live a plain life with plain folk. That of itself can be extraordinary. Especially with a burger for dinner.