planting onions

Wednesday, April 25:

   Although we have been gardening for most of our lives, we are always learning, or trying to learn.  The last couple of years we have been making a study of the books of four-season gardener Eliot Coleman, before whose shrine we have built many a compost heap.  This year the “big” garden, by which we mean the medium-sized garden (the New Building at Oxford was built in the sixteen hundreds, we are told) is being planted to thirty-inch beds with twelve- inch paths between, as per Mr. Coleman’s design.  The onions are planted in three such beds.

We are learning a lot.

First, as to those beds and paths.  The reality, of course, is that raised beds without retaining walls are really just flat “hills”, as we call them in South, that is, long mounds with sloping sides.  The higher the mound, the longer the slope.  In such a case as these we have been building, a twelve inch path becomes a trench some two feet wide from edge to edge with a path at the bottom, and a thirty-inch bed is only two feet across at the top.  Mr. Coleman’s specs are for three rows of onions per bed, with ten inches between rows; three rows, then, occupy about twenty inches across.  So far, so good; the outer rows should lie a safe two inches inside the twenty-four inch flattened top of the bed.

Thus, two weeks ago, we planted our onion seedlings.

WHAT WE LEARNED:

1)       Water runs downhill.  When you water the top of a bed, what is there to keep the water on top, where the plants are?

2)      More surface area means more evaporation, hence more water loss.  The plants in the side rows, only inches from the edge of the bed, are losing moisture laterally as well as vertically; dry soil means more stress.

3)      Dry raised beds tend to crumble and cave at the edges, taking with them any young plants which may be trying to root there.

4)      The chickens will always get in, and maybe they eat onions and maybe they don’t.

After two weeks of watering and watching our carefully planted alliums, we find we have about half as many as we set out.  The rest, we can only guess, have fallen prey despite our efforts to situationally-enhanced drought.   Gaps make both short and long spaces between the tiny green shoots, and the crumbling edges of the beds encroach into the rows.  So yesterday we bought a bundle of seedlings to piece out our plantings, and today we set out to right our difficulties.

First of all, we threw out the ten-inch row spacing.  If the plants can be four to six inches apart in the rows, we decided, they won’t take harm if the rows themselves are spaced just as close.  The long gaps in the rows we filled in with seedlings transferred from the broken edge rows.  In the end, each bed has only two rows, for even with the purchased seedlings we came up short; then when all the onions were resettled, we used a garden rake to redefine the sides of the beds, mounding the soil a little so that water drawn in buckets from the culvert on Jeddo’s run stayed on top of the hills long enough to soak in where the plants were and where it was most needed.  Six or seven buckets, each containing about three gallons of water, were poured carefully down the rows, and this evening when we walked down the hill to move the cows’ paddock the onions were sturdy in the damp brown soil.  From now on we will try mounding the soil along the edges of all our beds and crowd the rows a little to keep them away from the dry edges.

All husbandry is ongoing experimentation.  Success is survival.  Failure means something dies and we try again.

We shifted the polywire for the cows’ new paddock, pumped water into the high water hog, and then sat in the clover throwing rocks to the crazy dekker, Scouter, until it grew so cool we went in.  A haze is climbing in the sky up the west draw; we hope it will bring rain before tomorrow.

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