Monthly Archives: March 2018

Free Organic Gardening Book: How To Grow Onions

Organic onions are easy to grow.

Organic onions & beets enjoying summer.

In my early gardening years, way back in the dark ages when I had a stick and some dirt, I never, ever considered raising onions in my garden.

I didn’t use a lot of onions in my cooking, well to be honest, I didn’t cook much, either.  I was a road warrior and spent most of my life in a plane, on a train or riding in a limo.  There was no dirt under my nails, no canning jars in my pantry and no garden in my back yard.

Besides, my Mom never raised onions or garlic.  But then, my Mom wasn’t married to an Italian.  So when I traded in all my gold credit cards and came home to life on the homestead, I decided to give onions a try.

Getting Onions In The Ground
My first experience with raising them was hilarious. I decided to start them from seed.  One cold and windy day in early March, I went out, worked the soil loose with my hand rake and spread seeds.  I was a little liberal with the amount of seed I put down but I’d never done it before. 

Onion seed is small and dark and disappears right into the soil.  I covered what I thought were the seeds with a tiny bit of soil, covered the bed with a fence section and a sheet, went back inside to thaw out and promptly forgot I’d planted onion seed.

Four weeks later, in the middle of April. I was preparing a bed for beets.  There is no finesse involved in prepping and planting these babies and the seeds are so big, I didn’t need my glasses, I thought.

I knelt down by the bed and was stunned to see a ton of baby grass growing in the bed.  I grabbed handfuls and began madly tearing out what I thought were seeds.  About 3 minutes later I froze; I was tearing up baby onions! I tend to use sets, now.

Seed or Sets
Raising onions from seed is easy as long as you remember that you planted it and don’t rip it out, willy nilly.  Once the seeds sprout and the onion babies get to be 3 inches high, all you have to do is thin and transplant them using the same technique I use for baby beets.

Raising onions from sets is even easier but your choices are limited to what your favorite, organic seed company is growing.

Growing organic onions is easy

Organic onions love sun and good soil.

I prefer red onions so I usually end up with Stuttgart or Candy Red.  Both are good tasting, sweet onions but only the Stuttgart is a long keeper.

FYI onions like cool weather so you can put seed  or sets in the ground as soon as you can work the soil in the spring.  If you’re going for sets, the best time to order your sets is early.  If you don’t order early, you may not get the varieties you want.  Raising onions in the backyard, especially organic onions, is getting more popular and nurseries run out of sets pretty early.

White, Red or Yellow
Onions come in quite a few colors – that would be your first choice.  They also come in long day, short day and intermediate.  Clearly, the names refer to how long the onions take to mature.  And picking the right onion for your zone and growing season is important to how well the onions grow and how big and healthy they are. 

Like many plants, onions grow roots and leaves first then begin to form bulbs but only when daylight hours reach a particular length.  Onions are what’s known as “photoperiodic.”  That means they regulate their growth by the duration of light and dark at the time of year they are growing.

If you try a long day onion in the deep South, you’ll get great tops but very small bulbs which will be killed when exposed to too much heat.  A short day onion that’s planted in the north will try to produce bulbs before the leaves have formed.  Without leaves to supply food, the bulb won’t be able to develop and size of the bulb will be limited. 

Onions growing in July

Onions in July

So, rule of thumb, plant long day varieties if you live north of latitude 36º — roughly the Kansas/Oklahoma border.  Plant short day types south of this line.  Put long day varieties in the ground as early as possible in the spring.  Put short day onions in the ground in the fall to give them a head start in the spring.

Planting Onions
If you are putting onion sets in the ground, most organic companies will ship them to you in the fall and within 2 weeks of the optimum time for you to plant.  When the sets arrive, they may appear wilted but they are pretty hardy and should do well if you plant them quickly. NOTE:  if you cannot plant as soon as they arrive, just put them in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

When you are ready to transplant, simply trim the tops to about 3 inches high and the roots to ¼ of an inch.  I use a sharpened pencil to create a hole for each set that’s about 1 to 2 inches deep – deep enough to cover the white part of the baby onion.   I plant the sets about 4 to 6 inches apart, in rows about 18 inches apart.  

Make sure you plant the baby onions as directed above because they don’t like to compete for foods and fertilizer with each other or other plants, including weeds.  In fact, there’s a saying in the onion business – you can grow onions or weeds but not both.

If planting in the fall, mulch heavily – I use 14 to 18 inches of straw to cover the whole bed. Mulching keeps the plants from sprouting during the January thaw and prevents the freezing and heaving cycle when warmer days play tag with the cold temperatures of deep winter.

