Back in October the first planting for the 2013 season was made. The garlic went in and has been overwintering in the field. When the soil warms in spring they will be one of the first crops growing. This January weekend is time to begin many of the remaining allium crops.
Every farmer strives for efficiency, cost effective production and simplicity. My methods work for my work style, resources and production needs. Having made most of the mistakes possible I have also learned what not to do. I begin with quality seed and varieties that have proven results. For onions I like Ailsa Craig for fresh eating/slicing, Copra for everyday/storage onion, and for leeks I plant Lincoln for late summer production and the giant/blue late season/winter varieties. These are all started from seed.
Onions are started in two manners. For individual onions like the Ailsa Craig they are seeded into a seeding flat that has been filled with bedding mix. This is the same bedding mix I made back in October and have allowed to cure/stabilize for the last four months. The mix has a mild, earthy smell that tells me it is in good condition. The crumbs improved and texture is loose but held together by the extensive fungal hyphae. The flats are filled and watered and given a few days to settle. Seeds are dropped in on a tight grid. I use the Biodymanic calendar to determine appropriate days to seed. Anne Elder of the Community Farm of Ann Arbor taught a session at a CSA Conference years ago that introduced me to Biodynamics. Many of the concepts and ideas have valid impacts on growing. The calendar is one areas of the Biodynamics I have experienced positive results from.
The other onion method is to multi-seed paper pots. The pots are made of unused newsprint that I bought from a local printing shop. The Print shop gets a couple of dollars for several hundred linear feet on end rolls. I can make thousands of paper pots with that. The pots are hand rolled to about 2” diameter and 2.5 inches high. The pots are placed on food trays in staggered rows that maximizes space. They are filled with bedding material and tapped down firmly with 1 ¾ “ dowel. A 3/8” dowel, sharpened in a pencil sharpener, is used to make a seed cavity about ¾” deep in the center of each pot. Four/five seeds are dropped into each. I like the deeper tight space of this method than the small divot on soil blocks that is commonly recommended. Many onions and leeks grew twisted or fell over in blocks. I tried plasticulture and found it much less space efficient. Transplanting paper pots is a about as easy as soilblocks. The whole thing is placed in the soil. The paper degrades in a short time. The only drawback is that the paper can create a type of collar that sticks up. This can wick moisture when it is dry so I make sure to tear back or plant deep enough to keep this from occurring. For leeks I use the same paper pots as I do for onions. The only difference is they are transplanted deeper to blanch a long segment.
With multiplant techniques like this additional space is needed around each grouping of plants. This space makes for easy cultivation after transplant and mulching or side dressing as the season progresses. These methods are covered extensively in Eliot Coleman’s books on Organic farming and Four Seasons methods. Even with the tight grouping of plants, production is robust.
The food trays with paper pots are first placed on heating mats for ideal germination. When the alliums emerge they are moved under shop lights that are kept on for 24 hours a day. With a cool basement (60 degrees) and just regular 40w bulbs, the plants grow slow and vigorous. Having read through University research the total amount of light and intensity come out fine. No, the plants don’t seem to be affected by not having a dark period. They don’t get leggy like warm greenhouses either. The seeding flats need to have their onions clipped otherwise they grow through the lights. The others seem to grow slow enough that they only get tall enough to be a problem about the time they go outdoors to harden off. They are transplanted according to the Biodynamic calendar in April once the soil is workable. In a good year some are harvested in June for fresh onions and the remainder during July and August.
Some years I’ve bought onions starts. Their cost is quite a bit higher and they don’t yield as well with a lot of variability among plants. They are available from local greenhouses and cost ~$2.00 per 60 plant bundle. I have bought some directly from the monster onion producer in Texas but with shipping they add up to about the same price for the quantities I order. The producer clips the tops and roots of these starts. I tend to think they also boost them with liquid fertilizers. On my organic soils they have a rough transition and never seen to thrive like my own plants. Some local growers rave about them, but they also use a lot of nitrogen fertilizers and irrigation water to create softball size fresh onions.
It’s good to be planting and working on the current year crops….
P.S. A favorite quote I ran across this week: “ We are changing food system one acre at a time.”
Posted by Farmer Pete
@ 10:45 AM EST