New York Avocadoes!?!?

    I make no claim to be rational in my gardening — especially this time of year. This thought comes to mind as I look closely at two avocado plants sitting in a sunny window. “Nothing irrational about growing avocado plants in New York,” you might say. After all, the large seeds are fun and easy to sprout, and the resulting plant adds some tropical greenery indoors.
    My two plants were run-of-the-mill avocado houseplants until I took knife to them.
    Let’s backtrack . . . Among my regrets of not living 1,000 miles or so south of here is not being able to harvest my own citrus and avocados. (Also, no outdoor gardenia shrubs or southern magnolia trees here.) A few indoor citrus plants do call mi casa sus casa. But no avocados.Avocado grafts
    From seed, an avocado would take a long time before it bore its first fruit. And especially long under less-that-ideal northern conditions, including indoors in winter.
    And worse, when the plant does finally flower, it might not bear fruit. Avocados generally need cross-pollination because the pollen isn’t ripe at the same time that the female stigma is receptive. Avocado pollinators need to be fairly specific, so that one plant’s pollen is in synch with another plant’s stigmas.
    And even worse, after all that time and hoping for appropriate mates, fruits that do form might not taste good. They wouldn’t be selected clones, such as the delectable Haas or Mexicola, but seedlings. (Plant a seed from a good tasting apple and the resulting tree has only one in 10,000 chance of bearing a good-tasting fruit.)
    Which is why I took a knife to my two avocado seedlings, to graft them to known, good-tasting varieties that are pollination compatible. A friend in Florida overnighted me scions — pencil-thick stems, with leaves stripped — cut from his Marcus Pinkham and Lula avocado trees. One of my seedlings got a whip graft of Marcus Pinkham; the other got a side-veneer graft of Lulu.
    I coverWithed both grafts with plastic to maintain humidity, and every day peer at the scions hoping to see some swelling in preparation for growth.
    Rational gardening? No. After all, even if all goes as planned, how many avocados could I expect to harvest from two small trees? Still, it’s fun.

Warm. Plant.

    Outdoors, it’s the weather that toys with my rationality. A spate of warm days and great restraint is needed not to plant vegetables. I keep referring to my notes (and the chart I made in my book Weedless Gardening) that tell me when to plant what.
  Planting onions  With yesterday’s 75 degree temperatures, urges to plant were satisfied — for that day, at least — by my poking holes into the ground into which I dropped onion plants sown indoors on February 1st. Three-hundred of them in a 20 foot long by 36 inch wide bed. (This was later than the April 21st onion planting date specified in my book, but the weather was cold so I forgot to look at my book.)

Planting Break. Turn Compost.

    When I get tired of planting, I can always turn to turning my compost piles.
    Not that compost piles have to be turned. In contrast to other fermentations, such as bread-making and wine-making, compost always comes out right. Pile up any mix of organic (living or once-living) materials, and eventually you get compost.
    I turn my compost piles so that materials on the outside of the pile get to be on the inside of the pile, second time around. This makes for a more homogeneous finished product.Turning compost
    I turn my compost piles to better monitor their progress, so adjustments can be made, as needed, and to get some idea when they’ll be ready for use. Occasionally, a pile will have a dry region; it gets watered. Occasionally, a mass of material needs to be broken up to better expose it to moisture and microorganisms.
    I also turn my compost piles because it’s good exercise and it’s interesting. But, like I wrote, turning a compost pile is not a must.


 Onions & More, Late But They’ll Be Fine

   I missed my deadline by four days, sowing onion seeds on February 5th rather than the planned February 1st. That date isn’t fixed in stone but the important thing is to plant onions early.
    Onions are photoperiod sensitive, that is, they respond to daylength (actually, night length, but researchers originally thought the response was to light rather than darkness, so the phrase “daylength sensitive” stuck). Once days get long enough, sometime in June, leaf formation comes screeching to a halt and the plants put their energies into making bulbs. The more leaves before that begins, the bigger the bulbs.
    Plants from seeds sown outdoors — towards the end of March — won’t have as many leaves as plants given a jump start indoors. I like big bulbs; hence the early February sowing.

