Growing, Curing & Storing Onions

It’s almost time to start thinking about planting onions. Around here we go through half a dozen onions a week because we’re slightly nuts, but they just add so much flavor to meals, how could we not? There’s no possible way we could grow enough onions to provide us all year long unless we severely cut back, but who would ever want to do that? We do, however, try to grow as much as we can so at least some of our onion needs are met. There are several different types of onions – bunching, walking, multiplier and bulb onions are the most common. I will be talking mostly about bulbing onions.

Once you figure out what works best for you, growing onions can be very rewarding. If taken care of in the beginning the are kind of a set-it-and-forget-it crop until harvest.

onion copy

Choosing Onions

Growing onions can be very rewarding, but it can also be a bit confusing. When you look at a seed catalog you will come across in the description of the onion as being “Long Day,” “Short Day,” or “Day Neutral/Intermediate.” These descriptions are about how the onion grows and where, geographically, it is best grown. When you plant onions, they will start out looking like scallions. When the day length reaches a certain point, the onion will start to bulb. The trick is to get the most greens on the plant before it does this. More and bigger greens = bigger bulb. But you don’t want it to take so long that it will bolt too early before harvest and before you have a bulb.

  • Short Day varieties require 12 hours of daylight to start bulbing
  • Long Day varieties require 14-16 hours of daylight to start bulbing

The general rule is if you live above the 35th parallel (draw a line from San Francisco to Washington DC) you will want to grow Long Day onions because you will get longer days to encourage bulbing. Growing a Short Day variety in the north will cause your onion to bulb too early and end up being too small. Below the 35th parallel you will want to stick with Short Day varieties. Growing a Long Day variety in the south will result in an onion that bolts before it ever bulbs because the days never got long enough. If you’re pretty close to the 35th parallel you can do both types pretty successfully. Our most successful onion variety at our house is Yellow of Parma which is a Long Day variety. Day Neutral, also sometimes called Intermediate, can be grown anywhere.

Next you will need to figure out what types of onions you want to grow. A good rule of thumb is the sweeter and milder the onion the shorter the shelf life – about 2 months. If you have a bumper crop of red onions you can preserve them by pickling, or even caramelizing and then freezing them for future use. Onion varieties like Vidalia, Maui, most red types, and Grano are going to have a short shelf life and are best eaten fresh. The more pungent yellow and white onions, such as Yellow of Parma, Ailsa Craig, Copra and Cortland, can be stored for as long as 12 months. We usually grow 1/3 red onions and 2/3 yellow onions.

onions growing

Growing Onions

There are several ways you can plant onions. You can use seed, transplants or sets. Sets are basically miniature onions that you plant out. Sets are one year old onions so they can sometimes be  more prone to bolting early since onions are biennials (they flower their second year). Onions transplant very well so you can start with transplants to get a jump on the season. I usually start with seed, but have found that onions are a bit finicky about direct sowing so I will start them indoors and then transplant them out. I like to use seed mostly because there are many more varieties available in seed than in any other form.

I prefer to start my onion seeds at the first of the year. Planting them in the fall, I find, throws them out of whack when the days get shorter and then get longer. When this happens the plants think they are heading into their second year so they bolt almost immediately in the spring. You can plant them en masse and when you plant out just tease them apart.  I start them in flats in the greenhouse and once they are about 3″ tall I will transplant them in their well amended, loose bed. Don’t use a high nitrogen fertilizer for onions, though you do want to offer them some nitrogen. What you want is more phosphorus to encourage root growth. A good amendment would be a combination of poultry and steer (or goat) manures.

There are two very important things about growing onions. They need a good amount of water, especially when they are young, and they really dislike competition from weeds. You can mulch around them with straw after they are big enough to help with both of these issues.

Onions curing

Harvesting, Curing and Storing Onions

When the tops of the onions start to fall over you are close to harvest time. We usually wait until almost all of the tops are down and most are beginning to dry up before we harvest. We harvest in August, when it’s bone dry here, but if you live somewhere that rains, make sure to wait until you have a nice break in the rain and the ground has a chance to dry out some before harvesting. Don’t pull the onions out by their tops. Instead, use a shovel or fork to gently lift them out of the ground. You want to keep the top on through the curing process so you don’t open up the onion to pathogens that could cause their early demise.

Other things to watch out for are any bruising and onions that have bolted. The bolted onions will have a stiff stem coming up through the center. It is safe to assume that any onions that have dropped on the ground are bruised. These ones we set aside to be used first. The rest of the onions we lay out on a table in a single layer in a warm area with good circulation but out of direct sun. We have a metal patio table with a mesh top that works well for this but we also use a wood table as well with just as much luck. Don’t wash them or peel off any layers.

