Onions. One of the great frustrations of gardening. You plant seeds and they turn out puny. You plant sets and they bolt to flower or rot or something. Not worth it, people say.
But really, it's not rocket science, or magic. It's just knowing two things:
So, Tip #1:
You always hear that rich soil, manure, nitrogen, etc isn't good for root crops like carrots or beets. Remember that onions aren't roots. Look closely at the photo. The bulb is made from the bases of the leaves. So, think of them as a leafy green and fertilize accordingly. I've seen even very experienced gardeners starve their onions (and potatoes, too) because of the word "root". Bulbs and tubers LOVE nitrogen.
and, Tip #2:
An onion grows and makes leaves until the day length reaches a certain number of hours. Then, it stops making leaves. The existing leaves start to swell up. The bottom of each leaf eventually swells so much it becomes a ring of the onion. Each onion variety has a specific number of daylight hours that will cue this process.
So, if you sow onion seed now, it has time to make a big plant before the days get long. It can make lots of leaves. Lots of leaves = lots of onion rings. If you start them later, they will be still small when the magic date arrives. And, if the soil gets really warm before they get those long days, they will forget bulbing entirely and make a flower instead.
Short-day varieties, start to bulb when they get 10-12 hours of sunlight. For intermediates it's 12-15, for long-day varieties it's 14-16 hours of light per day. The line between short and long day varieties runs from Washington DC to San Francisco, with intermediate areas being close to that line.
Grains like Wheat and Barley are day-length-sensitive too. The plants will grow bigger and make more leaves and stems while the days are short. As the days lengthen, the plants get ready to bloom and then to mature seeds (grain). Harvest is just after the longest days of the year.
Do you have to understand all this? No. Just understand that you need to start onions now. They can be indoors or in a greenhouse, but they need soil that is 60 degrees or so. They are little bitty things for the first couple of months, so if you sow a couple of pots with onion seed, about 1/2" apart in the pots, you can add them to your tomato and pepper starts without much trouble. Grains should be started directly in the garden--they love cold mud--as soon as the soil can be worked and planted.
Lately I've been thinking about where our seeds come from, and the stories they bring with them. When you plant them, those stories from the past shape the future too.
Every seed tells a story. GMO seeds tell a story about laboratories and big money. Many F-1 hybrids tell a story of proprietary inbred lines, trade secrets and induced sterility. But there are encouraging stories too.
There are the stories of heirloom seeds. Some brought from Italy, China, Ireland, Africa. Some grown as sacred foods on our continent for thousands of years. Some shaped in our own farms, towns and cities by gardeners and farmers saving their own seeds. Heroes like Will Bonsall have collected thousands of traditional heirlooms to save and carry on. I carry lots of these, and try to pass on their stories if I know them. Our "Heirlooms and Their Stories Collection" has seeds from my neighborhood, along with a couple of pages telling their stories. But not all wonderful stories are old, historic ones.
When asked why he didn't patent his famous plant introductions, University of New Hampshire professor Elwyn Meader said "I was working for the taxpayer and the results of my work belonged to them." Today, seed corporations, and even universities, are using patents and GMOs to keep their work locked away from the public. But some public-domain breeders like Jim Myers at OSU have stood firm.
You can read the story of how Monsanto's Seminis Seed Corp tried to steal Myers' work HERE. It's both an outrage and an inspiration.
From the 19th century to the present, our land-grant universities, and small seed growers have given us a diverse heritage of public domain, open-pollinated seed that continues today. If you have grown Oregon Sugar Pod Pea, Waltham Butternut Squash, Grand Rapids Lettuce, Provider Bean, Rutgers Tomato, Clemson Okra, you have harvested the legacy of Jim Baggett, Robert Young, Albert Yeager, and other great public-domain breeders. They believed that improving food plants was a service to humanity, and they were right.
Since 2012, we have a new set of public-domain heros who have voluntarily given up their patent rights as part of the Open Source Seed Initiative. People like Carol Deppe, Frank Morton, Jonathan Spero, and David Podoll are outstanding breeders, and could have made money patenting their work. Instead, they put their varieties in the public domain, for others to save seed and continue to improve. Quail Seeds carries 21 OSSI varieties.
The Open Source Seed Pledge reads:
“You have the freedom to use these OSSI-Pledged seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this Pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.”
This means that, as with open-source software, not only the pledged variety, but all varieties bred from it are protected from patenting. The seeds and their progeny are in the public domain forever. This is what makes crop improvement possible.
The full range of our genetic heritage is essential to safeguard our food supply from drought, disease, and other challenges. In 1970, blight wiped out most of the US corn crop. It was able to reduce millions of acres to slimy rubble because 43% of all US corn was grown from just 6 parent lines, all of which were genetically vulnerable. Luckily, plant patenting didn't exist in 1970. Breeders had access to other corns that did have resistance.