In the spring, when forsythia start to bloom, pull the stacked straw off the plants but leave a light layer of mulch.  The mulch suppresses weeds.  Put a light cover over your baby onions if frost is predicted.  I use old sheer curtains.  Water onions regularly; they need about an inch of water a week.  And that’s about it.

Harvesting & Storing Onions
Onions are ready for harvest when the tops turn yellow and begin falling over.  For those that are not quite ready, you can finish bending the tops so they are horizontal to the ground using your hand.  Bending the leaves stops sap from rising into the leaves and forces the bulb to mature.

When the outer skin on the onion dries, remove from the soil, brush the earth off each onion, clip the roots and cut the tops back to 1 inch from the bulb.  Store onions in a cool, dry place and try not to let them touch each other.  If handled properly, onions can last up to 1 year in storage.

Onion Pests & Diseases
Onions are pungent so they tend to repel most pests.  Onions can also be inter-planted to repel pests from other plants, too.  The bigger risk for onions are fungal diseases.  It is also a risk that is very easily mitigated.

Smut, downy mildew and pink root are common problems encountered while raising onions.  The easiest way to avoid all three of them is rotation.  Do NOT plant onions or garlic in a bed where other allium crops have been planted the year before and, preferably, two years before.

In fact, the longer you can avoid planting onions in a bed that was used for raising alliums, the better.

By the way, if you want to find out everything about onions…just visit the National Onion Association read the FAQs and browse the types, colors and recipes.

FYI – Growing garlic is just about as easy as growing onions as I shared in an earlier post.

Happy Easter, everyone!

Recipes
I love raw onions in salads, on the top of black bean soup and on dishes of beans and feta cheese.  But my favorite way to eat onions is caramelized.  A stick of butter in a cast iron pan, toss in about 8 onions and just cook until they are the color of caramel and salty/sweet.  They are good plain, they are great on hamburgers. 

And they are great in Onion Frittata — a recipe that owes a whole lot of its flavor and richness to caramelized onions.

RECIPE:  Onion Frittata

INGREDIENTS:
8 large eggs
1 cup grated parmesan cheese
3 basil leaves torn in pieces
3 minced sage leaves
1tsp minced rosemary
3 T olive oil
1 or 2 c sliced onions
1 ½ to 2 cups ricotta cheese
Kosher salt and fresh pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 400°
Put olive oil in large, cast iron frying pan and heat.
Put onions in frying pan and cook until just turning brown and starting to caramelize.
Reduce heat to low.
While onions cook, whisk eggs, parmesan cheese, basil, sage, rosemary salt a pepper together.
Pour egg mixture into frying pan over onions.
Spoon dollops of ricotta over the top and cook on the stove top until frittata begins to set.
Place frying pan in oven and bake for 7 to 9 minutes until it is set.
Slide frittata onto plate or serve from frying pan by cutting into slices.  Serve hot or cold.

 

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Free Organic Gardening Book: How To Grow Eggplant

Organic gardening tips

Organic gardening is so easy.

Another week and another free chapter of my organic gardening book, Grow So Easy; Organic Gardening for the Rest of Us!

This week I will share some tips and secrets for growing great eggplants! When you think of the most popular vegetables to grow in the back yard, you probably don’t come up with eggplant.  In fact, when Mother Earth News did a survey of who was planting what, the most popular homegrown vegetable was the tomato., which was followed by peppers, green beans, cucumbers, onions, lettuce, summer squash, carrots, radishes, and sweet corn.  Eggplant didn’t even make the list!

Okay, so eggplant is not a favorite with a lot of gardeners but the reason just may be that most gardeners have never had young, sweet flavorful eggplants plucked off their own plants.   Instead they’ve tried those large, purple cylinders they buy in the grocery store.  I was the same way until I grew a few plants and discovered there is no comparison.

Bianca Rosa eggplant

Bianca Rosa eggplant enjoying the heat.

There are three tricks to getting full-flavored fruit from an eggplant; buy the right seeds, start the plants early and harvest the eggplant when they’re small.

My favorite eggplant is the round, striated one called Bianca Rosa from High Mowing Organic Seeds.   This is a Sicilian eggplant with light pink fruits that are streaked with white and violet. The flavor is mild and creamy with no bitterness and a low number of seeds.

How To Grow Eggplant
Growing eggplant is a bit like growing peppers – both like warm summer days.  In fact, I think eggplant is even more cold-sensitive.  To get eggplant to flower and set fruit, you need warm soil and a long, warm growing season – from 100 to 140 days with temperatures consistently between 70° and 90°.

Bianca Rosa love sun and heat

Italian eggplant love sun and heat.

