Monday, June 9, 2014


     Each year I reluctantly make the proverbial pilgrimage down the mountain to my local nursery in quest of obtaining  onion sets, ones that will produce those beautiful golden onions we all love to use.  I have almost weaned myself entirely from buying other types of garden seed from the nursery after learning how to collect and save them for myself, therefore onion sets are practically my only purchase.  Unfortunately, my reluctance in leaving my beautiful mountaintop abode is often more than apparent by the  limited acquisitions I come home with.  Some of my family will actually struggle to maneuver themselves into a position so as to not be required to go to town at all, while others will jump in the truck or car at the drop of a hat, acting as if they are escaping an extended sentence of incarceration.  

     When I arrive at the nursery and reach the bins of what should have been a plethora of perfect little golden sets, a quick perusal shows that most of the community had already been there and gone, which exemplifies the old adage that the early bird catches the worm!   So the once overflowing coffers of picture perfect yellow nuggets of gardening joy, after being extensively pilfered by the public, are often reduced to a dismal bastion of refuge.  In other words, all that is usually left are a few dried up puny looking semblances of what were supposed to be onion sets...  that is if they had been grown a little longer and cared for a whole lot more.  

     Is it just me or has anyone else ever suffered from this reluctance to leave home?  Sickened at the prospects, I usually just grab the best of the worst, make a mad dash to the truck, put the pedal to the metal and race home as I scare most of the wildlife in the area.  Once there I quickly make my way to the garden in hopes of resurrecting these practically dead onions. Unfortunately, I am not a vegetable EMT, but I frantically try my best to make due with what providence has provided, or should I say what the providence I created had provided... all for the sake of growing onions one more season.  

     However, last year (2013), I decided in July to sow my own onion seed, ones that I had collected from the previous year (2012), and, with great confidence, believed that I was smart enough to actually grow at least a few sets in my own garden.  This procedure I knew absolutely nothing about.  I had never read about or tried it before, but I became super motivated to produce these home-grown sets after the sets I did purchase from the nursery refused to flower at all.  Surmising that these new flowerless sets may not have gone to seed because they were some sort of a highbred, I did however  grow some great onions from them.  Yet, not really having an answer to this dilemma, I found out later that only second year bulbs will bold and flower, and since store bought sets are second year bulbs they should have flowered, so I am still not sure the reason for them not to flower????  I cannot imagine companies selling onion sets in the same year they are produced, because typically growers plant seed in August or September to create sets for the following spring sale.  Any way it was at this point I felt very fortunate to have sown my own seed that year as well as buying these flowerless sets.  I figured that even if my seed did not produce good enough sets I could at least eat them as blade onions all year long; this was a win-win proposition for me!  
     I waited all summer and into the fall for the results.  I felt that there should have been at least some sizable sets produced by the end of the year from my seeding efforts, but to my dismay all of them were still very, very small.  I threw my hands up in the air and concluded that I was not an 'onion set grower' after all, and this now made just one more thing I could scribble off the short list of an already shrinking job resume.  My problem, I learned was that I needed to break the blades over when they were two months old so the bulbs would begin to swell to form nice little bulbs, but I didn't know that at the time.  Still, I could not bring myself to dig up or turn under 2 1/3 beds of very miniature onions, so I just left them.   As winter quickly approached I decided to cover the bed that showed the most potential, leaving the others to accept the fate of a wintery death.  To my great astonishment all of the beds not only survived the winter but seemed to flourish in the cold snow we had at 3500 feet!  The bed that was covered had substantially more growth over the other beds and had already produced larger bulbs (half dollar to dollar size).  I left it alone in hopes that we could eat these immature little bulbs throughout the year as they grow, which we have been doing and love them.  The others I had no clue what to expect!

