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Organic Gardening
Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.


Affirmative Agroecological Responses to Coronavirus

affirmative agroecological responses to pandemic

Driven by the shuttered economies and supply chain disruptions provoked by the Coronavirus, and our basic human survival instincts, people have churned up a tsunami of affirmative agroecological activity toward securing garden seeds, growing food cooperatively, and otherwise connecting with local farms. 

Good thing. Pay attention. On March 26 the Director General of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Qu Dongyu, stated that "the COVID19 pandemic is affecting food systems and all dimensions of food security across the world..."

It's not just the pandemic that's making things dicey. Tough restrictions at the US-Mexico border have observers suspecting that skilled farmworkers may be in short supply, undermining the capacity of farms to be productive. Shocks to the food system are possible.

But thanks to the work of a wide network of agroecological enterprises, there are many pathways for people to help develop and accelerate a wave of affirmative agroecological farm-and-food responses for enhanced food security. Your participation in building the wave of affirmative agroecological responses can make an important difference, not just for your household but for your neighbors and the nation.

According Simon Huntley of Harvie, a website that connects farmers and consumers, for the sake of healthy food and food security "it's a good time to be in local food. Demand for local food, at least based on Harvie farms has tripled in the last few weeks. It's an exciting moment where we can serve our communities in very important ways."

In addition to the outstanding array of resources in the archives of Mother Earth News, other pathways are rapidly opening up.

Cooperative Gardens Commission

The New York Times has published an article about the new, rapidly developing Cooperative Gardens Commission. In response to the pandemic, Experimental Farm Network (EFN) is urging people to establish "cooperative gardens" to grow as much food this year as they possibly can.

EFN initiated their effort on March 18, 2020 under the name Corona Victory Gardens. Within days hundreds of people and groups responded and began organizing to build a movement. In less than a week, over 1,000 people came forward to either request support or to offer resources. At that point the network officially changed its name to the "Cooperative Gardens Commission."

Working at computers, 400 self-quarantined volunteer organizers formed 14 working groups: Outreach, Education, Fundraising, Media Relations, Policy, Tech/Logistics, Work & Livelihoods, etc.

Their intention is to build the commission into a broad-based, inclusive, and lasting agroecological movement for people and groups who have resources to share, or who need resources to grow food. The Commission has three aims:

  • Support people in cities to take over defunct community gardens and vacant lots and fill them with life once more.
  • Support people in towns and suburbs who normally strive to keep their lawns green to instead rip up grass and plant vegetable gardens.
  • Encourage farmers who normally grow fields of commodity crops to set aside a portion of their land and labor to grow fruits and vegetables for their neighbors and for those in need in nearby communities.

Community Supported Farms (CSAs)

 Now – with a pandemic and increasing shadows of environmental catastrophe – it’s time to expand exponentially the vision and reality of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). That calls for Awakening Community Intelligence.

CSA is a social and economic arrangement in which specific communities – neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, and so forth – willingly share responsibility with specific farmers for producing, delivering, enjoying and honoring the food that sustains them. The community supports the farm, and the farm supports the community.

While there are thousands of CSA farms in America, new CSA farms mature and prosper through the interest not just of farmers, but also people who live near them. That takes time. But the CSA form is worthwhile, a strengthening element linking people around the most basic of needs for good, clean, healthy food. 

In this year of the Coronavirus many CSAs, but not all, also experience a surging wave of interest and participation. Here are three online venues for  checking out whether membership in a CSA is a possibility for your household this year, or whether you need to begin now to establish one for the years ahead.

The Local Harvest website offers a searchable database of CSA farms, with basic information on each. The USDA's local food directory spans the nation, and includes some CSA farms. And Modern Farmer magazine has begun this year developing a list of CSA farms.

Additional Resources

USDA Rural Development has launched a COVID-19 resource page to keep stakeholders continuously updated on actions taken by the Agency to help rural residents, businesses, and communities impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future's Food Policy Networks project has compiled a list of resources, models, and shared practices in response to COVID-19. It's intended for food policy councils and other groups working at the local and state level

Food Safety and Farm Relief

As urban farms and community gardens discuss strategies to maintain or scale up the safe production and distribution of fresh produce to those who need it, there are a number of food safety considerations.