Allow your onions to cure for about 2 weeks. The tops and roots of the plant will  dry down to nothing. Once they are completely dry the curing process is done and you can trim the top and the roots. Store them in a cool, dark place. We store them in small burlap bags in our water tower and garage. I prefer the smaller bags because it allows all the onions to get plenty of air circulation. The larger coffee bean sized burlap bags always end up causing the onions in the center to rot first.

A proper curing will ensure that your onions will keep for a good long time. I do find as they age they become more pungent and oh boy, can they leave you in tears. Just throw them in the freezer for about 10 minutes prior to cutting to help avoid crying all over your cutting board.

Some good onion seed resources:

Building a Greenhouse for Next to Nothing (Compared to Buying One)

greenhouse1

I can’t believe I never did a post about our greenhouse. We’ve now been using it for at least a year and a half and I’ve been oddly silent about it. I guess it’s probably because it’s not 100% complete. We have one small area that still needs a permanent covering, the windows need new glazing and it is in desperate need of new paint. But it’s still functional and gets a lot of use. And it only cost us about $300. $300 may sound like a lot of money until you consider that this greenhouse is 8′x12′ and uses glass glazing. Buying a glass greenhouse that size will generally run you  around $5,000.

windows

Why a glass greenhouse? Why not just make a hoop house to save money? Hoop houses are great, don’t get me wrong, but they just don’t stand the test of time. While they are cheaper to make up front, there are some concerns you have to take into consideration. The material usually used for hoop houses is plastic sheeting, which doesn’t last more than a few years, even if it is UV resistant greenhouse plastic film. I’d prefer not to have to add more plastic to the landfill and also spend the money replacing it. Also, special consideration must be made regarding the hoop structure. PVC pipe (most isn’t UV resistant) will degrade the plastic through chemical reaction faster than it would normally degrade, so you have to either wrap the pipe or use another material, like galvanized pipe, which increases the cost.  Also, we have a very windy site for most of the year and plastic sheeting just wouldn’t hold up. Polycarbonate greenhouses also degrade from UV but lasts substantially longer than poly film. It is a plastic and even though it my hold up for 10-20 years if properly treated with UV stabilizers, it will discolor and become more opaque after time. It also becomes brittle. Double walled polycarbonate, however, adds a benefit of being more insulating than both glass and film. It can be quite pricey though. Not as expensive as buying glass specifically for a greenhouse, but if you can do glass, which is superior to both film and polycarbonate, for less than either, why wouldn’t you? It’s all about the windows. It is amazing how many people are trying to offload free windows. Craigslist is where we scored the majority of them. We also scored a free door that was 1/2 windows from my best friend who had just bought a house and wanted to replace the front door. We stockpiled old windows until we had what we felt was enough to start building. Before starting we laid out the panes on the ground so we could get the right configuration to fit the walls of the greenhouse. Do this carefully as we had a few casualties while doing this, but fortunately we had enough windows to make up the difference. We made sure that we got some windows with their frames so we could open them as needed when it got hot in the summer. 080914_0013_BuildingaGr3.jpg Next, we had to figure out how the greenhouse would be sited. We had a space on the north edge of our property that wasn’t shaded, and it wouldn’t shade out anything. We made the long 12′ wall be the south facing wall to maximize sun exposure. We also decided that since the north facing wall is facing a fence we could just use plywood for it. We framed up the structure with new lumber, which is where a good portion of the money we spent on the greenhouse went towards, however the most costly part of this job was actually the roofing material. We used some of the extra pavers we had to level the structure since our ground slopes. It was also imperative that add extra bracing since the weight of the windows can be quite substantial. windows going in The biggest score from the window search were these two 6′ long windows that someone had purchased and then never bothered using. The easily spanned the whole lower half of our south facing wall. It was a tight fit but we got them in. We also got more narrow windows from our next door neighbor that flanked the door (seen in the first photo). Once we got most of the windows in on the south facing wall, we started  framing the door and getting the roof joists up. Sexy ain’t it? We decided to just do a simple sloped roof, rather than a gable roof so the south side was getting even more sun exposure, especially in the winter when the sun angle is lower and when we need the greenhouse the most. It’s important when you get the door that it comes with the jamb for easier framing. greenhouse2 Once the door was in, we were able to finish up adding windows. And then the roofing, which we used the clear corrugated plastic sheeting. It’s not a particularly pretty greenhouse and it does need a coat of paint, but it’s definitely functional. greenhouse   Of course, what you also have to think about is the interior. Where are you going to put plants? And what about the floor? We scored some pea gravel off of Freecycle and it was enough to put down a nice 3″ layer. We first put down weed cloth though so we wouldn’t be fighting the never ending onslaught of bindweed and Bermuda grass inside. Tom build a fantastic 8′ long potting bench out of scrap wood and then we bought some heavy duty utility “baker” racks for putting the plants on. We will be probably switching the locations of these and put the potting bench on the east facing wall and the racks on the south facing wall so we can add another one. We also are using an old unused compost bin (our chickens do all of our composting now) as a soil storage.