You can learn more about OSSI here. If you love heirloom seeds and want to help preserve and spread them, consider joining the Grassroots Seed Network. It is a great resource for finding heirlooms not offered by seed companies. Membership is free. They have launched a crowdfunder campaign to continue their good work. Check it out at:
My car was stolen in October, and the post I'd written for that month never appeared. Here is a shortened version--too late in some places, and perhaps still useful in others:
It is not clear why so many people are reporting problems with the grains that sustained life for generations. Is the problem in the new, dwarfed, wheats that appeared in the 20th century? In the chemicals and fertilizers used on them? In new harvest methods that no longer allow enzymes to cure the grain? One thing is clear: If you grow heirloom grains at home and harvest them in the traditional way, you won't have to worry about any of those problems.
Wheat is easy to grow. It grows well in climates as diverse as the Middle East and New England. It naturally likes to sprout with the fall rains and grow over the winter. If you want to give it a try, look for one of the taller, hardier heritage varieties like Banatka or Turkey Red. Fork over or till a bed, rake the ground, make furrows an inch deep and 10” apart. Sow every 6-8 inches. Make sure it doesn't dry out before the little plants are up.
If you don't want to bother with grain to harvest, but you want a weed-suppressing winter cover, consider rye. It is planted more shallowly than wheat, so you can just rough up the ground. If you are in a real hurry, you can even scatter rye on the surface and scatter straw over it. Not the best, but better than nothing. When it comes to protecting bare soil from damage, something is always better than nothing.
Hot sauce can be as simple as whirring up a few peppers in the blender, but the best Louisiana hot sauce involves live fermentation, just like pickles. If you've never done fermentation before, hot sauce is a good first project. As always with hot peppers, use gloves, don't touch your eyes or any sensitive skin, and scrub well afterward.
What peppers to use? Hotter than you can comfortably eat. I like Serrano, Criolla Sella or Korean peppers. They are spicy but not lethal, and don't increase in heat after the initial burn. Jalapenos vary wildly in heat, so taste before choosing. Joe's Long Cayenne, is luscious, both hot and sweet. A mixture is fine.
Prepare the peppers:
Rinse and drain your peppers. Using gloves and kitchen shears, chop them into a bowl, discarding the stems. If you like a fruitier hot sauce, you can split and deseed the peppers before cutting them in pieces. (I discard the seeds I can get easily, and leave the rest.) The Korean peppers in the photo are in rings 1/2" to 3/4" thick.
Now pack the pepper pieces into you clean crock or jars, along with the garlic. You want them to be tightly packed. Leave room for the weight, but not a lot of extra room. Finish off each jar with peppers that are not chopped but instead opened out flat and deseeded. These will help hold down the smaller pieces to keep them from scooting up past the weight. You could also use half an onion for this final layer, as in the photo. Smash down the peppers, try to spread your top layer so little pieces can't get past it, and put the weights on. Believe me, you don't want to try to put the weight on after the contents are floating in brine! Add the whey or pickle juice if using.
For the brine:
To make a quart (4 cups) of brine, whisk 3 tablespoons of salt into a quart of water. This is enough to do 2 quart jars of peppers.
Depending on how warm the room is, fermentation should start in 1-3 days. You will start to see bubbles. Check every other day for white scum and skim it off if any appears. It is a normal part of the process and no cause for alarm. (Save any extra brine to top up.) I would recommend fermenting for 2-3 weeks. When the brine is cloudy, the peppers have softened, and the jar has a nice slightly sour smell, you can stop fermentation and bottle. (Professionals go 4-6 weeks until the mixture is so sour that fermention stops. I don't.)
Blending and Bottling
If you have multiple jars of peppers, you don't have to bottle them all at once. I still have some jars of fermented peppers in brine in the fridge, useful for adding to salsas and salads. They keep very well in their jars, in the fridge, like pickles.
To make the sauce, drain most of the brine off of the peppers into a bowl or cup. Don't throw it away! Put the peppers into the blender or food processor, and add just enough brine so that you can blend it up. (A hand food mill or a tomato-sauce machine would make a nice seedless product if available.) When the sauce is as smooth as you like it, it is ready to use. Thin with the brine to your favorite consistency. Refrigerated, it will keep for a year.
To Make a Table Sauce:
To make a hot sauce to keep on the table, (unrefrigerated) you need to add more salt and some vinegar. I generally do this with the clear liquid that separates out after the blended hot sauce sits for awhile. For every cup of the thin sauce, add a 1/4 teasp of salt and 2 Tblsp vinegar.
That's it. One more blow for self-sufficiency.
Cover crops are a confusing topic for most gardeners, and no wonder. Most books expect you to plow them under. To gardeners, that doesn't sound doable. But new research shows that soil-building comes easier than that: from roots.
Of course, the top growth is important; preventing weeds alone is a huge benefit. And preventing soil loss. But out of sight, the roots do much more. Like opening passages for oxygen, feeding earthworms--and dying.
When the tops are cut, the roots die and turn to compost right there in the soil. Compost that you don't have to haul, turn, or shovel. And we aren't talking small amounts here. Winter Rye makes 380 miles of roots per plant. The most fertile soils in the world are grasslands, where the roots grow and die in the soil year after year.