University of California-Berkeley, Coop Extension points to a resource page including a presentation on COVID-19 and Safe Food handling Practices.These guidelines are based on information from the CDC and WHO. The page also lists materials & supplies, and daily checklists that can be tailored to particular farms or gardens. While some policy references are specific to San Francisco, many apply widely.

The American Farmland Trust has launched a Farmer Relief Fund to provide cash grants of up to $1,000 to small and mid-size direct market producers impacted by the coronavirus crisis. The trust has information, resources, and applications for farmers in both English and Spanish. Applications will be accepted through April 23, with grants starting to be made around May 1.  

Independent journalist Steven McFadden is rooted in cyberspace at DeepAgroecology.net. Information about his wider work and all of his nonfiction books is available at Chiron-Communications.com. You can read all of Steven's Mother Earth News blog posts here.


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Quick-Growing Vegetables Harvest-Ready in 60 Days or Less

 

This spring has brought more interest in growing our own food and increasing food self-reliance. Maybe this is part of your response to Covid-19 or maybe you just want to leap into spring.  You are probably wondering what can bring fastest results with early harvests.

Either way, here is information on some vegetable crops that offer fast returns and some sources for more information. I included a paragraph on fast crops in my blog post If Spring is Too Wet .

Ready in 21 Days from Sowing

See below for information on baby Asian greens, most of which can be cut or pulled for salad after only 21 days.

Ready 30 to 35 Days from Sowing

Baby kale, mustard greens, collards, radishes, spinach, chard, baby salad greens (lettuce mix, endives, chicories) arugula, and winter purslane all grow fast in spring. Beet greens from thinnings can be cooked and eaten like spinach. Note for newbies: Thinnings are small plants pulled from a direct-seeded row, to leave enough room for the chosen ones to grow bigger. The smallest thinnings (when you thin to an inch (2.5 cm) apart) can be used for salads and the ones from when you thin to 3” (7.5 cm) can be lightly cooked or put in a salad mix. Also it is possible to sow rows of almost any type of greens and cut them with scissors for salad once they are 3”-4” (7.5-10 cm) tall. Grab a handful and cut about an inch (2.5 cm) above the soil. In cool weather you can get a second cut (maybe even a third), but once it’s warm they will produce tough flower stems, rather than juicy leaves. Do avoid turnips and radishes for this way of growing, as many of them have prickly leaves.

Ready in 40 Days or Less

Many Asian greens such as Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy, Senposai, tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy are fast-growing. There’s a huge range of attractive varieties, they’re better at germinating in hot weather than lettuce, and faster growing than lettuce. Most reach baby salad size in 21 days, full size in 40 days. Transplant 4-5 weeks after spring sowing, or direct sow. Nutritious as well as tasty. Flavors vary from mild to peppery; colors cover the spectrum: chartreuse, bright green, dark green and purple. A diversity of crops without a diversity of growing methods! Grow when you normally grow kale. Be aware that Asian greens sown in spring will bolt as soon as the weather heats up, so be ready to harvest a lot at once (if you planted a lot, that is!) You can make Kim Chee. On my website SustainableMarketFarming.com, I did an Asian Greens of the Month post one year recently.

One summer we sowed Tokyo Bekana as a lettuce substitute. 20 days to baby size, 45 days to a (large) full size. We have also grown this at other times of year, when faced with an empty space we hadn’t planned for.

 

Golden Frills and Scarlet Frills, two mizuna-type mustards.

Mizuna and other frilly mustards are very easy to grow, and tolerate cold wet soil to 25°F (-4°C). In addition, they are fairly heat tolerant (well, warm tolerant). Use for baby salads after only 21 days or thin to 8″–12″ (20–30 cm) apart, to grow to maturity in 40 days. Mild flavored ferny leaves add loft in salad mixes and regrow vigorously after cutting.

Ready in 35 to 45 Days

Baby carrots (thinnings or the whole row), turnip greens (more thinnings!) endive, corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley and chervil and some of the faster smaller turnip roots can be ready in 45 days or less. Read the small print on the website, packet or catalog for help in choosing the best varieties.