Some Cool Chicks

chickens

It’s been hot around here (David Bowie is panting). So this is how we keep our girls cool. A kiddie pool filled with muddy water. The trick is the mud. They refused to stand in it when it was just water. All of them loiter around the pool during the hottest part of the day taking turns dipping their toes in the cooling mud.

What I’ve Learned 2013 Edition Volume 1

Summer is officially here and it’s time for me to finally get around to writing down some of the things I need to remember. Hopefully this list can help you too in your quest for gardening perfection (pssst….it doesn’t exist).

strawberriesReplace your strawberry plants every few years.

I’ve heard this said over and over but I’ve always kind of been like “yeah, whatever, they are perennials.” Well, I finally have to admit that I was wrong. Every few years those plants drop in production…like a lot. Last year we harvested 35lbs of strawberries from our little 4’x10′ bed. Quite impressive. This year? I haven’t added it up yet but I’ll be surprised if we broke 5lbs. The berries this year are also substantially smaller than last year as well. These plants gave us a good 3 year run but even fertilizing didn’t help use out and we’ll need to replace them next year. The question is what varieties should I replace them with? Do you have a favorite strawberry variety with outstanding taste (#1) and production (#2)?

Update: While I was writing this it came to my attention that while the harvest is lower it has been made even more low by Squeak the Super Dog who has found an undying love for the taste of strawberries.

People love their big beefsteak tomato plants

This year we tested the waters selling plant starts. The tomatoes were the biggest hit by far. We only grow heirlooms and are picky about the varieties – only choosing those that grow well for us. While I thought Stupice – the heirloom tomato’s answer to a fog-tolerant Early Girl – would have been a big hit, it was the Black Krim and Hillbillies that stole the show. We actually sold out of Black Krim and 90% of our Hillbillies before we even started tabling at Moschetti Coffee. We also got a lot of requests for red beefsteak tomatoes so we’ll be looking at including more of those – probably Brandywine, Italian Heirloom and more Mortgage Lifter plants. Paste tomatoes were also a popular request so I’ll need to include some of those as well. Next year I hope to increase the amount of plants we grow substantially. We will also be using real plant pots as the red cups tip over too easily. Unfortunately it means we’ll have to charge a bit more to cover the cost.

….but are not so hot on hot peppers

As much as I LOVE hot peppers I should probably have realized that the general populace doesn’t share that love with me. While I was able to sell most of them, the sweet peppers sold out pretty quickly. Also, I’m hoping that next year the Anaheims do better so I’ll actually have some of those to sell.

Direct seeding doesn’t always work but sometimes it’s the seeds

We had a problem with direct seeding melons, watermelon, cucumbers and some of the squash. Most refused to germinate. After doing some investigative digging I found that the issue for some was that something was eating them right when the root would start to come out. So for those I ended up germinating them in the greenhouse and planting them as soon as they were up so as not to have issues with being root bound. However, the Bidwell Casaba melon seeds I couldn’t even get to germinate in the greenhouse. I tried pots outside. Still no go. I ended up going through 4 packets of seeds and after planting every single one I only got 2 plants to show for it. They weren’t being eaten, they just weren’t coming up. So I decided to try a few other varieties of melon and every single one I planted came up within just a few days. I’ve planted Bidwell Casaba before and had great luck so I suspect there was something wrong with this year’s batch. Next year I plan to start seedlings about a week before the earliest date I can put them in to avoid this mess again.

It’s all Beansabout the manure

Our garden is going gangbusters right now. Plants are all huge, producing a ton and we aren’t having any disease or pest issues. Last year we had a pathetic harvest due to being skimpy on the manure spreading. This year we tripled the amount of manure we put down and what a difference it has made! The only patch of ground that we didn’t amend very well is where we have beans planted and the difference between that patch and another patch in another location that was planted at the same time is very notable.

