Growing onions in Southern California

Growing onions in Southern California

Timing is everything . . . when it comes to growing onions, too. If you sow the seed at the right time, you’re almost guaranteed a nice bulb to eat. Conversely, if you sow at the wrong time there’s no hope. So many times I’ve heard people say their onions didn’t grow well, and when I inquired further I always found out that it was a matter of bad timing. It’s not your fault. Look at the seed packet:

“Direct sow in mid-spring . . .”

As a general rule, disregard the directions about timing on seed packets. They’re usually written for the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, the South, the East Coast, etc. They’re written for almost everyone but us in Southern California. We’re different.

Here in the middle of the fall season is onion-sowing time in Southern California. Checking my notes from some past years, I sowed good onion crops on October 12, on October 17, on October 23, and even as late as November 15 one year. Whenever I had sown earlier or later than that, my onion bulbs didn’t turned out as well. So, I’d estimate that mid-October through mid-November is the sweet spot for sowing onions in Southern California. A mnemonic might be to think of sowing onions near Halloween.

By the way, if you’re buying and transplanting seedlings instead of sowing onion seeds you can just do it a month or two after Halloween. For example, I’ve successfully planted onion seedlings from early December into January.

 

How onions grow

Why is it that these dates work well? What happens is that onions start growing during the mild fall weather — they look like little blades of grass at first (see the photo at the top) — and then they go through winter slowly getting big, spiky tops which look like punk-rock mohawks.

Come spring, just above the dirt, the bulbs form. They’re basically a bunch of fattened onion leaves that are, instead of green, a white or yellow or red color, depending on the variety.

Soon the green tops start dying off; they dry and become yellowish and kink at the top of the bulb and topple over.

Time for harvest.

That’s how the life of an onion plant is supposed to proceed. But if you sow onions at the wrong time — in the spring as seed packets often suggest, for example — they’ll grow just fine at first, yes, but they won’t make the big bulbs you’re hoping for, if they make bulbs at all. I know this from firsthand experience, unfortunately.

 

Varieties

I’ve tried a lot of varieties over the years, but my favorites today are Yellow Granex and Gabriella. My wife and I both love the taste of these sweet, yellow onions, and they reliably grow well for me year after year. I get my seeds of Yellow Granex from Botanical Interests, and my seeds of Gabriella from High Mowing.

When I’ve bought onion seedlings at a nursery I’ve had mixed success, but usually results have been good. The reason I like growing my onions from seed nowadays is that I know exactly which variety I’m growing. Often, seedlings at a nursery are not labelled in detail. They just say something like, “White Onion.”

Can we grow “long-day” onions in Southern California? I’ll answer that with the title of a post I wrote a couple years back: “You sure can grow long-day onions in Southern California.”

When I say “onions” I mean bulb onions, by the way, not green onions, scallions, or chives. Those are related but different. They’ll never form a large bulb, no matter when you plant them or for how long they grow.

 

Spacing

Onions can grow surprisingly close to one another. Just picture how big you want the bulbs to get and then space the plants accordingly, if you’re planting in a row.

Last year, however, I arranged some of my onions in clumps of three or four plants instead of in rows (notice that in the photos above?). I got the idea from Charles Dowding, and it worked great. As the bulbs formed, each plant migrated away from the others. The method used my garden bed space very efficiently, and it also meant that I had to spend less time lining up tiny single onion plants in a row during transplanting. I’ll be planting in clumps again this year, exclusively.

 

Harvesting and storing

I stop watering my onions in mid or late April. They’re not ready to harvest yet, but their bulbs are enlarging and there’s enough residual moisture in the soil for the plants to finish their growth. Come May, at harvest time, they’re easy to twist out of the dirt as the bulb and the dirt are both dry.

We ate our last onion last week (mid-October). Having harvested our first onions in May, that means we had enough from the garden and were able to store them well enough for five months of eating onions every day. Even if I grew more onions, we would still stop eating them around now. The challenge isn’t quantity, it’s storage quality. Without a specific storage facility where temperature and humidity and airflow are kept at ideal levels, as commercial farmers use, onions will only keep for so long.