Ready in 60 Days

Beets, dwarf snap peas, broccoli, collards, kohlrabi, turnips and small fast cabbages (Farao, Gonzales, Stonehead, Fast Ball, Golden Acre, Savoy Express or Early Jersey Wakefield).

Ready in 50 to 60 Days After Last Frost Date

Zucchini, yellow squash, bush beans, and small cucumbers can grow fast. Make succession plantings every few weeks throughout the summer, until about two months before your first frost date. The rate of growth will speed up in summer, so the later plantings will yield in less time than the first.

Garlic scallions can be grown over-winter, but will grow quickly in spring, taking perhaps eight weeks. Plant scrappy little garlic cloves you don’t want to cook with in close furrows and wait till the leaves are 7” (18 cm) tall before digging up the plant and preparing like onion scallions (spring onions). Can be eaten raw, but more often cooked. You can also plant whole bulbs without separating the cloves. This is a good use for extra bulbs that are already sprouting in storage, and an excellent use for small spaces between other plants, particularly as garlic repels some pests.

Our garlic scallions in March. We usually space the rows much closer than this. We start harvesting when they reach 7″ in height.

See other blog posts in my Cooking Greens for the Month series, and Asian Greens for the Month, as well as Lettuce of the Month

Try Eat-All Greens, an idea form Carol Deppe. Patches of carefully chosen cooking greens are sown in a small patch. When they reach 12″ (30 cm) tall, Carol cuts the top 9″ (23 cm) off for cooking, leaving the tough-stemmed lower part, perhaps for a second cut, or to return to the soil.

Spinach is good for salad or cooking uses. Be aware that the fastest biggest spinach may not last long once it warms up! We have found Acadia and Reflect have good bolt-resistance from outdoor spring sowings.

See my article Intercropping: Minimize Your Effort While Maximizing Yields, in the Heirloom Gardener of Spring 2018.

Jennifer Poindexter on the Morning Chores Site has a nice simple web post on 16 Fast Growing Vegetables That Will Give You a Harvest Quickly

Steve Albert on the Harvest to Table website has a good post on Quick-Growing Vegetable Crops. It includes recommended fast-growing varieties of 29 crops.

Pam Dawling works in the vegetable gardens at Twin Oaks Community in central Virginia. She often presents workshops at MEN Fairs, as well as sustainable agriculture conferences. Pam also writes for Growing for Market and other magazines. Her books, Sustainable Market Farming, and The Year-Round Hoophouse are available at Sustainable Market Farming. Her blog is on her website and also on Facebook. Read all of Pam's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts.

5 Tips for Planting Seeds Inside

 

Planting seeds inside is a valuable strategy for home gardeners. It allows you to get your garden started earlier, and saves you money over buying seedlings at a garden store. We’ve been planting seeds inside for 10 years now, and after many lessons learned, have our seed starting strategy down to a pretty solid plan. We add variation each year, but for the most part we know what we are going to do even before we get started.

Over those 10 years, we have learned a few valuable lessons about indoor seed starting that I share with you here today.

Choosing to Start Seeds or Buy Starts

Not all seeds should be started inside. It goes without saying that some seed varieties simply do better being directly planted in your garden (think greens, root veggies, or green beans). But there are other things to consider when it comes to your garden as well. Depending on how much you want to grow of a specific vegetable, or what varieties you are looking for, you may make individual decisions in your seed starting adventure.

If you only need a few eggplants, for example, you might decide not to buy a whole packet of seeds only to use one or two of them. Leave that one to the garden center to grow, and save space for things that you want a lot of (like, say, plum tomatoes), especially if your space is limited. You’ll get more bang for your buck from the packet of tomatoes when it turns into 15 or 20 plants for your garden!

On the other hand, if you are looking to try a really unique variety of a certain veggie, you might need to buy a packet because you won’t find that unusual variety at a garden store. Read more about seed starting choices here, and remember: Your garden is your unique plan — that’s the beauty of having your own!

Grow light stand.

Grow lights and heat mats are worth the investment. We bought our first grow light 10 years ago and it is still up and running and serving us well.  Grow lights truly do make a difference and, in my opinion, are practically essential for indoor seed starting.  Likewise, when we added heat mats to our operation a few years ago, the warmth they provided to our seedlings sped up germination impressively. 

