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Archive for the ‘Growing’ Category

HOMEGROWN Life: Growing, Curing & Storing Onions

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-LIFE-LT-GREENAround here, we go through half a dozen onions a week because we’re slightly nuts, but they add so much flavor to meals, how could we not? There’s no possible way we could grow enough onions to provide for all year long unless we severely cut back, but who would want to do that? We do, however, try to grow as much as we can to meet at least some of our onion needs. There are several different types of onions: Bunching, walking, multiplier, and bulb are the most common. Here, I’ll be talking mostly about bulbing onions.

Once you figure out what works best for you, growing onions can be very rewarding. If taken care of in the beginning, they’re kind of a set-it-and-forget-it crop until harvest.

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Choosing Onions

Growing onions can be very rewarding but it can also be a bit confusing. When you look up onions in your seed catalog, the description will read “Long Day,” “Short Day,” or “Day Neutral/Intermediate.” These descriptions refer to how and where, geographically, the onion grows best. When you plant onions, they’ll start out looking like scallions. When the day length reaches a certain point, the onion will start to bulb. The trick is to get the most greens on the plant before it does this. More and bigger greens = a bigger bulb. But you don’t want it to take so long that it will bolt too early before harvest and before you have a bulb.

  • Short day varieties require 12 hours of daylight to start bulbing.
  • Long day varieties require 14 to 16 hours of daylight to start bulbing.

The general rule is, if you live above the 35th parallel (draw a line from San Francisco to Washington, DC) you’ll want to grow long day onions because you will get longer days to encourage bulbing. Growing a short day variety in the north will cause your onion to bulb too early and end up being too small. Below the 35th parallel, you’ll want to stick with short day varieties. Growing a long day variety in the south will result in an onion that bolts before it ever bulbs because the days never got long enough. If you’re pretty close to the 35th parallel, you can do either type pretty successfully. Our most successful onion variety at our house is Yellow of Parma, which is a long day variety. Day neutral, also called intermediate, can be grown anywhere.

Next you’ll need to figure out what types of onions you want to grow. A good rule of thumb is the sweeter and milder the onion, the shorter the shelf life, or about two months. If you have a bumper crop of red onions, you can preserve them by pickling, or even caramelizing and then freezing them for future use. Onion varieties like Vidalia, Maui, most red types, and Grano are going to have a short shelf life and are best eaten fresh. The more pungent yellow and white onions, such as Yellow of Parma, Ailsa Craig, Copra, and Cortland, can be stored for as long as 12 months. We usually grow one-third red onions and one-third yellow onions.

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Growing Onions

There are several ways you can plant onions. You can use seeds, transplants, or sets. Sets are basically miniature onions that you plant out. Sets are 1-year-old onions, so they can sometimes be more prone to bolting early, as onions are biennials and flower in their second year. Onions transplant very well, so you can start with transplants to get a jump on the season. I usually start with seed but have found that onions are a bit finicky about direct sowing, so I start them indoors and then transplant them out. I like to use seed mostly because there are many more varieties available that way than in any other form.

You can plant your onions en masse. When you do, just tease them apart. I start them in flats in the greenhouse and once they are about 3 inches tall, I transplant them in a well-amended, loose bed of soil. Don’t use a high nitrogen fertilizer for onions, although you do want to offer them some nitrogen. What you want is more phosphorus to encourage root growth. A good amendment would be a combination of poultry and steer (or goat) manures.

There are two very important things to know about growing onions. They need a good amount of water, especially when they’re young, and they really dislike competition from weeds. You can mulch around them with straw after they’re big enough to help with both of these issues.

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Harvesting Onions, Curing Onions & Storing Onions

When the tops of the onions start to fall over, you are nearing harvest time. We usually wait until almost all of the tops are down and most are beginning to dry up before harvesting. We harvest in August, when it’s bone dry here, but if you live somewhere that rains, make sure to wait until you have a nice break in the rain and the ground has a chance to dry out some before harvesting. Don’t pull the onions out by their tops. Instead, use a shovel or a fork to gently lift them out of the ground. You want to keep the top on through the curing process to avoid opening the onion up to pathogens that could cause their early demise.