The only "clear" walk down to the end of the yard

The only “clear” walk down to the end of the yard

….but there is a downside and we planted too much of it

We can barely get down to the walkways because the uber-happy squash has taken over everything, including the pathways. We need to grow fewer squash next year because of this and also because they seem to want to take over all the other plants. Plus I have absolutely no idea what we are going to do with that much squash. I figure this year will just be the year where we determine what our favorite varieties are and then next year we will reduce the amount we grow. So far we know we will be growing Howden pumpkins and Trombocino squash. What I really like about the Trombocino is that it’s eaten like zucchini but the majority of it is seedless except for the bulb at the very end. This means that if one gets away from you it is still just as edible as it was when it was smaller. It also makes fantastic pickles because it’s less likely to get mushy in the canner. Of course it will be awhile before we can choose the winter squash variety we like the most (besides the pumpkins).

 Hot weather makes for early harvests

We harvested our very first June tomatoes this year. Usually we don’t get tomatoes until the end of July – mid-July at the very earliest. We’ve even got tomatillos ready to go. It’s been unseasonably hot the last month or so. While our normal weather pattern is around the upper 70s with morning fog, we’ve been getting a pretty consistent stream of upper 80s to 100s. It finally cooled down to decent upper 70 weather this week but it was pretty brutal for awhile. Because we weren’t expecting it, some of the harvest got away from us and now we’re scrambling to process stuff. I processed a dozen quarts of zucchini pickles on Friday. I also processed 36 8-oz jars of apricot jam, 6 quarts of halved apricots and 2 quarts of apricot syrup.

I think for now I’ll stop here. Watch for Volume 2 later in the season.

The Hugelkultur Bed Experiment Update

hugelLast fall we decided to convert part of a garden bed into a low  hugelkultur bed to see how it would work for us. To compare we prepared the bed right next to it using a rototiller. In both beds we used the same mix of soil amendments and we planted the exact same varieties in the same configuration. They are also hooked up to the same water line. So other than one being a hugel and the other being tilled, they are, for all intents and purposes, exactly the same.

The season is still fairly early but I’m already seeing some differences.

tomatoesThe tomatoes are slightly larger in the hugel bed compared to the tilled bed.

peppersSame with the peppers. Especially the habanero, which is notorious for being a slow growing variety.

eggplantsThe eggplants are doing equally well.

watermelonWatermelon germination was the biggest difference. I had much faster and better germination rates in the tilled bed compared to the hugel.

Of the squash plants that germinated at about the same time, the ones in the tilled bed are bigger and more vigorous.

bedsThe biggest difference though is a substantially smaller amount of weeds in the hugelkultur bed.

The season has just started and production hasn’t even started yet and that will be the real test to determine which bed works the best.

Canning Season is Almost Here – Stay Safe Out There

packed in jars

Raw packed pickles

We just planted our tomatoes, eggplants and tomatillos this weekend. In a couple of more weeks we’ll be planting peppers, squash, cucumbers, melons, beans and corn. In just a few months we’ll be busy harvesting and preserving our bounty through drying, freezing and canning.

Preserving has been gaining in popularity and I see some really great recipes out there on the interwebs. I also see some dangerous ones that kind of scare me. I’ve seen so many bad ones, in fact,  that I’ve decided that I’m no longer going to judge canned goods at events anymore unless the recipe and canning process is included with the sample. You can’t simply shoot from the hip and make up recipes that “sound about right” and expect for them to store at room temperature for extended lengths of time.  There’s a science behind canning to ensure safety that I can’t stress enough. So I figured that with canning season fast approaching we should discuss some guidelines to canning to help everyone stay safe.

The Rules

1. Just because it’s on the internet does not automatically make it a safe recipe. 

Be critical of every recipe you see on the internet.  Check to make sure it has enough acid and is processed long enough if it’s not pressure canned and uses low acid ingredients (especially if it is raw packed). If it’s high acid make sure it is water bath canned long enough. The USDA has safe canning guidelines through their National Center for Home Food Preservation site that you can cross reference from. Also avoid recipes that have dairy, eggs, and pureed low acid food (such as lemon curd, pumpkin butter and pureed bananas) and don’t also say that it is to only be kept in the refrigerator for a limited amount of time (usually for a month) or to freeze the finished product.

2. Books are *usually* a safe bet. 

I only say “usually” because I’ve seen some questionable and downright dangerous recipes even in published books. Check the book to make sure it says the recipes have been tested for safety. The most reliably safe books (though I can’t testify to the flavor of all the recipes in these books) are:

cans

These are refrigerator-style pickles that have a finite shelf life.

