Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Allium Troubles


Onions are always the first seeds of the year to get sown in early February and this year, leeks joined the mid-winter party as well.

Four of the storage onion varieties I’m growing are repeats from last year – Copra, Rossa di Milano, Red Wing & Ailsa Craig.  The Ailsa Craigs are a large, sweet(er) onion that only store for a couple of months so those are always used up by late fall.  The other three, including Red Wing which was a new variety last year, are storing very well - I still have several bags & braids hanging in the basement.  So far, only a couple..as in literally two...of the onions have sprouted/gone bad on me.  Hurray for netting that kept out (most of) the onion flies last year!

Every couple of weeks I refill the onion basket in the kitchen
with a selection of onions from the basement
 
There is one new addition to the storage onion lineup this year, “Jeune Paille des Vertus", an old European variety which is supposed to have good flavour and excellent keeping qualities.

Each year, I also include shallots started from seed in the garden.  Camelot, the variety that I normally grow, was backordered so I decided to try Conservor instead.  I'll also be growing a new perennial bunching onion, White Welsh (aka Japanese bunching onion).

Onion and leek seeds are very short lived, so it’s usually best to purchase fresh seed every year.  However, I found that rather wasteful, especially when it came to the leeks.  I purchased 2 different varieties of leek last year and only used a dozen or so seeds altogether.  It was my first time growing them and, as I wasn’t sure how successful I would be, I didn’t want to devote a lot of space to them.  I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of the (practically full) packets of leftover seed, so decided to store them in the freezer.

When it was time to sow the leeks in February, I sprinkled a bunch of the old seeds from each variety into small, 2” pots.  I wasn’t overly optimistic since I had previously tried to sprout year old onion seed (kept in airtight containers in the cold cellar) and those had very poor germination. 

Well, this was the result of sowing those old seeds:

Lancelot leek seedlings
 
Success!  Of course, since I was rather doubtful as to whether anything would come up at all, I still ended up purchasing some new seed, just in case.  These I sowed in larger 2” x 4” cells.

Autumn Giant leek seedlings
 
It may seem as if the new seed didn't do as well in terms of germination as the older seed, but that isn't actually the case since the old seeds were sown much more thickly.  They were too crowded, in fact.  Since there is still a month to go before the leeks are planted outside, I decided to transplant 24 seedlings (grown from the old seeds) into larger 4" pots, 6 seedlings per pot.  The seedlings growing in the 2" x 4" cells will remain as they are until transplanted outside.

Ahh...lots of breathing space
 
The leek varieties I’m growing this year are:  Jolant (old), Lancelot (old), Autumn Giant (new) & Hannibal (new), all purchased from William Dam.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been using 72 cell plug trays for the onions, sowing 3 seeds in each plug.  This year, I'm growing them in the same way as the leeks, by sowed  a scattering of seeds in large 2”x 4” cells.  My goal was to squeeze all of my onion seedlings onto one tray instead of two, therefore saving space under the lights.

The onions & shallots were sown on February 8th and within a week they were up and growing.  But a couple of weeks later, I started to see a few of the seedlings start to droop.  Well, onion leaves are tall and thin, so I wasn’t too worried that some of them appeared a bit floppy.  Until I noticed the base of the stems…they were pinched - a telltale sign of damping off.  Yikes!

Conservor Shallots...doomed
 
In the end, I lost about half of my onion seedlings.  Thankfully, I had plenty of extra seed to re-sow for all of the varieties – all except the Conservor shallots that is.  The entire packet of shallot seed had been sown in that first round so those were a total loss.  I didn’t feel like making a special trip to pick up one packet of seeds, so will be filling in the gap with the other onion varieties.

For the second sowing, I wanted to give the seedlings some extra insurance, so I doubled up on the damping off preventative measures.  I gave the soil a dusting of cinnamon (which is supposed to be a natural fungicide) and, instead of sowing the seeds in the soil, I sowed them on top and covered them with vermiculite.

I had some big issues with damping off a few years ago which resulted in several changes in how I do things, including disinfecting all of the pots, cell packs & tools at the end of each season, purchasing new seed starting mix each year, topping the soil on new sowings with vermiculite, watering seedlings only from the bottom and running a fan to increase air circulation.

Copra - the survivors

So what happened?  I’m not exactly sure but I do have one suspicion.  Since we don’t have a faucet in the basement, I resort to filling up a large jug (that previously held distilled water) & using that to refill my watering can.  As it turns out, last fall I disinfected everything EXCEPT for those two vessels.  Of course, I got right on that as soon as I realized my oversight.

And now I cross my fingers.  Brassicas seem to be particularly susceptible to damping off and I have just sown a few cell packs of collards & kale.  Hopefully I don’t have any further casualties.

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things” ~~ Robert Brault

22 comments:

  1. Too bad you lost the shallots. I'm also trying Conservor this year because Ambition is not storing well. For leeks, I bought Takrima, an F1 hybrid from Johnnys. I had one or two seeds germinate, then nothing. Kept the pot watered and after about a month, the leeks are germinating. A month to germinate?! At least I will be able to plant my own leeks.