My storage method is exceptionally simple:

Hang the onions on something in the garage; that’s so they have plenty of air circulating around them. They’ll mold and rot faster if there’s not airflow. I kept them in milk crates one year and they didn’t last long. And make sure they’re in a cool, shady area. Airflow, cool, and dry. Those are the characteristics of the environment you’re trying to create.

One last thing: sometimes, instead of the tops falling over, onion plants shoot up a flower stalk. It’s pretty, but it’s not good for the quality of the bulb. All’s not lost though. The bulb is still perfectly edible, only it will have a woody, hollow core. Eat bulbs that sent up a flower stalk before you eat the perfect bulbs, for the perfect bulbs store longer.

Growing carrots in Southern California

Growing carrots in Southern California

I gave up growing carrots for a few years. I was failing at them; I got discouraged and quit. I first got back in the game because I was wearing the title “Master Gardener” and felt ashamed to do so while being incapable of something so fundamental. And then the way I started growing carrots again was by experimenting with whether they could be grown by transplanting. (Yes — contrary to common advice — they can, as I wrote about in this post.) But I was truly hooked after harvesting those first transplants, when I saw how much my family loved having carrots to dig up in the garden whenever they felt like “eating like a bunny,” as my son called it.

So, over the last two years I’ve been really focused on improving my carrot-growing skills. Here, let me share a handful of keys to success to growing carrots specifically in Southern California that I’ve found.

 

Timing and temperature

You’ll see on a packet of carrot seeds something like this, “Sow in early spring or late summer.” But that’s not entirely accurate for Southern California.

For Southern California, a seed packet should say, “Sow from late summer through early spring.” I think of it as mid September through winter and into early April.

Technically, we can grow carrots all year round, even in summer like most other climates in the country, but I wouldn’t. Or, I should say, I won’t again. This last year, I experimented with growing carrots every month of the year and found that the ones that grew through summer just didn’t taste very good. The plants always looked good, but the roots tasted disappointing: bland or bitter or tough in texture. I’m not sure why, but others always say that carrots don’t like heat, so . . .

Here in September is a great month to start growing carrots again, after the summer hiatus. Carrot seeds germinate fastest when the soil temperature is warm as it is now, between 65 and 85 degrees. Fast-germinating carrots: an oxymoron? It’s relative. According to this University of California chart, within that temperature range it takes carrots 6-7 days to emerge while in the colder soil temperatures of winter it might take around 20 days.

I sowed carrots on Monday, September 11, and here on Friday, September 15 I’ve already noticed a couple of precocious germinators, like this little fellow:

That’s only five days! Last fall and winter, I noted how long it took my carrot sowings to germinate and emerge from the dirt:

Sowed October 19, emerged October 28 (9 days)

Sowed December 15, emerged January 5 (21 days)

Sowed January 22, emerged February 13 (21 days)

 

Soil moisture for germination

As you can see, the carrot seeds started growing faster in the early fall when the soil temperature was warmer, and this is so convenient because carrots are annoyingly slow at germinating in general compared to almost every other vegetable. Why is the slow germination annoying? Because carrot seeds are tiny and have to be sown shallowly (barely cover them with a quarter-inch of soil or compost) and yet they have to be kept moist for the entire time they’re sitting there in the soil getting started with life. If you let the carrot seeds dry out, they’re dead. So the faster they germinate, the less time you have to stay focused on keeping them moist.

A few tricks to keeping that soil moist include laying burlap or newspaper or shade cloth over the dirt that you’ve sowed carrot seeds in, but I usually just give the bed a showering every afternoon and that’s sufficient, even in September when afternoons are in the 80s. Crucial for that to work is being sure to soak the soil well before sowing also.

Actually, the best “trick” to keeping the soil moist while carrot seeds germinate is sowing in the winter. Here in Southern California, winter weather is mostly cool and rainy. In fact, for the sowings I made last December, January, and February, I never had to irrigate since the rains took care of keeping the soil moist.