If you want to get healthy eggplant plants you need to start them from seed and very early. By early, I mean at least 10 weeks before my last frost date.

Like all my seeds, I start them in cells.  I don’t soak them overnight before putting them in the cell but you can to shorten the time to sprouting.

Once the eggplant seedlings get their second set of leaves, I transplant them into 2 inch peat pots, raise the tray up off the heating mat (I use two bricks – not high-tech but cheap and easy) and keep them warm.

Bianca Rosa and any eggplant for that matter need heat to thrive.  When they get to between 4 and 5 inches high, I transplant them again, this time into 4 inch peat pots.

Why not go directly from cell to the 4 inch peat pot?

Eggplant, peppers, cukes, and zukes hardening off on the patio.

Veggie transplants hardening off

Remember, eggplant like warm soil.  Take them from warm, moist soil and stick them in cold dirt and they get shocky – I know, I tried.  All my eggplant were stunted and fruit came late in the season.

So unless I plan far enough ahead to prepare the 4 inch pots and put them over the heat map to warm the soil (that’s unlikely), I just go from cell to 2 inch then 4 inch peat pot.

Once they have settled into the new pots and are thriving, I move the trays off the heat mats and onto my lighted plant stand (which I bought used almost 20 years ago and am still using).

When To Transplant Eggplant
Eggplant have the same needs as those of bell peppers.  Transplants should only be set in the garden after all danger of frost is past.  Remember, warm soil, warm air and warm days, lots and lots of all three are what eggplant need to thrive.

Eggplant like support from tomato cages

Eggplant growing in tomato cages

If your eggplant are happy, they will need more space than you might anticipate.  Eggplant should be spaced about 2 feet apart.  I don’t plant them in rows, I zigzag them.  Like pepper plants, eggplant can be pulled over by the size and weight of their own fruit so I use tomato cages for support.

Space plants 18 to 24 inches apart in the row and stagger them so you can get 6 to 8 plants in less space.   Make sure you leave about 2 to 2/12 feet between rows, especially if you are planting in raised beds like this old truck bed. This way, you can get to the plants and the fruit, easily.

Care
Once in the ground, give the transplants a good watering to settle them into the ground.  I always mulch eggplant but before I do, I put a ring of composted soil around each plant to feed it.  Then I mulch with straw or grass clippings or both to keep the weeds down.

You can also use a nitrogen fertilizer if you don’t have any composted soil, feeding the plants when they are half-grown and right after you harvest the first fruits. But being a lazy gardener, I prefer using composted soil.

Once the plants are established, eggplant love the heat of the summer.  You only have to water if you are in a persistent dry period then wait for those lovely, sweet eggplant to start emerging from each lavender flower.

Fresh eggplant parmigiana

Freshly made eggplant parmigiana

Harvest 3 or 4 of your eggplant, marry them to your own tomatoes and basil and make yourself the most delicious eggplant parmigiana you have ever tasted!

 

Free Organic Gardening Book – How To Grow Peppers

Pepper seedlings ready for transplant

Pepper seedlings

It’s way too cold to put any warm weather plants out including peppers. But it’s not way too cold out to figure  out if you want to grow peppers and if you do, what kind you want to grow.

The only pepper I saw in my mother’s garden was the green, bell pepper.  And I never liked them.  The taste was too strong, bitter, almost biting.  So I never planted peppers until I found red and yellow bells.

Discovering peppers of color led to what is now my favorite pepper of all time, the Italian sweet pepper.

Italian Sweet peppers have a rich green color that gradually turns brilliant red.  The flesh of the pepper is medium thick and the fruit is slightly curved, tapering to a pointed end.

These peppers can grow as long as 12 inches but are usually between 7 and 8 inches long.  Raw, they are sweet all on their own or as an addition to a salad.  Cook Italian sweet peppers and add sweetness, richness and depth of flavor to just about any dish.

So, even though I still raise red and yellow bell peppers, I make a lot of space in my garden for the Italian sweet pepper also known as (aka) the frying pepper.

Starting From Seed
Peppers are a warm weather plant so I always start them from seed.

Start pepper seeds indoors in March

Start peppers indoors

And I always start peppers 2 to 3 weeks earlier than the date specified on the seed packets.  Why?

In my zone, peppers that are started 8 weeks before my last frost (around May 15th) just aren’t big enough or strong enough to set fruit before the middle to end of July.

As a result, if I started plant when the seed packet said to, I’d only get a few peppers from each one. If I start the plants indoors and early, I get a glorious crop from all my plants!

