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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

I'm Not Crying Over My Onions This Year!

Every year there are some things that do well in my garden and some things that don’t. Some of my failures (and successes) are weather related, sometimes its related to the cultivar that I’ve planted and some times my successes and failures are related to my planting strategies. I discuss this extensively my book, “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook” because there are many things that you can beat yourself up over, but many are out of your control. When you grow organically, like I do, there is also the pest variable too, which can throw you for a curve.

Most years Colorado Potato Beetles are my nemesis and they take a huge toll on my potatoes. This year I saw one adult that I gleefully squished, and that was it. No eggs. No larvae. No damage. It was weird. Especially after such a mild winter, I assumed they would be problematic, hiding out in debris and over wintering well, but such was not the case. I don’t understand this. The last few years I’ve had no problems with my cucurbits … my vines like cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and melons. This year they are overrun with Squash Beetles. They have done major damage to all these plants and I have had to devote lots of time to keep them in check while at the same time the drought has forced me to focus on watering. I get a sense I’ve had about 3 generations of these Squash Beetles going through their life cycle in this heat.

Over the years I’ve had some luck and managed to grow some big onions but during the last few years it’s been useless. I plant small onion bulbs and I harvest only marginally bigger ones. This year I wanted to figure out what I was doing wrong. I thought perhaps that I just wasn’t planting them early enough. So this spring I got them in really early. The earliest I’ve ever planted them before.

And the crop is absolutely outstanding! I’ve got to widen the doorframes to get my head through since my ego is so inflated by the onion harvest this year. Every year something thrives at Sunflower Farm and this year it’s onions and in the words of George Costanza from Seinfeld, “I’m over the moon” about it!

wagon full of onions


As I’ve analyzed the difference over the last few years I realize the mistake I’ve made. I plant most of my onions from bulbs. I find this just gives them a real head start over using seed or transplanting from our own seed that we started early. What’s happened every spring is that as I’m planting the peas and radishes and other early things I’ve just thought, “well the onions are bulbs, they’ll just start whenever I put them in so it doesn’t really matter. They’ll be fine, when I finally get them in.” It turns out that timing really matters.

onions drying on sidewalk 

The harvest took 3 days with the size and number of them. I planted 10 times what I usually plant since I needed some for the CSA but in my wildest dreams I never expected these results. And as usual I didn’t leave enough space between each onion. Why would I? I’m so used to them being medium size. This didn’t matter too much, but I did notice in areas where I harvested a number of really large onions that were too close together, they seem a bit soft where they were touching another bulb, which may affect how well they store. I’ll keep my eye on this. But since we’ve got 8 weeks left in the CSA I will be using these onions up pretty quickly.

onions in garage 

I’ll also be giving CSA members the teardrop-shaped onions over the next few weeks to use up. I find the onions that haven’t taken on the nice round onion shape don’t store as well. So for the next little while we’ll all be using the ones that won’t store well, then I’ll switch to the best for the last few weeks of deliveries.

We have been getting great feedback from CSA members, which is really gratifying. As the boxes go out the door each week I sometimes forget how they must look to someone receiving them. I have a tendency to dwell on the vegetables that haven’t done well, the weeds, how dusty my soil gets in a drought, etc. But what really counts is what goes out the door and it’s been very presentable. We got rave reviews about the corn last week.

I’m thinking when people get these large onions they’re going to think “well that Cam, he is a market gardener, so naturally he knows how to grow big onions.” Well sort of. I do now. I’ve done it before and finally figured out what you need to do to maximize the likelihood of a good outcome.

This is something I stress in both “Thriving During Challenging Times” and the gardening book. Growing vegetables in itself is not difficult. You need some strategies to increase the odds that things will grow well and that’s what my gardening book does. But mostly you need practice and it doesn’t matter how big your garden is. You just need to get seeds in the ground and watch what works and what doesn’t. And when things don’t turn out you’ve got to consciously try a new strategy the following year. Every year I have some vegetable that has not done well previously that I’m determined to master and so I focus on it. This year it was onions and I must say the results are pretty outstanding.

We’ve got onions drying on racks in the kitchen, in the barn and in the garage. And every time I walk by them I get a little buzz on. As the summer heat winds down it’ll be this buzz that ultimately will inspire me to entertain having a garden next year because if you’d asked me in July I would have screamed “NEVER AGAIN!” And the cycle of life, and gardening, continues.

“Oh look, there’s Cam Mather, he grows really great onions!” That’s right, I’m an expert! At least this year I am.

To buy a copy of "The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook" or any of Cam's other books, check here at Mother Earth News or go to