Sunflower “Onion” Farm

By Cam Mather

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!

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.

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.

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 purchase a copy of “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook” or any of my other books, please visit www.aztext.com

6 Responses to “Sunflower “Onion” Farm”

  • Cathy:

    Well congrats Cam! You have figured out garlic from clove to harvest, now on to figuring out onions from seed to harvest. Did you save any in the ground to generate your own seed? Saving seeds is easy after you get the hang of it. I will never have to buy corn, chives, garlic, potatoes, onions, rasberries, marionberries, artichoke, herbs, mints, squash, pumpkin, zuchini, gords, honey, chickens, rabbits, grapes, 5 kinds apples, asian pear, blueberries, pears, plums, or tomatoes again. I know I’ve left out something, but I’m sure you get the point.

  • Brian Wortman:

    I have never had your results with onions!! They look great! In answer to Connie’s question about her aphid infestation I have read that DE will act against aphids but not sure whether it is to do with the ants that protect and farm the aphid or it acting as a barrier control of some sort or actually interfering with the digestive system in the soft-bodied insect. sorry I couldn’t help more. Good luck!!

  • Those onions look awesome! This is the first year I’ve planted onions from bulbs, and they’ve done well, too. I put the yellow onions around/between other things (kohlrabi, broccoli, cabbage) in the outside raised beds and just harvested them last night. Today I’m chopping and dehydrating their greens and tomorrow, I guess, the bulbs. (After my son makes some onions rings, yum.) It was my intention to see how well they store but I couldn’t help myself–I just had to clean off all the nasty skins and dirt! I have red onions planted around the cucurbits and tomatoes in the greenhouse and they don’t appear to be doing well–I’m thinking it was too hot in there for them. I’ve had to occasionally pull them throughout the summer, but there are a few left. Hopefully those will get big enough to store. Or maybe it’s what you said–the red onions weren’t planted early enough. Looks like I will get lots of red onion seeds from the few grocery store bulbs I planted for that purpose (because they were sprouting in the bag). So this/next year’s learning project will be how to make my own onion sets so I can get my onions in EARLY next year, too.

    Question for Brian Wortman: Will DE prevent aphids, then? I’ve been indundated with them this year!

  • Brian Wortman:

    I don’t know if you have tried dealing with the colorado potatoe beetle by dusting with diatamaceous earth but I find it works for me. Since it is listed as acceptable under the Canadian Organic Regime(COR) and the National Organic Program(NOP) I dust it on liberally throughout the garden. I buy it in 50 lb. bags from maple syrup supply catalogues at $36.95 a bag. Ants and anything with an exoskeleton come in contact with this finely ground-up seashell material and it penetrates their outer shell and they dehydrate within 24 to 36 hours. I live in the french-fry capital of the world and we are professionals at producing ‘chemical balls’, as one potatoe farmer called them, so I knew that if I wanted to enjoy eating potatoes I had to find a way to bypass the numerous applications of killer sprays.

  • Kitty H:

    My onions made but weren’t big at all. I planted them too late. Oh well, there’s next spring. I have one hint if you have Japanese beetles. Plant iron weed a little ways away from your garden. As soon as it blooms, the beetles will immediately go for the iron weed. They leave your garden alone.

  • They look awesome! Between the onions and the garlic your place must look like an onion factory. I have to admit that onions have been a problem for me too. I didn’t plant them this year nor did I plant corn and its probably a good thing since our weather has been uncooperative. Cool and wet. Even the raspberry farm where I pick had a poor showing resulting in the U-Pick not opening. Now I am scrambling for enough raspberries to make a couple batches of jam, (my favorite) and the price is ….well you would think they were gold plated. I am seeing between 4 and 5 dollars a half pint. It is only August and yet we have fog, it feels like fall is closing in, and the tomatoes are developing blight and I have only harvested about 6 tomatoes from 10 plants. ARGGGGG!

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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