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This year, I’m going to grow enough onions.

I’ve never yet grown enough onions. I’ve got close-ish, with leeks and spring onions and chives as the support team, but never quite enough to last the whole year.

I have excuses.  For the last thirty years I’ve been living in a subtropical climate not ideal for onions (or garlic).  Here there is a limited window of opportunity for planting, a limited number of varieties to choose from, and a lot of ways to be seduced by seed catalogues into dud plantings.  In my seed box are  Welsh onions and potato onions and pearl onions and shallots that looked so good in the catalogue but behaved like Scotsmen when they found themselves in what used to be called “The Big Scrub”.  We eat a lot of onions and since they all have to go in pretty much at the same time, they don’t fit well with my rolling successive planting style of gardening, or, for the last decade, with my intensively fenced “Up Gardening“.

It was a little bit of maths that led me to the resolution to try to grow enough storing onions to last out the year.  I don’t know why I’ve never actually thought this through before. Average five onions a week (with leeks and perennial leeks and spring onions and chives to round it out) equals 250 onions a year.  Add another 50 for casualties. Split into two plantings a month apart (the most I can manage here), in two beds, that’s 150 onions a planting.  At 12 cm spacing, that’s just over two square metres in each of two beds, really not much space at all.  I think I have been failing to appreciate how truly productive for space onions are.

I’m not getting seduced by seed catalogues this year. Most varieties of onions, especially the keeping varieties, are long day length which means they need the long days of summer at lower latitudes to set bulbs.  This year I’m sticking to Hunter River Brown and Lockyer Brown varieties, both good keepers and bred for the shorter day lengths we have in summer this far north.  I’m planting a box of seed of each, and will transplant them out into the garden next month, aiming for about 75 of each, planted in patches of about a dozen onions scattered throughout the bed. I’ll plant another box of each then, to be planted out in May.  I’ll companion plant them with carrots but since I can plant carrots all year and I’m aiming for a year’s supply of onions in one go, it will be a token amount of carrots.

By the time I get a year’s supply of onions as well as a year’s supply of garlic both in, I’m going to be very glad zucchinis and squash don’t grow over winter. By the time they go in again, in September, I should be able to tell you how the onion challenge has gone.

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winterI’m naturally not much of a gambler.  I think that’s one of the reasons I like permaculture – that focus on systems and design and elegant patterns of relationships that mitigate risk.  It’s not that I’m a control freak, it’s just that I’ve learned that “lets stop and think about this” is a good mantra.

This time of year in this part of the world (northern NSW), fruiting annuals are all a gamble.  I might just squeeze in another round of the summer annuals, especially the faster ones like zucchini and squash and cucumbers and beans.  My site is pretty well frost free and with luck they’ll bear into June, but an early cold snap will zap them just as the first fruits are ready to harvest.  I might just get away peas and snow peas but if it stays warm too long, and especially if its wet with it, they’ll all just succumb to powdery mildew.  I might get away with both, or very easily neither.

So I’ve planted  just a dozen each of peas, snow peas, and broad beans.  The first real planting will be next month but if these succeed, they’ll give me an early start and a bit of insurance if the mice steal my pea seeds next month  (as they’ve been known to do in the past).

And I’ve planted one, exactly one, pot of each of zucchini, button squash, cucumber, and potkin pumpkin.  Two or three seeds in each pot so that I can weed out the weaker ones, but aiming to plant out just one of each as a late bet.  And a dozen rattlesnake beans to get a last hurrah on the bean harvest.  And another few cherry tomatoes in the seed box, aiming to have just five or six to plant out.  They’ll be slow and a bit sorry for themselves being asked to grow through winter, but I can usually manage to get a few to bear right through.

All the big seeds are in leaf pots, three to a pot aiming to thin to two before planting out. By the time they are big enough to need planting out into the garden, the chooks will have prepared a bed for them.  It will be an oddly planted bed – a small set of peas, snow peas, beans, cucumbers all climbing the south side fence, with broad beans in front of them, then zucchini, squash and potkins round the north side (where they won’t cast too much shade), and leafy greens, onions and garlic in the middle.  The picture is that kind of planting from last year.  Lacking a crystal ball (sadly), oddly planted is my next best option.

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planting in March

I’d never noticed it before I started blogging, but there’s a pattern here.  Every year I seem to be thanking my lunar calendar that I got anything stuck in during early Autumn at all.  What is it with March?

I’ve done it again this year – all but missed the leafy planting days, determined to get something planted no matter what, and had a post half written in my head about “one of the things I like about the lunar planting calendar, that it pushes me to rescue my gardening from the “things that can be put off for a week or so” pile”.  Till I realised that’s exactly what I wrote this time in 2011.

In my part of the world – northern NSW – it’s the turn of the seasons time.  We’ve probably seen the last of the heat wave days when it’s a waste of effort planting out leafy greens and you can feel the coming coolness in the air.  It is coming into our wet season so we’re likely to get rain. It’s past Lammas, the festival marking the point when, though the days are still long,  if you graph the day length the graph starts a steep downhill plunge towards the winter solstice.  So bolters are not in such a hurry to set seed into what they think is the approaching snow, and instead they bunker down with food stores to survive till the days start lengthening again – food stores like bulbs and hearts and tubers.  The summer insect pests are still around but they’ve lost their head start on predator populations.  I see hover flies and lizards all over the garden now and a grasshopper needs to be lucky to run the gauntlet.

