Apparently, I need to start the onion seeds as of yesterday (actually, quite a few yesterdays ago). It’s been years since I attempted to grow onions from seed, and even longer since I’ve grown any varieties of onions other than green bunching. It’s only February second, and I already feel a touch like I’m behind the eight ball with the garden this year. I feel like that every year, come to think of it. So much to do, and so many things vying for my time. Such is life. I need to focus more, on a handful of reasonable things, or make peace with the fact that maybe that’s just not in my nature, but that’s another problem for another time. Let’s take our fences as we arrive at them. Anyway, as is so often the case when I’m mulling over self-improvement, off to the bookshelves I go. Gardening, where to start? I’ve got a gardening library worthy of an impressive small bookstore, but a recent addition catches my eye. Mastering the Art of Vegetable Gardening. That should suit, as it speaks to my need to perfect my food garden, specifically with regard to the onions, which have become the keystone of this season’s gardening aspirations in my mind. Without a successful patch of onions, failure looms.
It is no coincidence that this book’s title has more than a passing resemblance to Julia Child’s seminal tome on French cuisine, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Matt Mattus’ work is largely inspired by Child’s enthusiasm to dive right in and tackle a thing, as well as her meticulous and rigorous devotion to test, test, test in order to achieve perfection, and be able to teach the achievement of that perfection to others. So I’m hopeful that Mattus’ practical experience with tried and true gardening methods can give me a foundation on which to lay down a successful bed of globe onions. Much depends on the onions. Alliums, incidentally, are the first chapter of the book, which is divided into nine chapters covering different vegetable families. I find this fitting, as I believe (as do a great many others) that onions are absolutely fundamental to good cooking. Together with the humble carrot and celery, an aromatic allium added to the mix suddenly makes the sum much greater than it’s parts. This heavenly combination, referred to in French as mirepoix, is a flavor base than can elevate even the most basic soup or sauce into something otherworldly. Onions are essential to good eating.
Lesson number one – for fine onions, disabuse yourself of the notion of going to the big box store and buying “sets” – the mesh-netted bags of small onions that are ready to sprout at any moment and supposedly grow effortlessly. You will get paltry little things at best, complete disappointment at worst. For lovely storage onions; hefty globes that fill the palm of a hand – we must begin with seed. So my first bad habit must be broken – no more sets and starts. A particular sentence catches my eye – “onions typically are one of the first seed crops planted in midwinter” (Mattus, 2018, p. 17). Which is squarely where we are here in northern Illinois – it’s about as midwinter as it gets. And here I’ve been anxious in previous years to start the nightshades and cole crops at this time of year (which Mattus actually thinks is far too early). My focus should’ve been on the onions. And so it will be this year, my decision becoming cemented once I read that emerging onions plants look strikingly similar to grass. Of course they do. It occurs to me that one of the reasons I’ve likely not been successful growing direct seeded onions outside (as I’ve tried and failed to do on many occasions) is the fact that in all likelihood, I’ve weeded them all right out of my own garden. When the grass and weeds move in (and it does much quicker than you think possible) it’s almost impossible to tell young onions apart from anything else. Much better to start them in flats indoors, where you know the only thing in the flat is onions, and just to let them do their thing, developing good roots and growing into distinguishable (and distinguished, if I may say so) little plants. I just need to lay out a flat of new potting mix, sprinkle my seeds into it and remember to not let the soil dry out. Once they sprout, I’ll give them good light and some fertilizer from time to time, and with any luck, I’ll have a healthy stock of plants to set out in mid-April, just a touch before Mother’s Day (which is the benchmark here for when it’s generally expected to be frost-free for the season). Perhaps this year will be the year I master the art of growing good onions.
* The fine print – I did receive this book gratis from the publisher, but I only review content that I find thought provoking and worth sharing.