The trick to making this sort of long-term investment is not spending too much on it. You can do this by getting creative about your set-up. We were able to build a tiered grow-light system using pieced together parts and supplies for half the price of a pre-packaged version.

Planning Pays Off

As any glimpse at the back of a package would show you, not all seeds should be planted at the same time.  A little pre-planning goes a long way when it comes to your seed starting strategy – you need to know not only when to plant each veggie, but that you will have the necessary supplies when it comes time to do so.

 

Seed packets

A seed starting schedule can be helpful in your planning, and can be tailored to the veggies that you want to plant. We also group all of our seeds into plastic bags that we label by the planting date to make it easy to grab all of the seeds we need any given weekend.

Likewise, it can help to count out your containers and estimate how much soil you will need right from the beginning. This way, you won’t be running to the store for more supplies every weekend or running out of supplies half-way through a planting.

Newspaper seed pots.

Don’t Spend Tons of Money on Pots

While it can be tempting to pick up a ton of those ready-to-go seed trays and pots at the garden center, you don’t have to spend money to provide a great growing spot for your plants. You can use recycled pots from previously purchased seedlings, or ask friends to collect them from you. We have also had great success with newspaper seed starting pots – click here for a quick tutorial on making newspaper pots.

If you take good care of your pots and trays you can use them year after year and will soon have all the supply you need. But this leads us to our last hint.

Wash your Seed Starting Pots and Trays. It is great to use recycled and re-usable plastic pots for seed starting, but if you don’t clean them you might notice that your seeds wilt shortly after germinating. This is called “damping off” and it happens when old soil or mold in a pot, combined with your lovingly-provided water and warmth, provides a nice place for pathogens to grow.  Pots and trays can be simply cleaned with soap and water, plus an added step for sanitization (either with a bleach solution or the sun). Read more about cleaning your seed starting equipment here.

As simple as it sounds to place a seed into a pot of soil and watch it grow, these tips will help you to experience more moments of joy than frustration when starting seeds inside. Happy Gardening!

Carrie Williams Howe is a blogger aThe Happy Hive Homestead.  She is the Executive Director of an educational nonprofit by day, and parent and aspiring homesteader by night and on weekends. She lives in Williston, Vt., with her husband, two young children, and a rambunctious border collie. Carrie has a PhD in educational leadership and is passionate about learning collaboratively. Connect with Carrie on The Happy Hive Facebook page. Read all of Carrie’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Plan and Plant a Learning Garden

 

Wow! The world is changing so fast these days and so many are finding themselves home looking for fulfilling things to do. You could clean out your closets, but a more exciting thing to do is to plant a garden. Even if you already have a garden, you could put a new spin on it, especially with the kids at home.

Selecting seeds. A garden can be a great teaching/learning experience. You can browse the seed catalogs or seed company websites to decide what to plant. Be sure to note if what you want to grow is suitable for your area. Also take notice of when the best time to plant is and if you will be putting seeds or transplants in the ground. You’ll have to decide how many seeds or plants to order.

Grow a pizza garden. You could plan and plant a themed garden, such as a pizza garden where you grow as much of the ingredients as you can for pizza. Since you use the same sauce for pizza as spaghetti, you’ve planned more than one type of meal. As long as you are growing so many tomatoes, you might as well make tomato soup and can it. Ingredients to grow for these dishes would include tomatoes, of course, and peppers, onions, parsley, oregano, basil, and whatever else you want to include. You will have to wait until the fall to plant garlic.

Gardening science project. Let your kids take part in this. They can explore recipes, ingredients, seeds, feeding the soil with organic amendments, when to plant and when to harvest, etc. In the process they will be have studied science, social studies, math, and reading, plus they would have used technology in the process. Physical education would take place digging and maintaining the garden. Double digging is a great experience because you discover the soil layers (see photo). Maybe they can research how planting times have changed over the years. They might start a phenology journal to record the times when things bloom, birds return, and so on, that signal changes in the seasons. Many things are triggered by day length and soil temperature.