If you have a soil that forms a crust on top when it dries, that can be an obstacle for carrot germination. The dirt in my first garden in Lesotho used to crust badly, I remember all too well. My garden beds now don’t tend to get a crust in part because I try to keep a layer of compost on the surface, which I suggest you try if your soil does crust when it dries. As you know, it’s hard to water soil that has a crusty surface.

I spread composted horse manure on the surface of this bed just before sowing.

And one last thing about dirt: it doesn’t need to be dug up and loosened in order to produce good carrots. I used to do that, but I haven’t in many years, and my carrots are as good and straight (or as bad and forked) as they ever were.

 

Bugs

Another reason I prefer not to use a cover (burlap, newspaper, shade cloth) over the soil where I’ve sown carrots is because it provides an ideal hiding place for bugs that love to eat your carrot plants as soon as they sprout. I’m thinking of pill bugs and earwigs, primarily. These little pests were probably the biggest reason for my carrot failings in the past. Conversely, my control of these little pests is probably the main reason I’m growing pretty good carrots consistently nowadays.

I use my chickens to get rid of pill bugs and earwigs. (Here’s a post I wrote about that.) Without chickens, the best thing you can do to avoid having large numbers of these, or snails and slugs, is to eliminate their hiding places — that means mulch, cracks and crevices, any dark and moist place. If there are lots of these guys around, you’ll see your baby carrot plants appear one day and disappear that very night. That’s what used to happen to me, and it was so discouraging.

 

Alternative growing methods

Alternatively, you can attempt to cheat the system and go around the germination and bug challenges with carrots altogether by using transplants or growing carrots in a pot. Heck, might as well put carrot transplants in a pot. Some years back I grew a very nice crop of carrots in a pot that was only a little more than a foot deep.

 

Harvest notes

There are a few things to look out for as the carrot plants grow and as harvest time nears. If the plants are too close together they often twist around each other. The roots come out looking like a cork screw. I think it’s cool looking . . .

. . . but if you want straight carrots, then make sure you thin the carrot plants to about two inches apart.

Also, carrots will get green shoulders if they are exposed to the sun. If you don’t like that, just scoop some dirt up over them anytime you see the top of the roots above the soil surface.

If you leave carrots in the ground long enough they will flower, which I think is totally worth allowing and enjoying. You can also save the seeds that result from those flowers if you let them dry. Then use those seeds to grow another round . . .

Which is the heirloom tomato?

Which is the heirloom tomato?

Are heirloom tomatoes big or small? Are they red or orange or yellow? Are they wrinkly? Are they meaty? What do they taste like?

What the heck does heirloom mean?

Of course, heirloom has nothing to do with size or color or rugosity or taste. It has most to do with age. The most common definition of an heirloom variety of any crop is one that is old — usually people say at least fifty years old, old enough to have been passed down for a couple of generations, like a piece of heirloom furniture.

Then another key part of the common definition is that the crop is open-pollinated. This means that if you grew the seed from it you would get a plant that produced the same fruit. So, if I had an heirloom tomato that looked striped and was huge, and I sowed seeds from it, the plants that grew would give me fruit that were similarly striped and huge.

That doesn’t happen with hybrids. Sow a seed from a hybrid tomato and you get a plant that makes fruit that are at least a little different from the original hybrid tomato. (In fact, I did this with the Champion hybrid tomato cultivar this summer, and the fruit from that plant is acceptable, but different from its parent.)

An heirloom tomato, then: at least fifty years old, and open-pollinated.

Which of the tomatoes pictured above is an heirloom? There’s no way you could know unless I told you. How could you know how old the variety is? How could you know whether it came from an open-pollinated or hybrid seed? You never could, so I’ll tell you.

It’s not the one on the right, the red one. That is a variety called San Diego, also known as San Diego Hybrid, originally known as 7718. Normally, this variety is not quite so big nor as corrugated. This specimen is unusual. I like this variety’s meaty insides and high yields. I grow it every year. But it’s a hybrid, so I don’t save any seed. I grow it from seedlings I buy at the nursery.