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    1. That is a crazy long time for leeks to germinate...good thing you did't give up on them! I'll be interested to see how your Conservor shallots work out - I'll probably give them another try next year.

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  2. Do you seed your bunching onions indoors as well? Any onions you can direct seed?

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    1. I did sow the bunching onions indoors, but my first year growing them I direct seeded in early spring. They take a bit longer to size up, but it's totally doable. Storage onions, however, are a different story unless you use sets. Growing those from seed definitely requires an early indoor start.

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  3. I had disasters with my Copra last year---I believe I was shipped the wrong variety and I lost most this winter to sprouting. Definitely not copra-as those are normally rock hard the following June in storage. I'm hoping for better luck this year. I should grow from seed, but I have too many other things crowding my seed rack...........
    I'd say Happy Spring, but we're in the midst of a blizzard right now. Sigh.

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    1. Yup - Ice storm over here, power outage, the whole shebang (I'm plugged in at a Tim Hortons right doing a bit of catch up). Not exactly springlike, that's for sure!

      I definitely feel your pain on the onions - it would be so sad having to actually purchase onions. I hope they send you the correct ones this time round.

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  4. I've only grown onion from seed a couple of times, the rest I grew them from sets. I always found them much less hassle than seeds.

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    1. Sets are definitely easier, that's for sure. I've never grown onions that way as my main goal is to rely solely on homegrown onions and I've heard that those grown from sets don't get as large or last as long in storage.

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  5. Your leeks look wonderful. I lost most of my onion seedlings to dampening off last year and resorted to growing storage onions from sets. Overall the onions were small, but they stored very well and only a few are beginning to sprout. I took extra precautions this year in using fresh, sterilized containers and mix and so far so good.

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    1. That's a great run for onions grown from sets! Sterile soil & tools are definitely at the top of the list when it comes to damping off prevention. But I suppose no matter how careful we are, every once in a while it will still make a house call. Fingers crossed that we both have seen the last of it for a while :)

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  6. This is the first year that I've started shallots from seed ("Zebrune"). But last year is the first I've even grown shallots (from sets) - I was pretty happy with the results but I guess I'll see if they are larger / better-for-storage from seed.

    You have always had much better results from onions than I have though ... I'm just hoping to get something larger than a golf ball!

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    1. I love the fresh start we get every season - this could be your onion year! Shallots are generally not very large to begin with, especially the Golden shallots (the ones that multiply when you plant one bulb). Seed shallots are much larger, more like small onions, but the down side is that they don't seem to keep as long (although, at around 10 months or so, it's still not too bad!)

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  7. Amazing how one oversight can impact plants. I hope your second go is more successful. I've just harvested my onions and the chives are green and full in the garden. Now, I'm craving baked potatoes, sour cream and chives!

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    1. Thanks Karin...so far so good. Wish we lived closer - we could swap potatoes for chives (I still have potatoes from last years harvest in my cold cellar - can't believe how long they are keeping!)

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  8. We have only ever grown onion and shallots from sets but we still need to sow our leeks and are still harvesting last year's crop.

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    1. Still harvesting last years crop? It would be nice if our winters allowed for that, but I highly doubt it.

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  9. Sorry to hear about the damping-off problems. However, you seem to have studied the problem and learned a lot from the experience. Let's hope your second sowing does better. I grew "Winter Giant" Leeks last year, but they didn't grow into giants, and were thin and "weedy" just like my other two varieties. I'm hoping for better results this year, because my Leeks are going into one of the new deep raised beds, the soil in which is VERY enriched.

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    1. Nothing "dampens" my enthusiasm more than seeing all my lovingly sown seedlings damping off (pun intended!). Last year, there didn't seem to be much of a difference between the two varieties I grew - although as I only harvested 4 leeks, it wasn't much to go on. Hopefully I'll be able to make more meaningful comparisons this year.

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  10. My effort at growing leeks last year was such a dismal failure, a waste of time and garden space, they either bolted or got overtaken by rust or both, so no leeks ever again. I hope your efforts turn out to be more productive. Seed grown Zebrune shallots, on the other hand, were a resounding success, I'm still working my way through the stash, the majority of which have been keeping surprisingly well. This year I hope to find some onions that won't bolt and succeeding at that, perhaps will be decent keepers too. Good luck with your allium efforts this year!

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    1. Thank you, Michelle - Every year we start out with high hopes for every seed we sow & it's so disheartening when some of them don't work out. But I have yet to hear of any garden where everything grown was a success, so I suppose that's just par for the course.

      I'm so glad that you have found an allium that both grows & stores well for you; let's hope that you can add a few more varieties to that list this year!

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  11. What a bummer about the damping off, especially after all of your efforts to avoid it. Sadly, onions and leeks are among those that I've given up on trying to grow, at least for the time being.

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    1. Oh, that's too bad. Every gardener has those few veg that just don't seem to do well, no matter what we do. But we are also optimists and most of us will usually give them another try at some point.

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