Kitchen Garden

Planting Onions

Tray of planted onion seeds on Dec. 28, 2022.

For a few years I over-wintered garlic. Since then, there has been something going on in the garden year-round. Yesterday I planted onion seeds and situated them on the heating pad. If they sprout, I’ll have a couple hundred starts to transplant into the ground this spring.

It seems early to plant anything, yet I checked with a vegetable farmer and they agreed Dec. 28 was just fine for onions. Their farm needs to get things rolling for their much larger onion and herb operation. But first, the person who is staying in the onion room needs relocating.

I had very few onions last year. I couldn’t keep up with the weeding. There is a better plan this season. We eat part of an onion almost every day, so it’s an important crop to successfully grow at home.

Between Christmas and the new year is a quiet time. We decided on a menu for this coming weekend when we expect visitors. Today I plan to provision to match the menu. There are a few errands to run as well.

Ambient outdoors temperature is already up to 45 degrees. It appears it will be another weird weather January. For now, I enjoy the quiet and take each day as it comes. I relish the last of the quiet days before the new year.

Kitchen Garden

Summer Begins

Vidalia onions, garlic scapes and fresh basil.

White butterflies flit around cruciferous vegetable plants laying eggs. It is a sure sign summer is here. I spend more time in the garden and noticed increased insect life. In addition to the green worm-producing butterflies, there are plenty of pollinators. Insect life is a blessing and a curse, something with which gardeners learn to live. There should be a big harvest this year.

Using a scissors, I clipped the top parts of chervil plants and held the herb in my hands. The mild anise fragrance was intoxicating. It made about two cups of loosely packed leaves which are washed, dried, and in a tub in the refrigerator waiting for me to figure out how to use the herb.

I plan to make my first batch of pesto today of mustard greens, garlic scapes, pine nuts, extra virgin olive oil, and salt. Mustard is strongly flavored and will dominate the pesto. There is little benefit to adding herbs as they would be overpowered. Will see how it tastes when I get into the project. I have plenty of basil yet I may reserve that for a more traditional pesto.

Today is the first day of summer and we ended spring with spaghetti and peas for dinner. The sauce was made of last year’s tomatoes, vidalia onions, garlic scapes and fresh basil. Tomato sauce so good I had to stop and consider how lucky we are to have a garden. It was a fine way to welcome summer.

Kitchen Garden

Shift of Onion Planting

Pizza toppings: Kalamata olives, spring onions and red bell pepper.

On Saturday I spent seven hours planting onions. The names of onion varieties are delightful: Walla Walla, Red Carpet, Ailsa Craig and Rossa di Milano were started from seed.

I emptied the wagon and hooked it to the lawn tractor to haul heavy things. I used to carry the 100-foot water hose, tiller and everything else out there, yet I don’t want to risk being injured. This is a concession to age. The new system reduced the number of trips back to the house.

I filled the small cooler we received as a wedding gift with iced water and a couple of canned beverages. When I got thirsty, a drink was nearby. Hydration is important when working in the sun, as are frequent rest breaks.

This may be the last year for seeding my own onions. Onion starts from the seed supplier have done better than home-seeded ones. It is the final results that matter. I planted three long rows of Patterson onion starts, figuring this would be the mainstay for long-term storage. The variety did well last year so we’ll see how they do.

When I finished for the day, I showered and made a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner. I didn’t feel like cooking. I sliced some store-bought radishes in half and had them as a side dish. Garden radishes should be ready soon. I fell asleep in the reading chair shortly after sitting down. Knowing my condition, I set the alarm to wake me in time to view the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate debate. The primary election is June 7.

My spouse has been at her sister’s home since Earth Day and I’m ready for her to return. Today’s forecast is clear with more wind than yesterday. I should finish the onions and till at least one more plot. Gardening season seemed like it would never arrive, yet it has.

Kitchen Garden

Gardening Begins

Garden on May 31, 2021

Gardening season has begun!

Onions and shallots planted Jan. 6 were ready to come off the heating pad. The only note is shallot seeds from 2020 did not germinate this year. Because I also planted new seeds, everything is fine. I replaced onions and shallots on the heating pad with a flat of kale, broccoli and collards on Feb. 6.

It doesn’t require much work at this point. There is soil mix from last season. Making and planting a flat of soil blocks took about an hour. The worst part was the garage was pretty chilly. I was able to stand the cold and finish the work.

About a dozen seed catalogues arrived since Jan. 1. I went through them yesterday and believe I have what is needed. I’ll take another look and order what may be lacking in my seed collection this week. I started older seeds on Sunday. There is plenty of time to see if they germinate. Once they do, I’ll plant the next flat of early seeds.

Snow remains on the ground. Since provisioning last Thursday, I haven’t left the house except to retrieve the mail and deliver the recycling bin to the street. I’m thinking by late March I can plant cruciferous vegetables in the ground. Once the snow melts there will be a lot of outdoors work. I’m ready for it. It’s time to garden.

Kitchen Garden

Gardening in 2022

Shallot and onion starts – 2022.

The gardening season kicked off in Big Grove Township with onion and shallot planting on Thursday. I planted two varieties of shallots and five of onions. After consultation with farmer friends, I decided to start earlier this year to see if my starts had a better result for planting in the spring. The trays will rest on a heating pad until they germinate. I ordered onions starts from the seed company again as an insurance policy.

Friday was the coldest day of winter thus far. It reached ten degrees below zero and ambient temperature is expected to remain below freezing until Monday when sub-zero temps return. If the forecast holds, I plan to be pruning trees Monday as the sap will have stopped flowing by then. Like with anything relying on weather, I’ll wait to see what happens.

Friday was trash pickup day. There was no trash in the trash cart and the recycling cart was less than a third filled. Because of the cold I left them in the garage this week. We are getting good at reducing our household waste.

We have provisions enough to last a couple weeks without leaving the house. This week, the county public health department suspended COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing. They issued a press release, which said, in part,

During the past week, there has been a 250% increase in cases from the previous week. The total amount of cases in the past week reached an all-time high of almost 1,400 positive individuals. Due to this dramatic increase, Johnson County Public Health no longer has the ability to contact everyone who tests positive to conduct case investigations and contact tracing. JCPH will continue to monitor COVID-19 cases in high-risk groups and coordinate with organizations who experience a rise in cases, evaluate capacity, and keep the public informed of changes in our COVID-19 response.

Email from Johnson County Public Health dated Jan. 5, 2022.

This is what it looks like when a pandemic inundates the public health system. They can’t do their normal work because there are too many cases of COVID-19.

It is probably best, with the cold, the raging pandemic, and a full pantry and refrigerator, we stay home and bunker in. There is no lack of things to do. We want to live until spring to plant these onions and shallots in the ground. The 2022 gardening season has begun.

Kitchen Garden

August is for Onions

Four main onion varieties in 2021.

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.

Kitchen Garden

Apple Blossom Bloom

Apple blossoms on April 18, 2021

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.

Kitchen Garden

Onions 2020

Onions Drying

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.

Onion page from the garden journal.

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.

Kitchen Garden

Weeds in the House

Wildflowers, July 11, 2020

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.

Kitchen Garden

Weeding the Onion Patch

Kohlrabi greens with spring onions and garlic, steaming in vegetable broth.

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.