3.  If you find a safe recipe do not alter it, but if you do, know the guidelines. 

Even adding a bit more onion to a recipe can alter the pH enough to make it unsafe. For water bath canned products you want the pH to be 4.6 or lower. However, unless you have a super deluxe Vitamix blender, chances are just blending and using a litmus strip isn’t going to give you an accurate reading of the acidity. The safest way to test is to send it to a food lab, but that can get expensive so just stick with a tested recipe. Always follow the basic safe guidelines if you do change the recipe. If you’re not sure, err on the side of caution and don’t alter it. The canning recipes I have on this blog always follow the safe guidelines and I almost always increase the acid when I don’t need to just to be on the safe side. I will not post low-acid recipes that require pressure canning. And recipes that don’t follow the safe guidelines, like our oven-baked heirloom tomato sauce, will always be for eating immediately of freezing (which is why we don’t include canning instructions with it).

4. Not all fruit is created equal. 

While many fruits are high acid and relatively easy to can, some are either borderline or low acid and must have acid added. Figs, bananas, white peaches, Asian pears, watermelon, mangoes and tomatoes all fall into this category of not acidic enough to can on their own without added acid. Be sure to follow the USDA guidelines if canning these items. I have posted tomato canning guidelines that are based on USDA guidelines and the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.

 5. If it’s a low acid food and you don’t add acid don’t even think of water bath canning it (same goes for recipes with meat in them even if you do add acid).

I’m serious here. Botulism will fucking kill you. Adding loads of salt or sugar won’t save you here.

6. If a recipe says to pack pint jars don’t pack quart jars and increase the time to what you think it should be. 

Sometimes you’ll come across recipes that only give you the processing time for a specific jar size. Don’t pack into larger jars because you don’t know what the processing time is for them to be safe. Tomato paste is a good example of this. Due to it’s consistency it’s best to only can it in 8 oz jars. And never can using jars larger than a quart unless the recipe calls for them (tomato juice can be canned in 1.5L jars per the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving).

7. Don’t create shortcuts.

  • Cut fruits or vegetables into the indicated size as this ensures that the center reaches the correct temperature and acidity if using low acid foods.
  • Don’t “eyeball” the amounts of your ingredients – think of this as a science experiment rather than an art project.
  • Start your processing time after the water has come back up to boiling if using a water bath canner or after you reach pressure when pressure canning.
  • Pack hot food into hot jars that were slowly brought up to temperature, not cold jars (the sudden heat from the food will stress the glass causing breakage).
  • Don’t reuse lids (Tattler lids are the exception). You can reuse rings though.
  • Follow head space rules for a recipe – don’t over or under fill jars.
  • Always make sure there is at least 1″ of water covering the jars when in the canner.
  • Do not skip the water bath for acidic foods. The water bath heats up the food in the jar to kill microorganisms. The heated food increases in volume (why you need to follow rules for head space) pushing out air. The water covering the jars doesn’t allow air to reenter the jars. The air also is heated making it expand and escape the jar. Less oxygen means less oxidation and less spoilage (except for anaerobic microorganisms like Clostridium botulinum, many other microorganisms require oxygen). You’re much more likely to get mold if you don’t properly do a water bath. Mold changes the pH of the product making an acidic food more basic which opens it up to C. botulinum, which causes botulism.
  • Remove air bubbles after packing hot jars. Sometimes the food can contain enough air in it to alter the head space. Plus extra air means extra oxygen and more chances for spoilage.
  • Always wipe the rim with a clean cloth before putting the lid on. This will help ensure a good seal while also removing a vehicle for contamination to get inside the jar.

8. Take the rings off your jars after they seal. 

The rings are really just designed to keep the lid on while canning and should be removed after they seal. This will help reduce corrosion and rust on your jars but more importantly removing the rings help you avoid a false seal. A failed seal would indicate spoilage but if the ring keeps the lid down you wouldn’t necessarily know the food has spoiled – smell, taste and looks can be deceiving for some types of spoilage. However, you can put the rings back on once you break the seal to avoid creating a mess.

9. Remember to adjust for altitude. 

Find out your altitude and then adjust your canning time. Please note that the time difference may vary depending on the product you’re canning.

