Onions – By Mark Govan, Host “Florida Gardening”

I have been doing a lot of work in the garden these last few weeks not only making room for additional plants that I will be putting out in a few weeks but also scouting for insects and diseases on the plants I have growing now. Even though our temperatures have cooled slightly and pest pressures are declining slightly, you still need to be vigilant in scouting your garden for pests and diseases. This week I would like to give you a few tips on what you should be doing now to protect your plants and I also want to talk about another plant many of you may not have grown in the past or possibly you did not know how to grow in the garden, Onions. Your garden is calling you so lets get started.

I just checked my tomatoes which are growing very nicely right now and are about a foot and a half tall. Tomatoes are a garden friendly plant and most gardeners like to grow them however, there are a few problems you should be looking for now. Mealy bugs and worms can quickly destroy a healthy tomato crop. Mealy bugs appear along the stems and midribs of the tomato plant and look like little tufts of white cotton attached to the plant. As their numbers grow, you will notice the leaves of your tomatoes curling and sometimes changing colors from green to yellow depending on the severity of the infestation. If you have a small garden you may be able to wipe these mealy bugs off your plant with a damp cloth or by removing some of the leaves that are heavily infested.

There are also products like Safer Soap you can pick up at the local garden center which will kill these insects with a light misting of the plants. You may have to repeat the application to get total control. Both of these control methods are natural controls for those of you whom are organic gardeners however, if you find that your plants are heavily infested with mealy bugs or possibly other insects as well, you may want to use a product like Conserve. Conserve is a bacterium based product which is also approved for organic gardening and covers a wide variety of pests and vegetable crops. This product is not commonly found at garden centers but is widely available online and at most Do-it-Yourself pest control stores. Even infestations of spider mites and the devastating Tomato Hornworms can be controlled with this product.

Another thing you should be looking for on your vegetable crops is fungus diseases. Spots on the leaves, a powdery appearance on the leaf surface, or wilting of your vegetable plants are all symptoms of fungal pathogens. Fall weather brings cooler temperatures and water in the form of dew coats our plants during the night. This water left on plant surfaces overnight can help in the development of many fungal problems. Routine applications of a fungicide such as Daconil or Green Cure Fungicide will help you maintain a healthy plant. Preventative applications should be made to your plants every two to three weeks during the Fall gardening season to keep these problems from getting a foothold in your garden. Usually by the time you first notice a problem developing, damage has already occurred so put yourself on a schedule and treat your plants for diseases early. Leafy vegetables are especially susceptible so make plans now.

Mid-October and November mark the time of year you should be considering planting onions. It amazes me how often we use onions in cooking or in food preparation but very few people grow these tasty garden treats. All onions are easy to grow in our area and are normally pest free and easy to care for. A small section of your garden devoted to onions can produce all you will need for the table for most of the year. Some of the different types of onions you could be growing are Bunching Onions, Bulb Onions, Leeks, Scallions, Shallots, and even Garlic. Let’s go over a few these varieties and I will tell you how you can use these in your garden.

Onions are grown from seed, sets (small bulbs or cloves), or individual plants. The best time to plant onions in our area will start soon so you must start looking for your plants now. If you wanted to grow them from seed you are a little late but if you have seed and want to try and plant them then I say go ahead. You should never be discouraged by the calendar when planting out your vegetables. Even though the time frame given for planting in your area states a certain start date for planting, your unique weather conditions in your area may be different. I have seen vegetable gardens scorched by ninety degree temperatures on New Years day one year and twenty two degrees on the same day the very next year, so as long as you are close to the dates suggested to plant, I feel you will be ok to sow your seeds.

I prefer to start my onions from bunches or bulbs because these seem to be easier to grow for me. Several of the garden centers I visited this past week have already started to receive scallion bunches, multipliers, onion sets, and even garlic and shallot cloves ready for planting. Scallions are sold in bunches of fifty individual plants which are ready to plant into the garden. Multipliers produce clusters of bulbs about two inches across so you need a little more room. Onion sets are small individual bulbs ready for planting which are very similar to the Garlic and Shallot cloves. All of these types of onions are suitable for your backyard garden and depending on which varieties your local nursery or garden center has, I am sure you will find enough variety to suit your personal garden.

Preparing your garden for onions is as simple as adding a little compost to your existing garden along with a little peat and dolomite. Work these products together with a garden trowel or pitchfork and then level out the planting area. Your finished soil should be loose and airy. Now you will need to make your rows with a small garden hoe or rake. Each trench should be about an inch and a half deep and about five feet long (if you are planting bulbing onions you may need to dig the trench a little deeper). You may want to make two or three rows so you have enough space for all your onions depending on the varieties you want to grow.

If you are planting scallions first you will have to separate the individual plants and place them in the trench about three inches apart. Just place the individual plants upright in the trench with the rooted portion at the bottom of the trench. Do not worry about standing them up straight as once you add soil to cover the roots and water them in, the plants will send up new leaves nice and straight. Planting the entire bunch of fifty plants should only take you about five minutes. Be sure to water them in when you are finished. Scallions are my favorite onion to grow because they grow so quickly. Harvest the oldest plants first and allow some to mature and multiply. You will have plenty of scallions through spring.

If you are planting multipliers then you will need to space the plants properly to allow the formation of the individual onion bulbs to mature. Multipliers will need at least twelve inches between plants and between rows but you can expect at least five to eight onions from each plant you set. Harvest your multipliers in about three to four months or when the tops start to die back. Once the foliage on the onion turns yellow, bend back the tops to prevent the sap of the onion from flowing into the stem. This helps to encourage the onion to swell. Once the tops have browned out lightly pull the plants from the soil by hand or by using a small garden rake. Leave the harvested onions on top of the soil in the sun to dry for a day or so. After the onion is dry you can clean the onion and cut off the foliage top and the roots then store them in a cool dry place for use in the kitchen. Use this same drying process for sets or bulb onions you may be planting.

There is so much for you to be doing in the garden now so make sure you are watching your plants carefully for pest or diseases. Continue to fertilize your crops every three to four weeks so your plants have plenty of energy to produce a bountiful crop. Stop by your local garden store and pick up some onions to grow in the garden. I am sure you will be amazed at how easily onions will grow for you in the garden. If you can, try different varieties each year to find cultivars you prefer for your table. I hope you have learned a few things to help you grow something different in your garden. As always enjoy your garden and remember, without plants we would not be here.

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