  Fast forward to June of 2014, which is when I started digging one of the other beds in preparation of drying the bulbs for sets.  Yes, they did grow and they are worthy of being labeled as "onion sets", yep still rather small,  (Should I pencil 'onion set grower' back in on my resume?)  I figured that even if I planted them in July, I should hopefully still be able to produce some late fall storing onions. 

The beds are 4x8 foot 
Allow me to digress for a moment and reflect on that old garden fork in the above picture: 
     I have a few mementos given me by my father before he passed away, which his father had owned, like a double barrel shotgun, a straight razor, and a garden fork, to name a few.  My dad often used and treasured that old garden fork, and now that it is mine, I do too.  I really didn't realize just how much I loved it until a good friend asked to borrow it.  I hem hawed around like I was being asked to sign away one of my children as an indentured servant, and maybe that would have been easier for me to do, who knows? He must have thought I was acting very strange, after all it was just an old garden fork.  But, because he was a good friend, I finally acquiesced to his request and handed over my granddad's garden fork, only after rendering a set of rather strenuous restrictions, so much so that he must have felt very uncomfortable using it once he took it back to his garden because the very next day he brought it back unused.     Even though I felt like a jerk placing such a burden on him, I was like a kid in a candy store when it returned home.  I will never loan it out again, so don't ask!  

     My granddad, the original owner, was born in Lee County Virginia, in 1883.  This area is also known to most history buffs as the Cumberland Gap, and is where Daniel Boone blazed the wilderness trail into Kentucky.  My granddad lived on and roamed the land where the son of Daniel Boone was killed by Indians.  
     James Burgin, my granddad's maternal great-grandfather, traveled with his brother and Daniel Boone through this area in the late 1700's, which was the time Boone was establishing the settlement of Boonesborough, in the heart of Kentucky.  James decided to settle in Virginia instead of going on to Kentucky with his brother and Boone.  Hunting and growing food was the order of the day and  was an essential aspect of life during those times.  Even as little establishments began popping up where people sold produce and other goods to travelers who were traversing the rugged wilderness trail, the traveler knew that eventually they had to settle down and grow and hunt to survive.  There was little difference from that era to my granddad's early years of the late 1800's, everyone had to grow food or perish then as well.  I traveled through the Cumberland Gap in 2005 and it was still just a small spot on the map, a place where few stopped on their way to more important places to go, and it is still a very back-woods place.
     Farmers needed large families to help work the ground but, as these children transformed into adult men and women, their parents couldn't supply all of them with enough land that would provide a living, so many traveled west.  Granddad traveled into the new frontier of the west to be with several of his older brothers who had participated in the Oklahoma land rush, which transpired just before the turn of the twentieth century.  Unfortunately he came a little too late in order to acquire land for himself.  I guess I should get to the point I am trying to make, which is, although my granddad gardened out of  necessity, he also loved it, it was ingrained in him.  As a little boy I remember seeing that old garden fork out in his garden.  I didn't give it as much thought then as I do today.  In my father's generation he gardened as well, but strictly for the love and taste of good food, and although he was not required to do it to survive like his ancestors, he continued to till the ground when he could, just for the fun of it.  Also, as a boy, I remember living in the suburbs of Los Angeles having chickens, rabbits, pigeons, fruit trees and a big garden, even an aviary of colorful canaries to sing songs of joy every day.  I was a young man before I noticed that the old garden fork belonging to my granddad had quietly moved to my father's garden.
     Now I am the caretaker of that old garden fork that sports a slightly bent tine.  When I work my meager little garden with a tool that has transcended generational garden plots it is something of a miracle to me, which when reflected upon, sometimes brings a tender feeling to my soul,  especially knowing that when I place my hands on the handle of that old garden fork, both my father and his father had placed their hands in the exact same spot many times before.  It's like having my dad and granddad hold and guide my hands as I use it, and who wouldn't want a little extra help, especially from experts?   I can only imagine that my father may have had these same feelings when using it, but he never related those kinds of thoughts, for he was raised in a time when men didn't show much emotion, at least they didn't in his family.
     My dad didn't give me that old garden fork until he had stopped gardening altogether.  I occasionally wonder with great interest as to who will become the fourth generation caretaker of it and, as they take it by its well worn handle for another lifetime journey into their own  garden, will they have the same feelings as I have had?  Will they feel the love of gardening deeply imprinted into the sun-baked wooden handle of the previous three generations?  I hope so.  I also wonder at what point will I stop gardening myself, if ever?