What to Plant? Let Nature be your guide.
Meadows and prairies have a mixture of grasses, legumes, flowers, and taprooted plants. The famously fertile topsoils of the Midwest were built by such plant communities. Use that soil-building synergy in your garden. Your mix should include:
Timing is important
The size of the root system depends on when you plant. It's best to sow cover crops 2-4 weeks before your first fall frost. * Don't be surprised if the plants don't get tall--they will be busy underground. In tests, crimson clover that was was only 2 inches tall by November nevertheless had roots 12 inches deep, with many nitrogen nodules already fertilizing the soil. Rye only 6 inches tall had roots 20 inches deep. All winter, the roots will be holding your soil, providing channels for water absorption, and adding tons of organic matter to your garden.
But how can you plant cover crops when the beds are still full of summer plants? Here are some options:
Don't forget pots and containers.
A low-growing, cover crop prevents your expensive soil mix from getting washed away or taken over by weeds. Calendula, poppies, salad greens, clover, and peas are great for this. If you aren't using the pot, cover it with its saucer to keep weeds out.
*You can find first and last frost dates online. Here is one place:
Tomatoes are coming in at my place and while I probably don't have to tell you how to enjoy tomatoes, I thought this was a good time to remind you of some simple ways I love.
Everyone has recipes for cooked or canned tomato sauce; I won't add to that stack. These are my favorite preparations for enjoying that fresh, fresh summer flavor and keeping it for winter.
Raw: hot-weather lunch
My favorite lunch, dinner, or snack this time of year. Grate, smash, or chop some garlic, add it to olive oil. 1-2 Tbsp oil per person is about right. Add a pinch of salt--this draws the flavor out of the garlic, (and incidentally protects you from botulism if you leave it at room temperature.) Slice a bunch of tomatoes, tear up some basil and some fresh mozzarella. Chop some Italian torpedo onions if you like them. Mix it all up and mop up with crusty bread. Ciabatta is good. Some people add balsamic vinegar.
Lightly Cooked: quick pasta dinner
Put 1/3 to 1/2 lb pasta on to boil. While the water is heating, chop up sweet red pepper--one big bell, or 5 of the small Italian type. A hot pepper if you like. Saute in a skillet with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When they are half-cooked (color has intensified but not soft yet) add 1/2 onion, chopped; a sprig of rosemary; a couple of sage leaves; and a few stems of thyme. If you have fennel, chop and add 1/2 cup of the bulb or a pinch of the leaves. Sprinkle on a pinch of salt as they cook. When the hard veggies are soft, chop or tear up 3-6 tomatoes, depending on size. (Last night I used 3 huge paste tomatoes torn in pieces.) When the juices are bubbling all across the pan, add a handfull of fresh mozzarella, torn up, or 1/4 cup grated parmesan. Put on the lid and take off the heat. (If you use very juicy tomatoes, cook it in an open pan until it thickens a bit. THEN add the cheese and turn off the heat.)
When your pasta is well-drained, put it in a bowl, dump on the sauce, and stir. Serves 2.
Roasted: add flavor, subtract skins
Roasting is a great way to give tomatoes an intense, smoky-fresh flavor to go with main dishes or over pasta. But is also a perfect way to get the skins off for canning or salsa. And honestly, which would you rather do--sit with a cold drink watching a barbeque fire or stand over a hot stove in August?
Getting the skins off by roasting is no more difficult than blanching them in water, and is actually faster, because I can fit so many more on the grill than in the pot. Best of all, this adds flavor instead of diluting it, and subtracts water instead of adding more to an already too-juicy product.
For easy, fast roasting, and wonderful flavor, roast the tomatoes or peppers on the barbeque grill. (I usually cook meat on the grill and then fill the grill with tomatoes, tomatillos, or peppers and put on the cover, because I like a very smoky flavor. For a less smoky flavor, leave it open. Either way, you need coals, not a roaring fire. Turn the peppers or tomatoes till the skin is blistered and loose on all sides. This is much more fun to do outdoors than standing over a stove, and faster, because the grill holds a lot.
You can use the broiler in their oven instead of a grill, or the traditional dry griddle on top of the stove. Same procedure—turn until all sides are blistered, loose, and browned. Use medium heat for chiles and low heat for tomatoes. It is OK if the tomatoes crack open. Remove them to a plate. As soon as they can be handled, take off the skins with a paper towel, under running water, or just peel off what comes easily with your fingers.
This is my preferred start when canning tomatoes for salsa or sauce. It gives the sauce a delicious smoky overtone that doesn’t need meat to seem extra rich and savory.
It is the easiest way to prepare them for freezing too. Roasting replaces the blanching step in freezing. Just cool and put into airtight containers. If you like, add a tablespoon of olive oil and a basil leaf. You can pull them out of the freezer all winter.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin and commercial fishing. She wrote the Bountiful Gardens catalog from 2009 to 2017, and now is proprietor of Quail Seeds.