- Author: Jan Rhoades
Ever since a fellow Master Gardener generously gave me some garlic to plant, assuring me that it was easy, I have been planting garlic every fall. And, she was right about it being easy. For the last 4 years, growing garlic has been the extent of my winter gardening. This year, for some reason, I decided it was time to try overwintering onions, mostly, I think, because I have read that this is the best way to grow Walla Walla Sweet onions – a favorite of mine. So, armed with copious research and three kinds of seeds, I put in onions at the same time I planted my garlic. So, anyone reading this, just know that I am inspired to write this piece not as an expert, but as a newbie to the onion scene and in hopes that others with some experience will chime in.
My garlic bed gets prepared once my sweet corn has been harvested – think late August or early September. That garden plot gets the most winter sun --- an important consideration for both garlic and onions. I amend the soil with compost and chicken manure, turn it deeply to make sure the soil is loose and drains well. Then I form raised beds about one foot wide by six feet long. I chose to direct seed the onions because several of the articles I read mentioned that sweet onions started from seed overwinter better and store better than sets. Also, I have never had much luck with sets and I prefer to direct seed rather than start seeds in flats – quite honestly, never had much luck there either.
The seeds came from a reputable supply catalog, I chose Walla Walla Sweet, Top Keeper (a yellow onion), and Desert Sunrise (a red onion). For overwintering, the recommendation is to purchase varieties that are Short Day or Day Neutral – also called Intermediate. Most sweet onions are short day, meaning that they produce onion bulbs when they receive 11 to 12 hours of daylight. By comparison, long day varieties need 14 to 16 hours of daylight – not enough for winter growing. Intermediate and neutral varieties fall somewhere in between these and will work for our latitude. Bulbing onions depend on day length for bulb production. Once the roots and leaves form, the bulb forms when day and night lengths reach the proper number of hours.
The tiny black seeds are planted no deeper than ¼ of an inch and will germinate in temperatures as chilly as 45 degrees F. Just like garlic, onions don't mind a bit of cold or even frost. I did apply mulch, in the form of straw, to both the garlic and onions. They need to be watered until the ground freezes – then just leave them alone until spring! At least, that's what I read.
So, now I am just waiting and watching. Even though it has been quite cold, the onions have been hanging in there. I can see their green shoots poking through the mulch – not as tall as the garlic, but still green and still there. I do go out and check them pretty much every day, just...because. Anyway, like the garlic, the onions are busy doing their underground thing. In the spring, they will begin to grow in earnest and I plan to thin them to about 6 inches apart, hopefully using the thinnings like scallions. Again, like garlic, when the bulbs are ready to harvest, (probably by May) their leafy tops turn brown and they can be gently pulled and allowed to dry before storage and use. Sweet onions don't store for a long time, which is one reason I planted some other varieties. Also, I plan to eat them pretty quickly because I really enjoy onions and, by May, there should be plenty of other veggies growing to enjoy them with.
Well, that's the adventure so far. I promise to let you know how it goes in the spring. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy rainbow garden dreams with new seed catalogs – green tomatoes, yellow watermelon, white eggplant, purple carrots, red lettuce and blue corn!
- Author: Alison Collin
With the promise of El Niño bringing milder and damper winter conditions, this might be a good year to try growing some winter vegetables in the warmer parts of Inyo and Mono counties.
Choose your space. One of my problems is the fact that I tend to plant successions of vegetables all through the year, so I still have tomatoes, beets, parsnips, lettuce, peas, carrots and leeks taking up a lot of space! I also like to take the opportunity to leave most of the veggie plot fallow in order to cultivate it during the winter. Sometimes the areas that we choose for summer planting are not always the best ones to choose when growing in other seasons. Large open areas used in summer may well be subject to severe radiation frosts or drying winds in winter. Lower sun angles may mean that a spot that gets plenty of sun in summer might be too shady in winter due to a fence or other structure. Look around carefully to find a sheltered spot with the most light (especially if using frost-cloth tunnels which will reduce the light reaching the plants). However, those who live at high altitudes or in the colder parts of Inyo/Mono counties may be reduced to growing bean sprouts on the kitchen windowsill!
Be practical. With irrigation systems turned off, and relative humidity low, one can expect to be doing a lot of hand watering. Take the distance from a faucet into consideration. As the worst of winter recedes, and the sun gets higher, it can get very hot under tunnels of frost cloth, and in cold frames and greenhouses, so it will be important to open them up to allow air to circulate during the day, a tricky problem if one is not on the property full time.
Optimize what you have. If you have a greenhouse, this is the time of year when it can really pay dividends -one of our Master Gardeners picked ripe cherry tomatoes throughout last winter! However, if a greenhouse is not available frost cloth stretched over hoops of plastic or wire, or a hoop house, can still help modify soil temperatures to a greater or lesser degree. I make tunnels from 8' lengths of 3' or 4' wide field wire bent in half lengthwise with frost cloth stretched over and held in place with clothes pins - simple and effective. I find it easier to lift the whole tunnel off as a unit in order to tend the plants, rather than dealing with individual hoops. I have frost cloth, shade cloth and insect and bird netting cut to size so that I can cover the tunnel with what is most appropriate at any given time. High winds can shred plastic and blow mulch into the next county so make sure that covers are secure.
Other suggestions regarding cold protection: for individual plants a large upturned, hanging basket stuffed lightly with straw, dry leaves or even crumpled newspaper can help (I have even used a shower cap over the basket to keep the mulch dry during rain). The basket prevents the mulch from blowing away or getting scratched up by animals. For tender herbs growing against a wall, I use old window fly-screen panels with frost cloth cut to size and attached to the frame by clothes pins. I then lean the tops against the wall making a warm tunnel underneath. I have used old storm windows in similar fashion but found that they made the plants a little too hot. Sturdy tomato cages, no longer in use at that time of year can be placed over plants with frost cloth wrapped around the outside, and the top protected by a stout piece of cardboard attached by clips or wires.
Be vigilant about pest control: You may have found a nice cozy spot for your plants, but it is just as cozy for aphids, earwigs, sow bugs and caterpillars. I have seen cabbage white butterflies investigating my plants at the end of December! I also had to throw away several beautiful heads of broccoli one winter when they had the worst gray aphid infestation that I have ever seen. The infestation took hold during a cold spell when I had preferred to sit in front of a fire rather than caring for my plants – no amount of pressure hosing would remove the sticky mess!
Soil preparation and sowing techniques are much the same for winter crops as for any other time.
Plants should be mulched to reduce swings in soil temperature as much as possible, but of course this can only be done after seeds have germinated otherwise the tiny plants would risk getting smothered.
What to grow
- Lettuce, radish, onions and spinach, radishes, fava beans, beets and chard may be sown as seeds.
- Garlic cloves can be planted until early November.
- Well grown starts of the cabbage family: Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and small varieties of cabbage together with kale. Although these are hardy and tough plants they need to be checked regularly for pests.
- Parsley is tough and I have seen it flattened by a thick covering of ice from a leaking gutter, but a few hours later it was standing as if nothing had happened.
In the High Desert growing through the winter is always a risk and one's successes will vary from year to year but with good frost protection and possibly milder temperatures it might be worth a try, especially from Big Pine south.