Culinary arts should be a mandatory subject for kids out of school right now. They can help with the meals, opening up so many topics of conversation about the source of their ingredients and the source of their recipes. You could post a map of the country and mark where each thing comes from. You might need a world map. That exercise alone might drive home the necessity of growing your own ingredients, or at least, sourcing them closer to home.

Adapt existing resources. All this is a lot to learn, especially with the world seemingly crashing down on you right now. There are many resources available to help you, including resources from me. I taught the sustainable agriculture classes at our community college for over a decade and know, from leading my students through it, how much time and energy it takes to organize a project like this. As teaching tools to help those who couldn’t take my classes, I produced DVDs about cover crops and garden planning and wrote the book Grow a Sustainable Diet. Together they are a whole curriculum to take you through the process of planning and planting a garden and, with my book, further consideration of planning your diet and permaculture homestead. They are available through my website at Homeplace Earth.

You will find free continuing education about all this from my Homeplace Earth Blog. Good luck and happy gardening.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what Cindy is up to at Homeplace Earth, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Permaculture Basics for the Homestead

 

Permaculture is way of thinking about designing your home, homestead and life to produce what you need. Permaculture encourages you to work WITH nature instead of against it. This requires observation of the environment, plants and animals around you, so understand how they can all work together to achieve your objectives.

Where did permaculture start?

Permaculture was developed in the 1980s by two Australians: David Holmgren and Bill Mollison. They had begun to realise that the increasing trend towards chemical-based monoculture farming was not sustainable. Constantly fighting against nature would ultimately be a losing battle and we needed to start to think differently about agriculture. They described a system of “design thinking” in which all elements and their functions are considered and carefully placed to reduce human effort and maximise production.

Permaculture is now practised all around the world in different climates and locations. Some of the foundational ideas that led to permaculture have also led to concepts such as holistic management and natural sequence farming.

How can you use permaculture?

This system can be applied at all scales, whether you live in an apartment, a suburban block or a large farm. Anyone can use permaculture to improve their productivity. You must first start with a clear vision of what you want to achieve. For me this was growing enough in my garden that we could reduce our reliance on supermarkets.

Without permaculture, this may have meant buying garden soil and fertiliser, buying seedlings, buying chemical insecticides and fungicides and constant effort to maintain my garden. This would have been expensive and hardly worth the effort. I would have been fighting nature and getting less return each year.

Through permaculture design, I have been able to reduce the inputs to my garden and reduce the overall cost and effort required. The examples I give here are how I’ve used permaculture to solve my design problems. The value in permaculture is not in replicating another design, but in using the process to solve your own unique problems in different climates and living situations.

Permaculture relies on observation

This observation includes your environment, climate, the native plants and animals around you and using those observations by gradually trying different solutions. For example, I observed my climate to understand the temperature fluctuations and risk of frost. This helped me to understand that in my sub-tropical climate I need to grow different species at different times compared to a temperate climate. I’ve tried different vegetables to find out what will grow well, and I’ve saved seeds to keep adapting to my local climate.

Elements and functions in permaculture

Observation also leads to analysis of elements and functions and their interactions. An element is any part of the system, for example, the garden, the orchard, the worm farm, chickens or chicken pen. Functions are anything that the element needs as an input or produces as an output. In my system, the chickens need food and water, they produce eggs and manure. The garden needs fertiliser and water, and produces vegetables and weeds. This is a simple example, but you can already see the links – the manure can be used to fertilise the garden, the weeds can be used to feed the chickens.

This analysis starts to inform other design requirements:

  • what you need in the system (i.e. water is a critical input, we need to plan to harvest water),
  • where you could benefit from diversity (ideally you have more than one element for each function, i.e. another source of food for the chickens) and
  • where the elements should be located (i.e. due to the links between the chickens and the garden, they would ideally by close together to save the work required to haul manure and weeds).

When you realise the power of permaculture you can choose to apply it to food production, design of your farm and home, and to your entire community.

If you want to find out more, some excellent and practical books are Gaia’s Garden and The Permaculture Home Garden (reviewed on my blog), and for more detail on the philosophy my favourite book is Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability.