The heirloom tomato is the one on the left, the small orange one. Called Jaune Flamme, it came to our country from France. It may not look like much, but the fruits are so juicy and sweet, and I love their vibrant persimmon color, which I add to salsas for effect. If you know the hybrid cherry tomato called Sungold, then you can think of Jaune Flamme as big Sungolds.

I will save the seed of some Flamme and grow them again next year. As an heirloom, it’s open-pollinated, so I can do that. It should grow “true”, as they say.

The best way to support tomato plants

The best way to support tomato plants

A couple years ago I planted a Sungold cherry tomato that grew into a jungle: ten feet wide, taller than me, I wanted a machete to hack into the middle to grasp those golden fruits. I supported the plant in no manner.

That’s an option for tomato growers, no support. But most of us give some kind of props. When I lived in Lesotho, I was charmed to find that many people used branches pruned off their peach trees to stick into the ground and let their tomatoes crawl over. This kept most of the fruit off the dirt and made picking involve less bending.

Those are two of the main goals of supporting the sprawling vines of the tomato plant: unblemished fruit and easy harvesting. My giant old Sungold plant gave me neither gift — because I hadn’t given it the gift of something to lean on.

These days, I set five-foot tall cages around all of my cherry tomato plants, two-and-a-half-foot tall cages around many of my other tomato plants, and occasionally stake or refrain from supporting a tomato plant at all.

Those are what I see as the four common methods. Each has a place, and each has advantages and disadvantages.

Other methods of training and supporting tomato plants that I doubt I’ll ever bother with again include tying to a chain link fence (too much effort), cages built with stakes and string (too much effort and a pain to take down), those little inverted wire pyramid tunnels that are sold as tomato cages (a pain to stick in the ground, can only handle small tomato varieties that would do fine without any support), and twisting up a string that hangs from an eave of the roof (see photo below: looks cool but takes a lot of twisting and pruning work).

tomatoes twirled around string hung from eave

One of the four common methods (no support, staked, short cage, tall cage) is usually best for a given situation. It depends on a number of factors, the principle ones being the growth habit of the tomato variety, the money you want to invest in materials, the time you have to tend to the plants, the space you have for storing cages or stakes, whether you’re going for maximum yield, and how much land you’re devoting to the plant.

Below are photos of different varieties of tomatoes in my yard today, May 26, being supported in the four different ways. I note why I chose each method according to the context.

Early Girl tomato plant no support

‘Early Girl’ variety: No support

This plant is growing in a somewhat remote corner where I am unlikely to tend it well but it can sprawl as widely as its heart desires. I also didn’t stake or cage it because I don’t want the plant reaching tall since I want the avocado tree next to it to get maximum sun.

Champion seedling tomato staked

‘Champion’ seedling: Staked

This plant is growing in a location where I can’t let it get wide or it will block a walking path, so I’ll be tying it up this six-foot tall stake and pruning the lateral branches a bit. Tying and pruning will take some time, but it’s only a single plant. It’s a volunteer from a Champion plant that grew here last year. Champion is a hybrid, so I’m unsure of how good the fruit on this plant will be; therefore, I’m not concerned about getting the most fruit possible. (Those tomatoes in the photo at the top are the Champions from last year.)

San Diego tomato plant short cage

‘San Diego’ variety: Short cage

This variety of tomato has reached about four feet tall in my yard in past years, so the short cage should be sufficient. Vines will eventually reach the top and cascade down a bit.

Sweet 100 cherry tomato plant tall cage

‘Sweet 100’ variety: Tall cage

Cherry tomatoes have the smallest fruit but the largest canopy of foliage. By the end of June, this plant will already be spilling over the cage’s rim. If I had a ten-foot tall cage it probably wouldn’t be tall enough, but then I’d need a ladder to pick the tomatoes. Other tomato varieties, like ‘San Marzano’, grow large canopies as well. See a photo of a ‘San Marzano’ plant in one of these five-foot tall cages a few Julys back in my post titled “San Diego tomatoes, and supporting tomatoes.”

I’ll post an update in July showing all of the tomato plants pictured above so we can see how each one has cooperated with its method of training and support.

