Growing Onions

Colorado State Univ. Field DayDo you grow onions? They’re not the most popular crop for the home veggie garden, which is a shame because they’re incredibly easy to grow. Sure, you can go to the store and buy a bag for a pittance, but that’s true for most vegetables we grow. And the flavor of home-grown onions isn’t that different from the ones at the market.  The primary advantage of growing your own onions is that you know exactly what you sprayed them with—or didn’t.

In general, growing onions is as easy as sticking a few sets into the ground in early spring. You can start them from seed, but they take forever to reach transplant size. That’s why many garden centers and mail order seed companies sell bunches of transplants and onion sets.

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Patience Pays

2009-04-12 Easter morning snow 006One thing I’ve learned (the hard way) is that it pays to be patient. Rushing the season usually results in cold-stunted plants, reduced yields, or, even worse, losing an entire crop to a late frost or snowstorm.

For example, most garden guides tell you to plant broccoli and other crucifers early—two weeks before your average last frost date—as the young plants can stand some frost. What they don’t tell you is that prolonged exposure to cold temperatures will ruin your chances for a harvest. Two to three days of temperatures that stay below 40 degrees will fool the seedlings into thinking they’ve experienced winter (can’t blame them a bit!). Instead of growing up and producing the nice, succulent head you’re anticipating, the broccoli will try to force the issue and “button.” That is, it will rush to bloom while still small, and all you get is a one-inch (or smaller) head with a bitter taste and tough texture. Bleah!

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Starting Seeds: Growing Transplants

Congratulations. You are the proud parent of a tray (or more) of baby plants. Remember, though, with parenting comes responsibility.

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These are just the “seed leaves”

Once your seedlings are up and growing, they’ll require almost daily attention. If your potting mix did not contain fertilizer, you’ll need to start a feeding schedule. Wait until the first true leaves appear. (The initial “seed leaves” are the cotyledons, which contain plenty of food to get the baby off to a good start.) Use any liquid all-purpose fertilizer at half-strength, twice as often as the directions tell you.

And speaking of water, don’t let them dry out! At this stage, wilting is fatal, Even if your plants survive, they will suffer the effects of this trauma all their days. The ultimate crop yield will be smaller, and won’t taste as good, compared to plants that grew unchecked.  Continue to water from the bottom, using water that is room temperature or lukewarm. You don’t want to shock their little roots with ice water!

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Starting Seeds: Light

If you’ve ever tried growing seeds indoors, you may have ended up with tall and spindly plants, flopping over, adorned with pale leaves. When planted outside, these ungainly wisps quickly succumb to bright sunlight and the gentlest of breezes. What’s a gardener to do?

While overabundant food and water, coupled with too-warm temperatures, contribute to this problem, the primary culprit is insufficient light.

The crops most commonly grown in our veggie gardens all require full sun—at least eight hours per day. Likewise, bright light is essential for producing stocky seedlings with healthy green leaves.

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