Fresh Seeds & Mini-furrows in a Plastic Tub

    First step on my way to onion-dom is to get fresh seeds. Onion seeds are relatively short lived and I want to give the plants plenty of time to grow. I don’t risk delays from poor germination and replanting of old seed.Onion seeds being sown in mini-furrows in pan of potting soil.
    Seeds get sown in a miniature “field:” A plastic tub 18 inches by 12 inches, with drainage holes drilled in its bottom and filled 4 inches deep with potting soil. Some weed seeds are unavoidably lurking in the garden soil and compost in my homemade potting mix, so I top the potting mix with a one inch depth of a weed free, 1:1 mix of peat moss and perlite.
    The edge of a board pressed into the firmed soil mix in the tub makes furrows, 6 of them equally spaced and about 1/2 inch deep within the tub. Into each furrow go onion seeds, sprinkled at the rate of about 7 seeds per inch. Once the furrows are closed in over the seeds, I water thoroughly and, to avoid washing away seeds, gently.
    Covered with a clear pane of glass and warmed to 70 to 75° F, the seeds should appear as grassy sprouts above the soil mix within a couple of weeks. From then on, my goal is to keep the plants happy with abundant light and water as needed. They get a haircut, their leaves snipped down to 4 inches, whenever they get too floppy. The compost and alfalfa meal in the potting mix should provide sufficient nourishment to the seedlings until they are ready for the great outdoors. That deadline is April 15th, weather permitting.

Other Cool Temperature Seeds Join the Party

    Onions won’t be alone on the seedling bench in the greenhouse. I’m also now sowing seeds of celery, celeriac, and leek. All, like onion, need a long period of growth before they’re ready for outdoors.

Onion seedlings, up and growing.

Onion seedlings, up and growing.

   These seeds get sown in furrows in small seed flats from which the seedlings, once they have two leaves, are gingerly lifted and cozied into waiting holes poked into the potting mix filling seed trays with individual cells. Little growing space is needed because a single seed flat can be home to a few kinds of seeds and the celled trays in which the seedlings grow until planted outdoors can house about two dozen plants in a square foot.
    I’m sowing lettuce in a similar manner. In contrast to celery and company, lettuce grows quickly. It’s needed to fill in gaps opened up from winter harvests of kale, lettuce, mâche, claytonia, celery, and parsley in the greenhouse, and should be ready to eat in April.

Nature & Nurture & the Spiciness of Onions

    Last year’s onions were abundant, large, sweet, and juicy. Anticipating their not keeping well, we ate them quickly, pulling the last ones from their hanging braid in the basement sometime in November. These were so-called European-type onions, varieties such as Ailsa Craig and Sweet Spanish.
    Next year we should have fresh onions for soups and stews on into winter because I’m growing some American-types, New York Early and Copra. American-type onions are actually sweeter than European-type onions, but their sweetness is masked by their increased pungency. That pungency comes from sulfur compounds, which are vaporized during cooking. Those sulfur compounds are also what help these onions keep longer.

Stored onions, in basement

Stored onions, in basement

    Soil enters the picture when it comes to onion flavor and storability. Sulfur is an essential plant nutrient and the more sulfur in the soil, within limits, the more sulfur in the onions. Sulfur is a key component of organic matter, so my compost-rich soil (with a whopping 15% organic matter) should have plenty of sulfur.
    Still, I’m thinking about spreading sulfur, the same pelletized sulfur I use to maintain soil acidity beneath my blueberry bushes, on half my onion beds to see if flavor or storagability are noticeably affected.