A note on my cages: I made them from concrete reinforcement wire (steel remesh) that I bought at Lowes. I got the idea from Don Shor of the Davis Garden Show (here’s a post I wrote about the excellent Davis Garden Show.) Similar cages can be bought, including square or triangular shapes that fold for easy storage, but they’re more expensive than homemade. As regards cost, do remember that these cages are versatile and can be used to support pole beans, cucumbers, peas, etc. I’ve found them a worthwhile investment.

This is a short YouTube video I made showing how I make my tomato cages.

Here’s a sketch of a chart ranking each of the four methods according to their advantage in the categories you might care about (click to enlarge); this might help you make a decision about how to support your tomato plants, or it can give you thoughts for next year: if you planted in March and haven’t supported them yet, your plants are probably already jungles. In that case, happy hunting for the fruit!

Chart ranking tomato support methods

Please let me know if you have had different experiences with the methods of training and supporting tomato plants that I mentioned above, or if you have a totally different favorite method; maybe there’s something I haven’t tried that will be the ultimate. Also let me know if you’d like more information about any of the methods I mentioned.

The art of transplanting a vegetable seedling (in five steps)

The art of transplanting a vegetable seedling (in five steps)

Transplanting vegetable seedlings is such a simple act, and yet there are better and worse ways to do it. There’s even an artfulness and fluidity to the process. Here are photos with captions describing the five motions that I go through.

It’s about getting the plant into a new piece of ground in the least stressful way, and it’s also about being efficient. This is the best method I know of, after having tried variations and additional steps. Below the photo sequence are details about and reasons for each step.

transplanting a vegetable seedling step 1

1. Pinch bottom of container with one hand while tugging gently on stem of plant with other hand

transplanting a vegetable seedling step 2

2. Tease roots straight if they are circling around the sides and bottom

transplanting a vegetable seedling step 3

3. Insert trowel with tip angled toward you, then pull dirt up and out in order to create an opening; immediately place seedling into opening and then remove trowel

transplanting a vegetable seedling step 4

4. Slide dirt around sides to fill opening

transplanting a vegetable seedling step 6

5. Water around seedling

 

Some elaboration

Step 1. Removing plant from container: Pictured is a small eggplant seedling in a six pack. If dealing with a larger plant, in a four- or six-inch container, I make a Star Trek sign with my left hand and put the V around the plant’s stem, then I turn the container upside down. A squeeze with my right hand is sometimes necessary to get the root ball to slide out.

Step 2. Teasing roots straight: Why tease the roots straight? Roots can’t move within the dirt. However you place them is how they’ll remain for life. Elongating them gives them a larger and deeper zone of soil to draw water and nutrients from right off the bat. I have to admit though that I’ve never compared the growth of seedlings whose roots are left circled and seedlings whose roots I’ve teased straight — nor have I seen such a study — so I don’t know for certain that this step is effective.

Step 3. Putting seedling into dirt: No biggie if you don’t own a trowel. Dig with a butter knife, or a stick, or just your fingers. My earliest memory of gardening is of my mother using a butter knife to do almost everything in her garden. I used a stick to do all vegetable transplanting in my gardens for a decade until my mother-in-law recently gave me a trowel for a Christmas present. I like it a lot, but it’s not required. Also, note that I call it an “opening” and not a hole. What’s the difference? Nothing, except that I want to imply that it doesn’t need to be big or deep and take a long time to make.

Step 4. Filling opening: Now’s the time to make sure the plant is upright and at the same level in the soil as it was in the container. Tug up on the stem or press down beside the stem as needed for adjustment. You may hear that tomatoes should be planted deeper. You can and they root along the stem, but I don’t bother. I’ve planted them deeper and planted them level and never noticed any difference in growth. On the other hand, seedlings of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale can get long-stemmed and top heavy, and I usually plant them deeper in order to help them stand more erect.