Now back to reality!
     Note: Look closely at all of the onion blades lying loosely on the ground in the above picture!  My daughter April and I tried and tried to bend the blades over so that they would begin the process of drying, as one would typically do when preparing mature onions before pulling.  Those little buggers just refused to stay bent; neither would they turn yellow and die, so I cut them down with a pair of hedge clippers.  More than one way to skin a cat, which reminds me of another grim but funny story about my dad, but that's for another time.  This intense surgical procedure I dubbed "onion hedging" is not exactly on the list of authorized practices the experts suggest implementing to professionally grow onion sets, but we only live once, so why not try something new... right?

     When uprooting the sets from the ground I found that they were tightly bound together by a tremendous root ball, sort of like the feeling one would have after eating too much pizza on free bowling night.  Anyway, the abundance of roots only allowed them to be dislodged from the soft soil in large clumps.  As can be seen there are many different sizes of bulbs; the larger ones should be eaten as shallots and the extra small bulbs may not be useful at all, but I'll plant them anyway if there is room in the garden.  There were plenty, perhaps hundreds, that should produce some great onions.  Always lean towards planting smaller bulbs.

     As I began shaking off the soil I found it to be quite easy, so much that I was almost amazed.  This ultra loose soil, made up of compost and well rotted sawdust, was a treat to work in.  And even though I have religiously wood chipped most of my growing beds after viewing the 'Back to Eden' DVD and visiting Paul at his home on the Washington Peninsula, I still  leave one or two beds un-chipped for jobs like this... or at least until I learn how to properly drop microscopic seeds into a conglomerate of fibrous wood chips and have them successfully grow through six to eight inches of these woody deterrents to become onion sets.  The problem I see is that sets begin with seed and are sown very close together, so wood chips are not the ideal environment for this process... If I am wrong please correct me!

      Next I  placed the sets on an unplanted bed of wood chips.  The reason for this was not only convenience since the chipped bed was right next to the onion sets, but because I hoped that by laying the sets on the rough chips the irregularity of the surface would provide a little more air circulation beneath them, thus accelerating the drying period.  In the picture below I had only extracted half of the sets from one bed; many are covered up by the roots of other sets and are hard to see.  The roots on these small sets were enormous.  The framed bed cover over the onions is to give protection in the case of rain or overnight dampness, which often occurs because, after all, this is Idaho and the old saying still used today is "If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes".  
     Even in June the weather was cool when I harvested the would-be sets; if the sun were to get too hot I would drape a shade cloth across the top of the cover to keep the tender little sets from cooking... drying is that which is desired, but sometimes there is a very fine line between drying and cooking!  You must keep an eye on them if you desire success.  What happens when the sun beats on them too much is that the outer layers will begin to dehydrate or break down, causing rot or disease to occur. 

     Remember that these are second year bulbs so they will have the tendency to bolt easier.  When planting try to select only the smaller bulbs about the size of a dime; never get drawn into the misconception that bigger sets make bigger onions, that is  just not true.  And I would not plant the larger sets unless I needed more seed, which I do.  Most large growers plant their seed out in August to make sets, then place them in climate controlled environments waiting to be sold the following spring.  Our climate control is operated by the hand of God, and if He decides it will rain, I can guarantee that it will rain and if He thinks we should have scorching hot weather, well just get used to it!
     Later I will conclude this blog by showing how well or poorly the outcome was on my first attempt in growing onion sets.



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