For onions, like comedy, timing is everything. The secret to delicious, large, sweet, good-keeping onions is to get them into the ground at the right time. Onion growth is determined by temperature and length of daylight hours. Those sweet early varieties that grow so well in Texas and the South are short-day onions that need 10-11 hours of daylight to trigger bulb production. Northern regions produce bigger onions with varieties that need 14 daylight hours to mature, but these are usually not as sweet as the short-day varieties.
Unlike other gardening elements, length of day is not something we can control. Generally in Texas onions are planted from seed in October or November and harvested in the spring — April or May. Many of us grow onions from transplants, which can be put into the ground either in the fall or very early spring.
The size of the bulb depends in great part on the healthy growth of leaves above ground. When the length of daylight triggers bulb formation, there has to be enough nourishment in the leaves to feed the growing bulb. Good keeping onions are the result of good growing practices. Well-composted manure added to the soil before planting will produce the best onions. If the manure is too fresh, it produces too much nitrogen, which tends to puff the onions up and make them inclined to early rot. Root maggot is also more likely to be a problem if the manure is fresh. After planting, the only feeding the plants need is one or two sprayings of a seaweed-fish emulsion mixture on the leaves to provide trace elements and hardiness. Onions grown with high-nitrogen chemical fertilizers are usually puffy, pithy and less tasty than firm onions grown in fertile soil.
Don't worry about sudden drops in temperature. Onions can stand cold. Seeds can germinate at 32 degrees, but it takes them a while (50 days), and the transplants can take 18- to 20-degree temperatures, but they don't much like wet. Pink root rot can also be a problem if it gets into a small garden, so look for PRR (pink rot resistant) in your seed name. Because we've had a lot of moisture this fall, make sure your onion bed drains well and doesn't remain damp. Pests and diseases are minimal once the soil fertility has been built up.
Once the onions mature in the spring, they need to rest before you store them. To cure onions, put the pulled plants in a shady spot or cover with burlap bags and let them cure in the garden for a week — hopefully a dry week — making sure they get plenty of air circulating around them.
Many varieties of onion are available, and you should choose those best suited to our climate. Sweet short-day varieties that produce outstanding mild, sweet, early-season onions include:
Z235 Gold Express — an excellent yellow onion that produces very early
Texas 1015Y — another superior yellow onion, about a month later than the Gold Express.
Texas 502 PRR — an old open-pollinated yellow variety with pink rot resistance
Red Grano — Slower and sweeter red onion that matures at the same time as the 1015
Early White Grano — white onions that are not as sweet and mild as the yellow, but usually better keepers
All of a sudden garlic is all the rage and garlic breath is good news! Trendy restaurants are serving roasted garlic pods instead of butter. Garlic braids and wreaths are decorators' delights. Even doctors are recognizing the health benefits of this humble root.
Furthermore, garlic is widely recognized as an excellent pest control agent in the garden. Farmers have been planting garlic around their fruit trees for years. And the best news is that anyone can grow garlic.
Unlike the onion, which has to be planted at just the right time in just the right place, garlic is planted in the fall all over the country. And not at any particular date in the fall, either. You can plant from late summer until the ground is too hard to work, and the plants will jump up in the spring and provide wonderful fat bulbs.
Even better, garlic propagates itself. Every time you plant one clove, you end up with a whole head of many cloves. If you accidentally leave a head in the ground, it will probably be two heads next year. Garlic keeps well throughout the year as long as you give it fresh air and dry conditions, so there is really no excuse for anyone to have to use store-bought garlic.
To start your garlic bonanza, purchase organically grown bulbs, preferably from a local or nearby source. Separate the bulbs into individual cloves and plant those fat-end down anywhere you'd like them to grow. They are wonderful companion plants for roses and other ornamentals and look striking in an informal flower bed.
In our area, you can plant anytime from now until February and have a very respectable crop, but the earlier the better. The deeper and more fertile your soil is, the bigger and better your garlic will be. Planting in slightly raised beds is a good idea since garlic doesn't like sitting in damp soil.
Garlic is a heavy feeder, so in the spring begin a program of spraying the leaves early in the morning once a month or so with fish fertilizer. In the fall and throughout the winter, the garlic is building a healthy root system so it can support leaves as well as bulbs. In late winter and spring, the sprouts come right through any mulch you've added to keep soil temperature steady and to cut down on weeds, and young plants will benefit from its decomposition. The plants grow slowly throughout the winter and are ready to harvest by late spring. Meanwhile, the leaves are edible and can be used raw or cooked.
Along with the cloves of garlic you dig next spring or summer, you will find small bulbettes clinging to the big bulb. These are sometimes dropped off and left in the soil all year, to come up again next year. Or you can save them and plant them in the fall. The first year they produce one single bulb — like an onion. These can be used as you would any garlic, but they are excellent seed for the second year when they will produce full multiclove bulbs. Garlic, like onions, needs to cure before it is stored indoors.
As the plants mature, they send up tall stems with flowers on top. Some cut off the flowers to encourage bulb growth; others leave them in place. It doesn't seem to make a lot of difference. The flowers dry naturally and make lovely arrangements (once the smell disperses). So take advantage of garlic's natural versatility and hardiness. Almost no pest will bother it. Make them a part of your vegetable garden, your flower garden, your fruit orchard and any other spot that needs a bit of green in the winter and enjoy their flavor year-round.