Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Growing Onions From Sets

Everyone loves onions! Except my oldest daughter. I LOVE onions. Almost everything we cook has onions in it, it seems. If I could find a way to put onions in strawberry rhubarb crisp they would be in there too. Onions are a healthy, low calorie addition to any spicy meal, and most meat dishes.

They're also one of the more difficult garden vegetables to achieve good yields of. Onions are easy to grow, and difficult to grow well.

The simplest way to grow onions is from sets. In another post someday we'll go over onions from seed, but for now we're staying simple.

Typically, onion sets found in greenhouses or at chain stores are labeled either "Yellow", "White", or "Red". Not the most descriptive packaging and not really very useful information, but generally these are day neutral onions that will grow pretty much anywhere. Though they aren't the best for storage or the largest/sweetest/etc onions you could grow, onion sets are typically a safe choice that will produce a decent crop.

Onion sets are year old onions. They are started from seed, grown for a period of time and then harvested, dried, and stored. They are easy to plant and grow because they already have all the things needed to grow a respectable onion. They have a root system, and a store of energy to restart growing as soon as they're planted.

growing onions from sets
Red onions are easily grown from sets.

When and How

Plant onion sets as early as you can stick them in the ground, spaced about 3-4 inches apart. Rows waste space, plant them in a grid. You want just enough room to let them grow and so you can get your hands in there to pull weeds. Plant sets so the top is just barely poking out of the ground. The roots will be 1/2 to 3/4 inch deep that way. When I plant sets, I don't wait for the ground to dry out so it can be tilled. There might even be snow in the corners of the yard. I rake off whatever litter is on top of the soil and stick the sets right in the ground. If I have to pull weeds or last year's stalks first, I will, but I don't do any other prep to the soil. Keep in mind that I have good soil quality and I NEVER EVER EVER walk in my garden beds. I don't need to till to make the soil loose enough to grow onions, but if you have heavy or compacted soil, you may need to wait until it can be at least hand tilled before planting onion sets. The important thing is getting them in the ground as early as possible. The more cool wet days with sunshine that the onions get before it gets hot and the days start to shorten, the better your onion crop will be.

After planting, I immediately side dress with well aged compost. You can probably use a fertilizer, but I prefer compost. My compost is mostly made up of kitchen scraps, grass clippings, leaf litter, and straw from the chicken coop.  Onions are very heavy feeders, and a good layer of nutrient rich compost will help make sure you have nice big onions. I usually put down about 1/2 inch of compost on the whole area, maybe more. Make sure the onions aren't buried under a thick layer. Brush some off the set tops if necessary. After adding compost, I cover the whole area with a light layer of grass clippings if I have them. If I don't, I wait until I do. Mulching onions is very important. Because they are heavy feeders, competition from weeds using the nutrients in the soil will hurt their growth significantly. Usually, the soil is plenty wet at this time of year so I don't need to water sets after planting. If it's dry though, water them well once, and then don't water again until the very top of the soil is dry. Fewer, deeper waterings will help your onions, and all your other plants, grow deeper roots and better withstand the upcoming heat of summer.

When the onions get to be about 6 inches tall, or after they've been in the ground for 30-45 days, I give them another sprinkling of compost fertilizer, and then another layer of grass clipping mulch over the top of that. The nutrients in these layers of compost will seep into the soil for the onions to take in.

Pinching Flowers

Onions are biennial plants. This means they grow a plant the first year, go dormant for the winter, then re-grow again the second year and then flower. Onion sets, being 2nd year plants, are going to flower sometime during the middle of the growing season. For me, this happens in June. These flowers should be pinched off before they open and pollinate. This keeps the onion putting its energy into the bulb instead of seeds.

From here on out, keep the onions weeded, and well watered, and wait for the tops to yellow and tip over.