Step 5. Watering: Watering around the seedling is usually sufficient to establish good contact between the roots and soil, so no need to tamp around the seedling. Plants with big leaves might topple over when you water them. I make the Star Trek sign with one hand, palm up, and support the stem in the V as I water those plants in. (Until writing this, I never realized how often I make the Star Trek sign while transplanting. What does it mean?)

That’s the process. But what about adding fertilizer? I do know some very experienced gardeners who add fertilizer to the hole when they transplant, and that works for them; however, that’s not my style. I only add compost to the surface of the soil in my vegetable beds. (I wrote a post about this: Fertile soil can be child’s play.)

There are a couple of things to keep in mind before you start transplanting. First, it’s ideal if the soil in the seedling’s container is not dry. You want the plant to be full of water and not stressed before going through a transplanting. Also, the soil to be planted into should be moist — but not wet or dry. If it’s wet or dry it will be difficult to dig in.

Lastly, there is a best time of day to do transplanting: the cool of the late afternoon or evening. This gives the plant roots a whole night to establish a relationship with their new soil surroundings before needing to perform and support the leaves as they must do during bright sunlight. That being said, in winter or when it’s cloudy, time of day is not a concern.

And I said it’s such a simple act. Well, so is eating and sleeping and running and singing and . . .

 

You might also like to read:

Which vegetables can you plant now?

Where to plant a vegetable garden

Oh the mistakes I’ve made: Planting vegetables at the wrong time

Gardening with kids

Gardening with kids

Yesterday, I opened the door and my two sons, ages 1 and 3, ran straight for the blueberries. After they’d worked those plants, they dropped down to the strawberries, and then the garbanzo beans, and then the broccoli, and then the peas, and then the carrots. “What else can I eat?” asked my three-year-old.

A major reason I grow a vegetable garden is my kids. I want it to be their grocery store. I have only one rule, which is that they eat whatever they pick. They end up picking green blueberries, white strawberries, and peas that aren’t yet plump, but that’s their business. As long as they eat it, who am I to tell them when it tastes best?

I also want the vegetable garden to be their playground, so I let them get away with a lot. I let them prune even though they sometimes cut flowering raspberry canes. I let them water even though they occasionally water weeds. I let them dig even though they often dig up seedlings. I have no fence around the vegetable beds, so they are free to stomp through them at will, and they sometimes stomp and kill baby plants.

But I also see the vegetable garden as their classroom. Slowly but surely, I’m teaching them which plants to water and why and how; sprinkle like rain, don’t pour and make a river, I say. The older one knows where the paths are and where the beds are now, and he helps direct the one-year-old. “Don’t step on the baby plants, baby boy,” I’ve heard him say.

And then there are lessons from nature, like the metamorphoses of insects. The boys know that ladybugs are friendly to our garden, and they also can identify ladybug larvae, which they often point out to me. I didn’t know ladybug larvae until a few years ago!

They understand why a gopher is a garden enemy — it eats our food, we say. And unfortunately, we have to trap one when we can, and we feed it to the cat. The food chain. They get it.

Speaking of pests, I told my father-in-law the other day that I see my boys as garden pests that I need to compensate for by planting extra because I know they’re going to cause a certain amount of damage. But they’re unique pests in that, unlike the gopher, if you involve them in the workings of the garden they eventually are able to help take care of it and even make it flourish in ways you hadn’t imagined.

My great uncle gave me some sunflower seeds a few months back. I told my three-year-old that the seeds were his to plant. I gave him no other directions or assistance. He scratched and buried them here and there, partially in a bed and partially in a path, some seemingly too deep and others too shallow. I figured they were unlikely to grow because he wouldn’t keep up with watering so it didn’t matter, but we had quite the consistent rains this winter and they took off. I had already planned to put peas in that bed and I went ahead with that plan despite the growing sunflowers. Now in May, we’re eating the peas as they climb the sunflower stalks, the finches stop by each morning to eat the sunflower leaves, but there’s still enough foliage to give the peas respite from the afternoon sun, and the sunflowers are taller than me and about to open bloom.

I would never have thought to grow peas under sunflowers. It’s only something that happened because of the spark of life that is kids in a garden.

Cass and his sunflowers