10. Use the right equipment. 

Steam canners and oven canning are not recommended and cannot remove the risk of all types of spoilage. A stock pot that is deep enough for your jars plus 1″ of cover is fine for water bath canning. Make sure to use a rack on the bottom of your pot though. The rack helps keep water moving all the way around the jar and helps prevent the jars from breaking. Use a pressure canner, not a pressure cooker, when canning low acid foods and meat. Pressure cookers don’t have as reliable gauges if they have one at all. Also make sure that your pressure canner is in good condition. Old or poorly taken care of pressure cookers are dangerous and can explode. Your county extension can test your pressure canner for you or direct you to somewhere that can.

Canning isn’t something that should intimidate you by any means, you just have to follow some rules to make sure your finished product is safe. Properly canned foods are delicious and most times are much healthier than what you can purchase at the store. So get out there and start canning!

Buying Before it’s Time

This morning I saw tomato and pepper plants for sale. This morning I also saw frost on the ground at my house, which has a much milder climate than where I saw these plants for sale. What do peppers and tomatoes hate? You guessed it. Frost.

So why in the world would some nurseries be trying to sell frost sensitive plants while there is still frost? Come on now, we live in a capitalist society, we all know the answer there. They don’t care if your tomato plants get ruined, they want to get a jump on selling the most popular vegetable plant around.

Don’t be fooled. Just because the nurseries have it does not mean it’s time to put it in the ground. Even some of the best nurseries can make you fall victim to buying before it’s time. Spring is here, the seed catalogs are out. It’s time to plant!!!!

Hold on a second. What’s your last average frost date? Not yet? Then don’t buy those frost sensitive plants. Actually I wouldn’t even buy them within 3 weeks of the average frost date. Remember, it’s an average, so some years it will be later in the year.  Our last average frost date is supposed to be sometime in February but I’m not buying it. As I said, we had frost last night and I know last year we had frost as late as mid April. Since then I’ve learned that February is NOT our last frost date and I won’t plant until after mid April.

Now, you can very well plant them early if you have season extenders, but mid-March still seems excessively early to even use those. Tomatoes and peppers aren’t just frost sensitive but they LOVE heat and prefer their nights to not go below 55 deg F. Planting them too early can stunt them or just knock them back so they don’t get a good start.

Nurseries do a disservice to gardeners by selling plants before they can safely go in the ground. Beginning gardeners trust nurseries to know when planting times are so if tomatoes are in they think that it’s time to plant them. Then they plant them and the plant dies because it’s still too cold still. And nothing discourages a new gardener like a dead plant when they just start out.

Picking the Right Irrigation System and Installing it

Reader Question:

I wanted to know if there is a drip irrigation system that you guys would recommend!  I don’t have such a big garden just a few raised beds! I seen your system and is huge but i just need something small! It would be really helpful! Thank You!

Choosing Your System:

Part of my day job description includes putting together irrigation construction documents for construction projects. Usually these documents are for huge sites with extensive systems involving thousands of feet of piping, dozens of valves and sometimes multiple controllers.

You’re probably scratching your head trying to make sense of what you just read. That’s OK because the typical home garden is not going to require all this fancy talk, but it will require a few necessary items to work well.

I like to set it and forget it, meaning I really don’t want to have think that much about watering. Of course, having a garden that would require several hours to water every other day is the reason for that, but even with smaller gardens you might want to think about going this route because sometimes life gets busy and you might not be able to water for a few days. If you have automatic irrigation you won’t have to worry about losing your garden that you’ve spent months nurturing.

I’m also of the mind that you should have a system even if you don’t necessarily need it. This was highlighted last summer with the severe drought in the Midwest  My mom, who lives in Ohio, depended on summer rains to water her garden but the rains never came. The heat did though. She had to spend large amounts of her time hand watering just to keep everything alive. When you don’t need it you can just turn it off and when you do need it it’s nice to just be able to turn it back on and let it do its thing.

There are so many different types of irrigation how in the world do you choose one? My first word of advice is put down the pre-assembled “garden drip” irrigation kit at the big box store. Every site is unique and those kits do very little to accommodate even the average one. Second you’ll need to figure out if you want to do drip irrigation or overhead irrigation (which I won’t be covering here).

I recommend drip for several reasons.  First it is low flow and the water is put directly on the soil at the rate the soil can absorb it. This reduces evaporation and eliminates drift from wind.  It also reduces fungal diseases that can be caused by overhead watering while also being less likely to cause puddling and soil erosion. In addition, you’re less likely to have weeds when you control where the water is going through drip. The weeds have a tendency to congregate at the point source rather than spreading out across your entire bed. The downside of drip, however, is that it can be clunky to handle and it gets in the way of digging, hoeing, and raking the soil. It also doesn’t last as long and has to be checked over thoroughly before every season. To me, however, the saving in water (and $$$) is well worth these minor headaches.