Harvest and Storage

Harvest onions when most, or more than half of the tops are yellowing and falling over. At this point, they are no longer growing larger, and are starting to go dormant. Pull onions, and lay them out in a warm but not hot, shady, well ventilated area to dry. I've got an old screen door sitting on sawhorses on the north side of my house where it's shady and the breeze blows through. If it looks like rain, bring the onions indoors until rain has passed. Leave the onions to dry outdoors for at least a week, 2-3 is better. Usually I leave them out for a few days and then move them indoors to finish drying. If they can't be left outdoors, spread them out in a dry area with good airflow to finish drying indoors. This process is called curing. When the onions are fully cured, the neck of the onion will be dry and brown and you can cut off the dry top, about 2 inches above the onion. Any onions that still have green necks are not yet dry, and those onions should be used up first as they are most likely to spoil fastest. Proper curing is critical to the storage life of the onion. I have kept properly cured onions in the root cellar for a full year before they started to spoil. You may not get onion grown from sets to store that long, but 6 months is certainly possible with proper curing.

So there you have it. Bigger onions through fertilization and reducing weed competition.

Friday, June 13, 2014

"Automatic" maggot feeder for chickens

How about a quick, easy, nearly free and slightly smelly way to supplement the fat and protein in your chickens' diet while giving them a treat?

I started doing this last year after getting the idea somewhere (I can't remember where, I'm sorry, I wish I could give credit where it is due. Really), and though I wouldn't do this if I had really close, or picky neighbors, it's worked great for us.

This is really simple. Take a 5 gallon bucket, drill a bunch of 1/4 inch holes in the sides. Don't drill any holes in the bottom or up about 1 inch from the bottom. Throw a couple handfuls of straw in the bottom. Fill with a few pounds of meat. Cover with some more straw. I suppose you *could* collect roadkill for this part, but I usually have some old something-or-other in the freezer that isn't salvageable, or I have frozen animal carcasses left over from the previous trapping season. Fish carcasses work great too, for you fisherpeople. I mean, you know what stuff attracts flies, right?

Maggots make great chicken treats.

Hang the bucket about a foot or two above the ground in your chicken run. Wait.

Ok, so it's going to smell some, there's nothing you can do about that. But, if you don't use TOO much animal material in there and you keep some straw on top of it and below it to absorb any juices, it won't get too bad.

As all the neighborhood flies find the meat, they'll lay eggs. Fly eggs become maggots. Maggots eat meat. Eventually, some maggots fall out the holes in the sides. Chickens love maggots and it's great protein and fat in their diet. Lots of times, in the evenings, I see my hens standing under the bucket waiting for a maggot or two to fall out.

A few points of caution here.

1. If you make any holes in the bottom of the bucket or very close to it in the sides, some unpleasant smelling liquids will find their way onto the ground and the smell will increase dramatically.
2. Don't overload the bucket. I put probably 2-3 pounds of guts/meat/whatever in there at a time. This will last a few weeks at least.
3. The more holes you drill the faster maggots will fall out. Don't make the holes big enough that chunks of meat fall out. 1/4 - 3/8 inch is about perfect.
4. If it rains a lot where you are, put a cover on the bucket. The flies can still find their way in through the holes in the sides.
5. If you live in the middle of nowhere and have a strong stomach, you can put holes in the bottom of the bucket. It will work better. It will also smell a lot worse. Your call on this one really.
6. One reason for hanging the bucket is that it makes it less likely that a maggot-crazed hen will get IN the bucket, which can become a very messy situation very quickly. A cover will also help, if this is an issue for you.
7. The other reason for hanging it is that when the maggots fall, it gets the chickens' attention, and they find them easier. Mitch Hedberg was right about this, snacks are better when they fall and that holds true in the chicken world as well.

When the bucket is finished and there's nothing left to attract flies, there probably won't be much smell left either. At this point you can either dig a hole and bury what's left, or you can just dump it on the ground in the run and let the birds dig through it for any remaining snacks. I usually bury it somewhere. Rinse the bucket out and repeat, if you aren't completely grossed out at this point.  :)