All of that means I can, for the first time, plant water loving leafies like lettuces and celery with some hope.  I can plant bolters like coriander and parsley and silver beet and they’ll hang in there for a while.  I can plant cool season things like leeks and spinach, and cabbage moth targets like kale and cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower.

Not too many of any of them – there’s several months of successive plantings to fit in yet, but today I’m making time to get these seeds into the seed boxes in the shade house.  The boxes are sitting ready in the shadehouse, the same ones I used for summer planting recycled.  It will take a matter of minutes, and, like every year it seems, I’ll thank my lunar calendar that it made me do it.

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My planting calendar is on my case. It’s not even up on the wall yet (I told you it’s been a busy start to the year) and already it’s on my case.

There’s a roots and perennials planting break this weekend, and through until Tuesday afternoon.  I only half believe that plants pay any attention at all to a lunar planting calendar. But humans are another matter. We’ve been away for the weekend, and just got home.  I have a big day at work tomorrow and won’t get home till late. I might (hopefully) get a little time on Tuesday, but there’s a serious risk that it will be next weekend before I get out into the garden to do much more than picking. Oh, and I just remembered, we might have guests next weekend.

And garlic needs to go in.

The garlic really needs to go in, and it won’t be nice and understanding about how both my (young adult) kids, who live a few hours drive away, have birthdays this time of year so it was a good occasion for an extended family dinner, or how work is hectic at the moment, or how I have a really good book I’d love to get into this afternoon.

Gardens are polite, quiet, undemanding, and utterly implacable.  Garlic and onions are day length sensitive, and I have only a narrow window of opportunity to plant and absolutely nothing I can do to alter the day length.  Further south it isn’t quite so pressing. You have a longer window of opportunity and more choice in varieties. Here in northern NSW, the midsummer days are much shorter than they are in the more temperate climates that onions and garlic are really adapted for.  I have to choose my variety carefully, choosing short and medium daylength varieties, and I only get a few months to plant them.

If I want to stagger the planting a bit so as to give me some insurance if weather or pests wipe out one round, they need to start going in now.

I have all the resources I need – aged compost, creek sand left from the recent floods, some space in the shadehouse after last weekend’s clearout,  seed garlic saved from last year’s crop along with some I’ve got from friends and other local gardeners –  so it won’t take long. This afternoon I am planting about 70 cloves of garlic. With another 70 next month that will give me a year’s supply with some for gifting and some for next year’s seed.  One clove per pot, pointy side up, using the standard system of planting things as deep as their own diameter.  Each clove will yield a corm.

I’m also planting a box of Hunter River Brown onions, and one of Lockyer Gold.  Hopefully I’ll get some time before Tuesday arvo to put in another round of carrots, spring onions, parsnips and beetroots too. The planting calendar is nagging me about them too. If I put in just one small box of each every month, I have a nice staggered planting and a continuous supply.

Bossy old calendar. See, I’ve done it. Ok?

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The big thing I’ve learned in 30 years of gardening is that if you have a good design that uses the permaculture idea of stacking functions, and you get in a nice rhythm, you can keep a kitchen garden producing really well with amazingly little time or work.  The other thing I’ve learned is that if you lose the rhythm, and the stitches in time start missing out on saving nine, those stacked functions can start looking like a Dr Suess tower.

Two years ago at just this time of year I was writing about A Garden With Stamina. Last year this time I missed the leafy planting altogether. It’s a bit of a pattern in my life.

So today was a catch-up day. The chooks finally got moved (remember, I was going to do that weeks ago). That meant that the bed they were in was able to be planted out, which meant that I could clear out the shadehouse, planting the overgrown tomatoes, Hungarian Wax peppers, beetroots, lettuces, beans and basil, and the seed potatoes that I was also going to plant weeks ago. I ditched the zucchini, squash, cucumbers, and corn – they were just too lanky. I planted out  the brussels sprouts I’ve had in the shadehouse, in big pots,  since November.  They are still vulnerable to cabbage moths, but my climate is so marginal for brussels sprouts, I have to plant them too early to have any chance of getting a crop.

And that meant I that I had space available again for planting a new batch of seeds. It’s a little bit early up here in northern NSW  for peas or snow peas – we still have a last burst of warm moist weather to go yet. I’ll wait for the next planting break for them. It’s also a little early for the brassicas – they are still vulnerable to warm weather pests. And it’s a bit late for the longer bearing summer annuals now – there’s only just over a fortnight to go now till the autumn equinox – so no more capsicums or eggplants.

I put in broad bean seeds. It’s a bit early, but any later and it will be a bit late. I’m right on the margin for them too. I’ll plant some this time and some next month, and hope that either the too early or the too late will meet the right weather conditions. I planted some more beans – I should get one more round of them. I put in a few cucumbers, squash and zucchini but that may be a bit hopeful. That’s it for the fruiting annuals. Since I missed the leafy planting break last week, I put in a tray of seeds of lettuce, silverbeet, celery, parsley, coriander, radicchio, leeks, and dill. I thought about cauliflower and kale but decided to wait.