Liz Beavis is a small-scale cattle farmer and soap-making beekeeper in rural Queensland, Australia. On her Eight Acres Farm, she sells beef-tallow soaps, honey and beeswax, and is the author of Our Experience with House Cows, A Beginners Guide to Backyard Chickens and Chicken Tractors, Make Your Own Natural Soap, and the Solar Bore Pump Handbook. Connect with Liz on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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A Giant Among Plants: Grow ‘Solomon’s Seal’ as a Native Medicinal

This article is republished with permissions from the January 2020 issue of Washington Gardener, a publication covering Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia area gardens.

If you’ve read any of my past diatribes, you know that I favor scientific, botanical nomenclature above “common names”. That’s caused many of my readers to come to think of me as a know-it-all. Not the case! But, I’m going to save the plant name discussion for a later date. I just want to inform you that I have no problem with common names, although sometimes they don’t tell you anything about the plant or don’t seem to make any sense.

Well, here’s a definite exception to that rule: Polygonatum canaliculatum, otherwise known as ‘Giant Solomon’s Seal’, a remarkable plant that’s native to every state in the U.S. aside from eight Western states. This plant is a giant in more ways than its size.

Comparing Varieties of ‘Solomon’s Seal’

If you’re not familiar with this plant, I’ll bet you know its “little” cousin, Polygonatum biflorum, the ‘True Solomon’s Seal’, native to the same geographic area. That common name distinguishes it from Maianthemum racemosum, formerly Smilacina racemosa, or the ‘False Solomon’s Seal’. I’m not fond of that common name — if you have to use a common name, try ‘Solomon’s Plume’.

Polygonatum is a genus of plants that has a hard time with familiar relationships. I always knew it as a member of the Liliaceae (lily) family; now, depending on who you’re talking to, it could be in the Convallariaceae or Asparagaceae family.

This story is starting to get away from me, so let’s get back to Polygonatum canaliculatum and talk about the differences between these two kinfolk. Typically, Polygonatum biflorum (biflorum because it produces two flowers at each axil) grows from about 12 inches to 36 inches tall, depending on age, soil fertility, moisture, etc. It flowers from May to June with a graceful, arching stem. On the underside of the stems, in most of the axils, two greenish-white, pendulous, bell-shaped flowers are produced. These flowers turn to blue-black berries over the growing season.

Polygonatum canaliculatum is quite similar in most respects but looks like Polygonatum biflorum on steroids! It typically grows on road banks and is normally 36 to 72 inches, but we’ve had some attain heights of over 96 inches. There are also two to 10 flowers in each axil as opposed to only two in Polygonatum biflorum.

Growing and Using ‘Solomon’s Seal’

For growing. Both plants are easy to grow and propagate. The rhizomes produce a new joint every year and if you dig them up every few years, you can easily multiply them. You can also easily grow them from seeds: just wash the pulp away under running water and sow them outside. It takes several years to raise a mature plant from seed. In the garden, Giant Solomon’s Seal is a welcome guest, there are a multitude of shade-loving plants that you can plant under it. I’ve even planted Polygonatum biflorum under the Polygonatum canaliculatum. The richer the soil, the more organic matter and moisture, the more robust they’ll grow.

For healing. The name of the genus, Polygonatum breaks down as follows: Poly means “many” and gonu means “knee joint”, a reference to the joints on the rhizome. The common name of “Solomon’s Seal” is usually thought to refer to those “knee joints” on the rhizome, but there has been some older writings found to indicate the “Solomon’s Seal” refers to the wound-sealing properties of the rhizome. The specific epithet, canaliculatum means “grooved” or “channeled”, in reference to the grooves on the leaves. Members of this genus have a multitude of other medicinal uses and have been used for the treatment of indigestion, profuse menstruation, lung ailments, general debility, and other ailments. It is a folk remedy for piles, rheumatism, and skin irritations. A poultice or a decoction of the fresh roots is applied to cuts, bruises, and sores.

For eating. The starchy, edible rhizomes were consumed by Native Americans who shared them with the early settlers.

Giant Solomon’s Seal has a place in every shade garden, native plant garden, wild garden, and I’ve even seen them used in rain gardens — where will you grow yours? Use your imagination.