Designing & Installing:

You will either need to draw up a site plan of the area you want to irrigate or get some construction marking paint (spray pain that can be applied when the can is upside down – usually comes in fluorescent colors). The main purpose of this is to find out how much PVC irrigation pipe you are going to need between your water source and the places you want to water. Generally the pipe will only need to run to the end of each bed closest to your water source. Rainbird, a popular irrigation supply company, has some design manuals online that you can use to help with your irrigation layout.

valve setup

Basic valve setup. Click picture to enlarge.

Stick with 3/4″ Schedule 40 PVC pipe unless you’re doing a really large area on drip or you’re using spray. Then you’ll need to do pressure loss calculations but I’m not going to go into that here. Pipe is pretty cheap so if you purchase  more than you need (which you will) it won’t break the bank. In addition to the pipe you’ll also need the joints (elbows, tees, 4-way, couplers, etc.). This is why a drawing is helpful. Keep in mind that any turns in the pipe are usually going to have to be at 90 degrees.

The photo above shows how we set up our valves. The valves are what turns the water on and off automatically (there is a manual switch as well). They are connected to an irrigation timer (also known as a controller) that is in our water tower by low voltage wire. When you enlarge the picture you can see the wires that you connect on the top of the valve (they haven’t been hooked up yet in this picture). If you just have a few raised beds you’ll probably only need one valve. We have three different watering zones – fruit trees, vegetable beds (we require two valves due to water pressure loss), drought tolerant landscape – which all require different watering schedules so we need to have four valves for our backyard.

It might look complicated but once you have all the parts you need it’s really not. Everything gets put together rather quickly. The hardest part of installing irrigation is digging the trenches for the pipe and electrical wires in my opinion.

For the threaded joints you’ll want to purchase plumbers/Teflon tape – a thin relatively stretchy white material that’s not sticky to the touch. With this you’re going to wrap the threads in the same direction you’ll be screwing on the fitting. This tape fills in any gaps in the threads, sealing it from leaking. Wrap it around about three times but don’t let it extend past the end of the threads as it can potentially clog your system if a small piece breaks off. For the PVC slip joints you’ll want to get pipe cement and primer. Some people claim that you can skip the primer, however, this is only true for systems that will not be pressurized. With drip systems the lines will have pressure when they are on so make sure to use primer first, otherwise you’ll end up with a lot of leaks that you can’t always fix. Primer is generally purple in color and you apply it first to the inside of the connector and the outside of the pipe. Allow it to dry a bit. You then apply the cement in the same fashion and insert the pipe into the connector. It should have a firm hold to finish connecting within a few minutes but don’t plan on running water through your system for at least 24 hours to allow the joint to cure.

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Irrigation hookup at each bed. Click photo to enlarge.

You’ll want to run pipe to your beds. Connect them with female slip joints and cement. I prefer the pipe riser for each bed to be located on the outside of the bed, though some prefer them on the inside. If the bed is already in place and filled it will have to be on the outside. On the left is what you need for each bed. The ball valve is important because it allows you to turn off individual beds when they aren’t planted. I like to use the threaded gray risers as they contain carbon to help make them more resistant to UV. You can use PVC though if you want to. just remember that if you use the threaded pipe you’ll need elbows with one end being threaded.

Now that you’ve got water to your beds you’ll want to get the dripline down in your bed. There are several options regarding the type of line you want to use. I personally like dripline with inline emitters because it’s easier to handle. You can get these in 1/2″ and 1/4″ size. With each of these sizes there are different emitter spacings within the line. The 1/2″ dripline’s smallest spacing is 12″ which might be too far for vegetable beds. The 1/4″ size comes in 6″ spacing so go with that. Some people like to use the porous soaker lines which look like black spongy material that “weeps” water when it’s turned on. If you have hard water or even just well water this type clogs really easily and you’ll need to replace it before the season is over (trust me, I’ve had to do this). The inline emitter dripline use turbulent flow to help keep the emitters from clogging.

Another option is drip tape. Drip tape is inexpensive and puts a good amount of water down in a relatively short time frame. Unfortunately it doesn’t last long. By our 2nd season we spent a good portion of our time repairing blown sections of it. It also requires a much lower water pressure to run correctly, which requires difficult to find pressure regulators.