I still have a heap of mulching to catch up on, and mowing the paths, and a last compost pile for the summer to build, and lots of harvesting and clearing out spent plants.  But I’m starting to feel like the Dr Seuss tower is a little more stable!

And the picture – she was a gift a few years ago. I love her. She reminds me that sometimes it’s best to just let what is be.

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After just a few days ago posting about how my garlic seems to like being planted much earlier than conventional wisdom,  today I found an errant garlic that escaped harvesting last year, and has decided all of its own accord that it is garlic planting time.  Nice to have a vegetable agreeing with me!

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Today, along with the usual round of mixed carrots and spring onions, and half a dozen beetroot seedlings, I’m planting garlic. Lots of garlic.

It’s very early for garlic.  Conventional wisdom is Anzac Day at the earliest, more traditionally midwinter solstice.  But I’ve been planting earlier and earlier, and last year’s early planted garlic did well, albeit that was mid, rather than early Autumn.  I don’t know if it is a change in variety or a change in climate, but early seems to be working.

I am planting into pots in my shadehouse, each clove in its own pot, pointy end up,  just below the surface in the mix of compost and creek sand in the picture. This is partly because I want to be sure they do all come up planted this early, and partly because the garden is pretty full at the moment and I shall get at least a month’s head start this way. I shall probably plant another round next month as well, as insurance, and because I really don’t want to be buying any Chinese imported garlic this year.

I am also planting potato onions the same way.  This is a first for them.  Seed catalogues always get me in!

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Fruiting planting days today and tomorrow, but this time of year is the risky season for fruiting annuals.  If I plant things that are frost, or even cold tender now,  even in sub-tropical northern NSW, I am betting on a late start to winter. If I plant things that need the cold weather (like broad beans) I am betting on an early start.

I won’t bet on early yet – I’ll leave the broad beans for another month. My site is high and pretty nearly frost free, so broad beans are right on the margin anyway.  If you live further south, or even in a cooler site, you might like to put in some broad beans now though. I’ll have an each way bet on late, planting out a small number of advanced seedlings of squash, zucchini, cucumbers, and beans, but not so many that I’ll be upset if an early frost knocks them off.  I want to save space for peas and broad beans and cauliflowers and onions anyhow. And specially garlic.  I really don’t want to be eating anything imported from China or Japan this year. Sadly Japanese people don’t have that luxury.

Too late for capsicums, chili or eggplants even as advanced seedlings, but I shall put in more seed of tomatoes.  I have pulled back on tomatoes this year.  I use them so much that I got a bit greedy. Last year’s tomatoes failed to thrive as well as they should – nothing specific, just plants that looked a bit bedraggled and keeled over sooner than they should and fruit that was a bit scanty and less resistant to pest attack.  I put it down to a build up of soil bourne disease, caused by planting them in the same places too soon. This year I planted only in places that hadn’t had a tomato plant, or anything else in that family, for several years. It has meant I have had tomatoes for eating but not for bottling.  So I am keen to keep at least a little supply coming through winter to see me through.  By spring I will have given most of the garden a rest from tomatoes, and I should be able to plant bottling quantities again. It’s a good lesson, but one you’d think I would have learned by now!

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My mowing meditation this morning – I was thinking about the basil and macadamia pesto post and how much basil we have harvested this summer.  Pesto on toast for breakfast and on sandwiches and wraps for lunch,  pesto pasto, pesto pizza sauce, basil in polenta and moussaka and fish cakes and quiches, gorgeous tomato and basil and bocconchini salads.  I think if I had had just one pot to garden this summer, I would have planted it in early Spring with a sweet basil bush – the one indispensable ingredient at the bottom of a whole season of healthy eating.

Which of course led me to thinking, if I had just one pot to plant now, what would I be planting in it?  After an hour of mowing, I settled on flat leaf parsley.  It is the thing I think would be most difficult to buy, that I would use daily if I had it sitting on the step or the windowsill in a pot, and that I would most miss if I didn’t have it. Tabbouleh and green salad, omelette and quiche, kangaroo stroganoff and tagine, maidanosalata sauce for fritters and patties, fish cakes, winter soups and stews and casseroles.

I would choose a deep pot,  preferably a ceramic one – parsley has a single deep tap root and it doesn’t like too hot a soil.  I would fill it with a mixture of compost and creek sand and feed it every couple of weeks with worm pee tea. Leafy greens like a high nitrogen diet but parsley needs very good drainage.  I would put it in a sunny spot and be careful not to overwater – it will cope with drying out better than waterlogging.

Which then led me to thinking, the hardest part would be getting the one seedling.  Buy a whole packet of seed? Find flatleaf parsley seedlings (hard) and ditch most of the punnet? Maybe I should start a random act of kindness parsley in a pot giveaway.

So, fellow gardening bloggers – if you had just one pot to garden, what would you plant now?

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