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. The bulb is made from the bases of the leaves. The roots grow out of the base of the bulb. 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.
I suggest growing a backyard plot of grain. Not just to avoid modern "bad for you" wheat, but because it is easy, fun and delicious.
You don't have to go all the way back to wild grasses and very ancient grains like einkorn (they are difficult to de-hull for eating.) There are many wheats and barleys from before modern "green revolution" grains were the norm. Generations of farmers raised big healthy families on these heritage grains.
The hulless barleys make wonderful pilaf, cooked like rice. You don't even need a grinder to do that. Barley is a very fast-growing spring grain--the main cereal grain in the Himalayas, where seasons are too short for other grains. So you can harvest your barley and still have the space for something else for much of the summer.
Foodies are discovering that old wheat varieties like Turkey Red and Banatka have a sweeter, more buttery flavor than modern wheat. Several bakers have commented that they taste like there is honey in the dough, when they is just water, flour, and salt. They are easy to grow and easily prepared for baking. A growing number of gardeners bake bread, tortillas, biscuits, pie, and cookies, from their own heritage wheat. Here is a pie recipe and here is a bread recipe for White Sonoran wheat, which we carry in spring. You can also find recipes that show off the flavor of Banatka and other heritage winter wheats.
From the gardener's point of view, grains are easy. They spout fast and grow vigorously, holding and improving the soil when the beds would otherwise be empty or weed-ridden. Grains, like other grasses, have immense root systems that prevent compaction, erosion, and other problems.
Gardeners and farmers are discovering that while modern wheats often need a specific and narrow set of conditions for success, many older grains are more flexible and forgiving in their needs. For example most modern wheats are either spring or fall-planted. If you plant a spring wheat in September, it will freeze to death when cold weather comes. And a fall wheat planted in the spring will not produce grain, because it is hard-wired to go through winter before flowering and making seeds. (This is called vernalization, and is common with vegetables, too. Most root crops, as well as cabbage and kale, need to vernalize before blooming.)
There are a lot of ancient and heritage wheat varieties that can adapt to either spring or fall planting. These varieties (called facultative grains) can figure out for themselves that it is time to go to seed, whether they experienced winter or not. Banatka wheat and Einkorn both have this ability. Barley breeders are now working on finding facultative barleys. Perhaps modern wheat breeders will rediscover the survival advantages of flexible traits like this. We know such flexibility was critical to the survival of generations of subsistence farmers--our ancestors. They left us a legacy of heritage grains. You can see some of them here.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range of Northern California. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin, commercial fishing, and working with seeds. She is the proprietor of Quail Seeds.