Other things to watch out for are bruising and onions that have bolted. The bolted onions will have a stiff stem coming up through the center. It is safe to assume that any onions that have dropped on the ground are bruised. These we set aside to be used first. The rest of the onions we lay out on a table in a single layer in a warm area with good circulation but out of direct sun. We have a metal patio table with a mesh top that works well for this but we also use a wood table with just as much luck. Don’t wash them or peel off any layers.

Allow your onions to cure for about 2 weeks. The tops and roots of the plant will dry down to nothing. Once they are completely dry, the curing process is done and you can trim the top and the roots. Store them in a cool, dark place. We store them in small burlap bags in our water tower and garage. I prefer the smaller bags because it allows all of the onions to get plenty of air circulation. The larger, coffee-bean-sized burlap bags always end up causing the onions in the center to rot first.

A proper curing will ensure that your onions keep for a good, long time. I do find as they age they become more pungent and oh, boy, can they leave you in tears! Just throw them in the freezer for about 10 minutes prior to cutting to avoid crying all over your cutting board.

Some resources for onion seed:

Rachel-Dog-Island-FarmRachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

HOMEGROWN Life: From September Rains to Holiday Radishes, Farmer Bryce Traces How Marginal Land Could Furnish America’s Christmas Dinner

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

 

HOMEGROWN-life-bryce-logo-150x150Ah, yes. A rainy September morning.

It’s one of the glories of the annual cycle of seasons on the farm. Here in western Missouri, fall planting has commenced. Lettuce and spinach and radishes and other leafy and rooting plants are in the ground. But right now they’re just sitting there, waiting for calming temperatures and moisture. After a burning August (I’m not complaining; 2014 had some good and timely rains), we’re hoping for the heat to break and the fall crops to take off.

They need to get going soon if we’re to have a harvest in the next few weeks. The sun is rapidly retreating. The soil is still pretty dry. And yet, even knowing those conditions, we hope things will work out. Maybe the fall will be long and mild. Maybe the temperature will be in that magic 65-degree high, 45-degree low range until Christmas. Maybe.

HOMEGROWNsubmitthanksgivingphotosIt’s all relative, though. I count myself lucky. I live on fairly marginal farmland for specialty crop growing, specifically vegetable production. For the most part, that’s due to our occasional super-high winds and wild temperature fluctuations. And then there’s bug damage and disease and wilt—the latter thanks to our spotty but sometimes incredibly heavy rains. But this is only “marginality” in comparison with other places where veggies are the specialty, such as the mountain-protected regions of the American West. I’m talking about you, California. And you, Colorado River Basin.

I pick on the Colorado River watershed a lot in my head, for a very simple reason: Geography and environmental destruction are my nagging worries. I’m a guy who really struggles with water. The Colorado River has water worries in piles and piles. That sucker doesn’t even make it to its delta, on the southeast California-Baja California coast.

And this retreating river is only part of the issue. A lot of the problem has to do with agriculture. The Imperial Valley supplies an estimated 80 percent of US-produced winter vegetables. As the writer and photographer Pete McBride tells it, we might not realize it, but we Americans “eat the Colorado River” during Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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That’s because the majority of fresh produce in grocery stores has a Colorado River pedigree during the holidays. The microclimate there and the farmers in the region have developed a serious agribusiness based on the area’s “economic competitiveness,” or giant monocultures of industrial vegetables that get shipped out to the highest bidder.

I woke up to this reality while I was enjoying this morning’s rainstorm. Mother Jones blogger Tom Philpott laid it out clearly: The highly veggie-productive Colorado River region could be facing an absolute lack of water very soon.

So what does that mean for Midwestern, Southern, and Eastern veggie growers like me? We better get our acts together. We better embrace our advantages of fall and winter production, construct hoop houses and greenhouses, and try to build on the beginnings of a nonsummer production season.

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Because those of us with experience know a longer season is ripe for the picking. We’re not trying to steal the market from our farmer friends in the Southwest. Rather, we know two things:

  1. Local food is fresher and can have a much smaller carbon footprint than industrial produce.
  2. People want a more transparent food system that aligns ecological practices with healthy meals.

So, get ready, veggie growers. Whether we like it or not, somebody needs to provide the greens and radishes and carrots for all those holiday meals. Entire industries are built upon such societal shifts. The question is whether, through agricultural policy and funding, we, as produce growers, and we, as a society, can make the transition away from desert-based veggie production in a manner that limits harm while providing maximum local economic development.