Barry Glick, a transplanted Philadelphian, has been residing in Greenbrier County, W.V., since 1972. His mountaintop garden and nursery at Sunshine Farm & Gardens is a mecca for gardeners from virtually every country in the world. Barry writes and lectures extensively about native plants and Hellebores, his two main specialties, and welcomes visitors with advance notice. Reach Barry at barry@sunfarm.com and 304-497-2208. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Planting Onions in Northern Arizona

Large bulbing onions 

While the world is struggling this March because of the pandemic outbreak of Covid-19, planning a summer garden makes even more sense. Planting onions is often the first thing I do in the spring to ensure that I have fresh produce in the summer for my family and friends. 

Onions are day-length sensitive. What that means is that onions make big bulbs when they have certain lengths of the day. This article from 2010 explains the science behind what I know from experience. For example, in the summer, Alaska has 22 to 24 hours of sunlight each day, so onions grown there should be "long-day" onions. Here in Northern Arizona, our longest days are about 14 hours, so "intermediate day" or even "short-day" onions work best for us because they don't need more than 12 hours of light per day to make bulbs. Several "old-timers" in town have complained for decades that locally-sold bulbs from big box stores don't ever produce large bulbs, and this is often why. 

What all this means, besides being careful to pick the proper day length of onion for the area, is that the plants need to be planted early enough in the spring that the days are not quite as long as they are going to be, but are getting enough sun each day to encourage the plants to send down roots and become established before the days do get long enough. For me in St. Johns at the 34th parallel, that means mid-March. By the Spring Equinox, the onions are going to try to start bulbing without having proper root growth and sometimes that means onion death by hateful wind and drought just as they should be trying to take off. I try to get planting before March 15.

Soil Preparation for Planting Onions in the Southwest

Onions need a loose soil that drains easily but is rich in nitrogen. Technically, onions are a leaf crop, and the bulb is a swollen part of the stem, not an actual root like a carrot. Because of that, they desperately need nitrogen frequently throughout the growing season. I use both well-composted manures and blood meal to make that happen in my personal garden. 

Here's how my planting day went this year. 

Soil needing to be prepared

First, I just raked it clean and turned it over with a broadfork to break up the clumps. Onions like soft, fluffy soil to send roots down, so I picked out large crazy roots. It took about 10 minutes to turn the above into this:

Soil all ready to be planted in

Planting Onions: Spacing and Depth

After the soil is prepared (I did have to lift up my dripline grid and then put it back down), I start planting. Many people plant onions way too deep, which causes them to split or never grow bulbs. I take the bottom of the onion between my thumb and forefinger, and insert it into the soil only to the depth of my first knuckle, which is about an inch or so. 

An onion plant, right after planting

Because I want large bulbs, and I buy very high-quality plants from Dixondale farms in the fall, I space my plants about 4 to 6 inches apart. My raised beds have an inside soil diameter of 4 feet by 8 feet, so I get about seven plants along each short side. 

Proper spacing for onion plants ensure that you get large bulbs in the summer

After I have all the onions planted, simply water deeply, and mulch if you expect winds, heavy precipitation, drought, or cold. Considering this is March in St. Johns, Ariz., we can expect all four in a single 24-hour period.  

A properly-planted, properly-spaced, early spring onion bed can look like this and yield at least 120 delicious 4- to 6-inch onions in August. 

Properly planted and spaced onion bed

Only Buy Onions Where Day Length is Listed

One final note: Onions purchased from a reputable source will always have day length information, as well as expected size and storage information. I tell all my gardening clients and students to stay away from any purchasing agent, whether big box store, feed store, or online shopping option if they don't state the day length of the onions they are selling. There is nothing more frustrating than buying "onion sets" or "onion plants" that look beautiful but won't bulb in the particular area they are going to be planted in because the seller doesn't actually know anything about how to get big beautiful bulbs!

Here's some I grew a couple years ago, as large as softballs. They were delicious, as well, and stored for about 5 months. 

Large bulbing onions

Regina Hitchock is a high school biology teacher in St. Johns, Arizona, where she co-founded the Gardeners with Altitude organic garden club and brings gardening, aquaponics, aeroponics, hydroponics, and seed starting into her classrooms. She serves as Secretary for White Mountain Community Cooperative to promote food- and economically secure self-sufficiency in Arizona. Connect with Regina on Facebook, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

 


 

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