I use 24-cell APS starter kits from Gardener’s Supply and I highly recommend them.  Funny thing is, I’ve been using cells for seed starting for years and now, recent research revealed that growing peppers in larger tray cell sizes or containers will produce larger transplants.

Seed starting in cells

Cell system for seed starting

There are a couple of other reasons I use these kits.

For one thing, I’ve had the same kits for more than 20 years and only one has failed in that entire time.  For another, the kits ensure that your seeds and seedlings get just the right amount of water while sprouting and growing.  Not too much – not too little — because they use capillary mats in the cell system and take advantage of osmosis.  Because of the system design, I never have to contend with damping off when using these kits.

I fill the cells with Gardener’s Supply germinating mix, place 4 seeds in each cell…two in opposite corners.  Then I cover each cell with a bit of sphagnum moss, put on the plastic top and set the tray on my heat mats. I fill the tray with water and then check every day for water level and, in 4 or 5 days, to see if the seeds have sprouted.

As soon as the seeds sprout, I lift off the clear cover and drop the light to within an inch of the cells.  As the plants grow, I keep the trays watered and I keep the light as close to the seedlings as I can without touching them.  If the light touches them, even a fluorescent light, it will burn the baby’s leaves and slow its growth.

When the seedlings have two full sets of leaves, I give the plants a very mild fertilizer called Plant Health Care for Seedlings, also from Gardener’s Supply,

Once the plants are 3 to 4 weeks old, I transplant them into 2 inch peat pots.  NOTE:  If all the seeds sprout, either separate the seedlings and put one in each peat pot or clip the smaller of the seedlings off with nail scissors so the remaining seedling has more room to grow.

Transplanting Peppers
Before you put your pepper plants in the ground, make sure you are NOT planting them in the same area where you had tomatoes, eggplant or potatoes last year.

Peppers are in the Solanaceae plant family and are botanically related to these popular garden vegetables.  Because they are related, peppers can share the same spectrum of pest problems and should not be rotated into soil recently lived in by their kissing cousins.

Also, whether you’re growing from seed or using transplants (unless they were outside when you bought them), you have to “harden off” your plants before you stick them in the garden.

Hardening off seedlings

Hardening off seedlings

Hardening off does NOT involve tools or torture.  It just means that you have to introduce your transplants to the outdoors, gradually.

Five or six days before you want to put them in the garden, start setting them outside for a couple of hours the first 2 days and keep an eye on them.

Make sure they have water and are not staked out in high sun or high wind.  Then leave them out all day for 2 days then overnight for one night.

NOTE:  also, when hardening off, stop fertilizing.  If the plants have small flowers or fruit on them, pinch both off.  You want to help the transplant direct all of its energy to rooting in the soil before it tries to set flowers or fruit.

Remember, peppers like warm earth and warm air – even warmer than tomatoes.  So the optimal temperature for them to go into the ground is 75 to 85 degrees. Peppers are typically transplanted about two weeks later than tomatoes, for me that’s early June.

Peppers can be planted in single rows or twin (double) rows on a raised bed.

Peppers in tomato cages

Peppers in a tomato cage

Space the pepper plants 12 to 24 inches apart and space rows about 4 feet apart. If you decide to use a double row, make the rows about 18 inches apart on the bed and put the plants in the ground in a zigzag pattern.

By the way, peppers and tomatoes don’t work and play well together so don’t plant tomatoes on one side of your trellis or fence and peppers on the other.  The pepper plants will grow but their growth will be stunted.  And the peppers themselves will be small and prone to rotting.

Feeding The Peppers
If you don’t want to use fertilizer on your transplants, here’s a little trick I learned from a farmer friend.  Crush up eggshells and put about ½ of a cup of them in the bottom of the hole. Toss a bit of soil on top of the crushed shells before you put the pepper plant in so the baby roots (cilia) are not cut.

Crushed egg shells are slow to break down but will feed the plants.  And they are free so I love using them as my fertilizer.  By the way, you can also use crushed egg shells to stop slugs…just by sprinkling them around the base of your plants.

Peppers have shallow roots so water them when they need it and don’t hoe too close.  Also, stake peppers so that when fruit loads are heavy, the plants don’t topple from weight or high winds.  I use old, inverted tomato cages.  That sounds odd but the cages work better than anything else I have tried.

I put the tomato cage over the plant with the wide ring on the ground and fasten the ring down with ground staples.  Then I gather up the tips of the cage and secure them with a wire tie.  The pepper plant stays inside the cage, grows up straight and is supported even in the heaviest wind or thunderstorm.  And I don’t have to tie the pepper plants up.

NOTE of apology: due to a family emergency, I was out of town last week. I apologize for missing a post and hope you enjoy this one about growing peppers.