C:UsersRachelDocumentsbed.dwg Model (1)Once you figure out which type of dripline you want to use you’ll need to layout how you want to water it. I prefer to run the water source on the end of the long side versus the center of the short side. From the source you run 1/2″ poly across the short side and then cap it. At ever 6-9″ (spacing is personal preference and also depends on the width of your bed) you’ll insert a barbed 1/4″ tubing connector. There’s a poly tubing hole punch gun that makes this job MUCH easier. Connect 1/4″ dripline tubing to the barbed connector and run it to the end of the bed. Crimp the end and stake it down. You can buy end clamps or just use zip ties.

One more thing you’re going to need to consider – when dealing with poly tubing you want to either use universal fittings or fittings that are the same brand as the tubing. Different manufacturers vary the size of the tubing ever so slightly so the fittings of another manufacturer (unless they are universal) will not work on their tubing. The links in the following list are just to give you an idea of what you’re looking for. They don’t necessarily work together. Your best option is to purchase everything from the same store, which will generally have compatible parts.

 

The Basic Supplies for Automatic Drip Irrigation

 A word about controllers

With controllers you can go cheap or you can go expensive, but either way, it will most likely be your most expensive piece of irrigation equipment. The more costly a controller is, the more features it will have such as being able to attach rain sensors, soil moisture sensors, or more programs and stations. The one I’ve linked to is the one that I own and have been very happy with it. It has a rain delay and a rain shutoff switch so I can turn it off during the winter and when it’s time to run it again, it keeps all my previous programs. The programming is relatively easy to do as well.

One thing I will caution you against is getting battery operated controllers that also double as a valve. In my opinion (and experience), these are not reliable and go out regularly. The worst is when you’re on vacation and the battery goes out with the valve open (yeah, this happens more than you’d think).

 

That Whole Succession Planting Thing

This arugula is three successive plantings at 2 week intervals.

I have a confession.

We’re lazy gardeners. We barely weed, we never handwater, and we never fertilize during the growing season. Oh, and I’ve never done succession planting.

Of course we don’t really need to weed, water or fertilize, which is probably why we don’t do it. Wide rows, automatic drip irrigation, and heavy soil amending prior to planting all help with us with the stuff we don’t do.

But succession planting needs to be done – and I especially need to get good at it if we plan on being farmers – and the only reason I never did was just plain laziness. Well, laziness and just not keeping track of planting were my downfall. This year is different because I made a calendar to follow which forced me to stop using the “I’ll do it tomorrow” excuse. I’ve now been doing succession planting this fall and you know what? It’s easier than what I thought. Actually, it’s easier than planting everything all at once. Instead of slamming all the work into one day I’m able to spread the same amount of work out over the entire season. Why didn’t I do this earlier? Bonus is that if pests come through (i.e. rogue turkeys) they don’t destroy it all because I’m not planting all of it at once.

Some plants have extended harvest and don’t need to succession planting. In addition some plants have varieties with different harvest times that help extend the season and therefore don’t require as much successive planting.

What you should succession plant:

  • Lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Greens
  • Bok Choy
  • Mustard
  • Peas
  • Radishes
  • Scallions
  • Beets
  • Swiss Chard
  • Cilantro
  • Green & Fava Beans
  • Turnips & Rutabaga
  • Carrots
  • Collards
  • Celery
  • Corn
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leeks
  • Onions
  • Parsnips

Plants that can be succession planted but also have varieties with different harvest times:

  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cauliflower

Plants that don’t need to be succession planted because they have a long harvest, are perennial or need a very long season

  • Squash
  • Melons
  • Tomatoes
  • Tomatillos
  • Peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Asparagus
  • Artichoke
  • Cucumbers
  • Okra

 

The Permaculture Assessment

In the permaculture online study group I mentioned a couple of weeks back, we were given a rather intensive assignment. We needed to do a site inventory of the property we’re focusing on. Of course, for us, it’s our property and I thought it would be fairly easy to do since I already had our yard drafted in the computer. Well, it turns out mapping was the easiest part.

The assignment had several parts to it. The first parts were mapping the property and doing a site analysis of the current conditions. This included drawing out all the features of the property (trees, structures, permanent site elements) and then mapping out the conditions such as sun aspect, wind, slope, and shade patterns.

Once that was all done the hard part was next – writing the accompanying text which included additional information such as soils, climate, site history, and biodiversity. After the site assessment was complete I then described the different zones of property, the site elements in the zones and what our vision/future plans were for each of those areas.  Wrapping up the text I described what resources we have available (time, money, materials). If you’d like to see what this Permaculture Design Plan looks like click on the link below for the pdf. It’s probably more than you ever wanted to know about our property.

Permaculture Design