It’s Bulbing Time


Mar 2: Miami Valley (Dayton, OH) Garden Conference: WEEDLESS GARDENING

Mar 9: Philadelphia Flower Show: FRUIT GROWING SIMPLIFIED


Mar 16, Thetford, VT: FEARLESS PRUNING


April 10, Rosendale (NY) Library: BACKYARD COMPOSTING


April 28, WV Master Gardener’s Assoc (Flatwoods, WV): MY WEEDLESS GARDEN

May 11, Margaret Roach’s Garden (Copake Falls, NY): BACKYARD FRUIT LECTURE (morning), GRAFTING WORKSHOP (afternoon)

May 16, Brookside Gardens (Wheaton, MD): MY WEEDLESS GARDEN



The official start for this year’s growing season, which I count as the day when I sow my first vegetable seeds, will begin momentarily. Actually, the season should have already been underway, as of February 1st,  but I put in my seed order a little late so am tapping my foot and (im)patiently waiting for the seeds to arrive in the mail. That first sowing is, of course, indoors, and the seeds will be onions, leeks, and celery. The most interesting of the three, as far as growing, is onion.

Sowing onion seeds indoors would not be a necessity, except that I want to grow onions that will keep until this time next year and that are reasonably large and that taste good. Onion sets — those mini-onion bulbs available everywhere in spring — would be the easiest way to grow onions, but you get little choice of varieties. The best-keeping onions are the so-called American-types, which are relatively firm and pungent. European-type onions are large and sweet, but don’t keep as well.
I’ll soon be sowing seeds of New York Early and Varsity, two American types, and Sedona, a European type. New York early is only mildly pungent, so is good in salad, medium size, and stores well. Varsity has good storage and large size to recommend it. And Sedona, although a European-type, store pretty well; I’ll eat them first. You won’t find any of these varieties as sets in local or mail-order garden stores.
There’s one more wrinkle in my selection of an onion variety. The plants, whether bulbs, seedlings, or direct-sown seeds, grow well, pumping out leaf after leaf, under cool, moist conditions. But as the growing season moves on and the sun stays above the horizon for a certain number of hours per day — just how long depends on the specific onion variety — a “switch” in the plant flips that tells the plant to stop making new leaves and start pumping energy to making bulbs. In the South, onions are planted either in autumn or midwinter to mature in late winter or early spring. Varieties adapted there are “short-day” varieties that bulb up when days have only about 12 hours of sunlight. Here in New York’s Hudson valley that would happen sometime in March so even if the plants were outdoors, they’d have grown so few leaves that the bulbs would be very puny.
Northern onion varieties are “long-day” types, not bulbing up until daylength is 15 or 16 hours. Here in the Hudson Valley, those daylengths occur in June. The more leaves my onions grow before then, the bigger the bulbs. I could sow the seed outdoors in April and they’ll grow some before that switch flips on. By planting now, more greenery has more time to develop, and the more greenery on the plant before June, the bigger the bulbs.
A Clementine tangerine box is just the right size for sowing 6 rows of onions sees. Once those seeds arrive (tomorrow, I hope), I’ll fill the box with potting soil, make six furrows, and drop 7 seeds per inch into each furrow. Once the seeds are covered and the box watered, the box needs to be kept warm and moist until green sprouts poke through the surface.
Onions aren’t the only bulbs that should be getting under way around here.

Two big, fat amaryllis bulbs arrived as mailorder gifts a couple of weeks ago. I’m not a big fan of giant amaryllises, so they just sat in their opened box. They’ve been sprouting and even showing signs of big, fat flower buds. I couldn’t torture them anymore so finally potted them up.
Down in my cold basement I dug last season’s begonia bulbs (actually, they are tubers, or thickened, underground stems) out of storage. I tucked them in among some wood shavings in an old aquarium last autumn. In contrast to the big, fat amaryllis bulbs, the begonia bulbs didn’t look like much more than rough, brown clods of soil. Moved to warmth, with the sawdust kept moistened with a bit of water — too much and the tubers will rot — those lifeless-looking lumps should sprout leaves, and then, by June, flowers. The appeal of the begonias, which I grew from dust-like seeds a couple of years ago, is that the foliage is attractive and the fire-engine red flowers are, in contrast to those of amaryllis, proportional to the size of the leaves and the plant, and they’re borne nonstop right up until autumn.