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Maybe it’s time we quit listening to all of those economists who keep nay-saying “government picking winners and losers.” If we can transition the fall and winter veggie system in our country from the desert Southwest to the Midwest, South, and East, everybody can win. Yes, everybody: farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Who knows? Maybe that broader geographic distribution of farm laborers who follow the produce would help us fix immigration policy, as well. Maybe not. But it’s worth pursuing.

HOMEGROWN-life-Bryce-OatesBryce Oates is a farmer, a father, a writer, and a conservationist in western Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig some potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.

PHOTOS: (HOLIDAY PLATE) JENNIFER; (ROOTS AND GREENS) ANDREA DiMAURO; (HIGH TUNNEL) RICHARD MAXWELL; (FENNEL APRICOT STUFFING) PENNY V.

Sneak Peek: HOMEGROWN Skills Tent Schedule at Farm Aid 2014!

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

 

North Carolina, here we come! Farm Aid 2014 is right around the corner—September 13 at Walnut Creek Amphitheatre, in Raleigh—and you may have heard that a bunch of real pros are headlining. (You know, just some guys named Willie, Neil, John, Dave, and Jack, among others.) But over on the HOMEGROWN Skills Tent schedule, you’re the talent!

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What’s this HOMEGROWN Skills Tent, you ask? Good question! From noon to 5 p.m. on the concert grounds, a county-fair-style hoedown called the HOMEGROWN Village sets up camp, featuring interactive exhibits from groups across the country. One of the main attractions in the Village is the HOMEGROWN Skills Tent, hosting hands-on workshops connected to food, farming, and homesteading—similar to the fun and juicy how-tos you know and love from the HOMEGROWN 101 library. Except live. In person. Requiring your elbow grease. (Can’t quite picture it? Check out photos from the HOMEGROWN Skills Tent at Farm Aid 2013.) Are you ready to get those hands dirty? Good! Here’s what’s on tap!

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HOMEGROWN SKILLS LINEUP!

12:30 p.m.
Shell-off Smackdown: Sustainable Fishing 101

What’s the right way to shuck an oyster or a clam? And what’s a community-supported fishery anyway? Find out when Chris McCaffity and Debra Callaway of the cooperative Walking Fish join chef Sharon Kennedy in a demo on shucking technique. Then pit your newfound skills against the pros in a shrimp-cleaning faceoff. Ready? Set? Shell!

1:30 p.m.
Hair-DO: Flower Crowns 101

Get gussied up for Farm Aid 2014 and support local farmers to boot! Maggie Smith of Pine State Flowers, Durham’s sole local-only flower shop, leads a workshop on making hair garlands using North Carolina-grown flora provided by Spring Forth FarmWaterdog Farms, and Wild Hare Farm.

2:30 p.m.
Grow It Again: Seed Saving 101

Love the veggies you grew this year? Did you know you can save the seeds and reap their bounty again next summer? Hilary Nichols of SEEDS, a nonprofit educational community garden in Durham, walks you through the cleaning and storing process. Courtesy of the Digging Durham Seed Library, you’ll take home ready-to-plant seeds whose offspring you can save and share next year!

3:30 p.m.
Spice It Up: Pepper Jelly 101

Wondering what to do with all those chiles from your garden? Two words: pepper jelly. Audrey Lin and Debbie Donnald of Two Chicks Farm show you how to make your own spread while sharing some back-fence wisdom on farming and the benefits of fermented foods.

4:30 p.m.
Friends in Deed: Friendship Bracelets 101

Show your pal—and your environment—some love! Grab a buddy and make friendship bracelets from natural fibers (alpaca, sheep’s wool, hemp) with the good folks of Abundance NC.

 

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MORE WAYS TO GET INVOLVED!

First things first: Download the swanky new Farm Aid 2014 app and get concert updates on your phone!

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A (very!) few tickets for Farm Aid 2014 remain, but there are plenty of other ways to join the party! Visit farmaid.org/events for details on Friday farm tours, a Thursday-night dinner at City Farm in Raleigh, and more. Stay tuned to Farm Aid’s About the Concert page for news, and share your own route to the concert on social media using #Road2FarmAid. We’ll see you there!

 

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