Let’s talk about flat bottomed onions

It’s already August and the days and weeks are flying by at an alarming rate. We survived the almost-39C heatwave last month, and by early August the onions and shallots were ready for harvest.

This year I opted to grow Stuttgarter Giant. I usually go for Hercules, as the flavour is just out of this world, but having had some pretty miserable crops for the last couple of years, I just wanted to try something a little different.

I planted the onions around April time, and despite not feeding them as often as I should have, the bulbs swelled and grew at a good rate. By late July the stems were starting to flop over – a sign that they’re approaching harvest time – and by early August the stems were yellowing and the bulbs were clearly ready to be pulled up.

I waited for a clear, cloudless day to pull the bulbs and lay them out under the hot summer sun to dry out. I gleefully selected the first bulbous beauty to lift out of the soil, the top half a whopping globe, but what I unearthed wasn’t a naval-orange sized specimen… in fact, there was barely much more onion lurking under the surface of the soil at all. And this is when I learned of the existence of flat bottomed onions.

Not All Onions Are Round

I’ve been growing my own fruit and veg as a hobby for a good twelve or thirtreen years. I feel like I (pardon the pun) know my onions. Turns out, I still have a lot to learn. At first, I thought my Stuttgarter Giant onions must have been stunted in growth by my no-dig approach to gardening. Perhaps the soil was too firm, or I hadn’t watered them enough to allow them to swell and grow as normal? I couldn’t work out why I kept pulling up flat bottomed onion after flat bottomed onion.

Some quick Googling quickly provided an answer; it turns out that Stuttgarter Giant onions are, indeed, just flat-bottomed, and some varieties are like this – flat onions. I’ve been growing Hercules for so many years that I just assumed all onions were globe-shaped, sometimes a bit oval, sometimes a bit wonky, but essentially round.

Flat Onions

Turns out they’re not. Dome shaped with a flat bottom is a thing. Taste-wise, the Stuttgarter Giant is just like any other onion, ie delicious. Other well-known (well, not to me) flat onions are Cipollini onions, an Italian variety, which are generally smaller than your average round onion but with a much sweeter flavour. Vidalia are also smaller, mild and sweet onions. It’s said that the smaller the flat onion, the sweeter it will be.

It’s also suggested that when buying sets, you can tell whether you’re buying flat onions or round onions. Apparently the longer and more elongated the onion set (the mini bulb you buy to plant in the ground), it’s likely to grow into a flat bottomed onion. Squat, round sets will grow into round onions, like the Spanish onions and red onions that we regularly see in the supermarket.

After lifting my onions I let them dry in our greenhouse for around 4-5 days, by which time the papery skins had hardened off a little and I was able to clean them up. I found a reusable hessian onion bag in Dunelm for about £4.50, so that will store my onions for as long as they last this year. We only managed a small crop of around 75 onions plus about ten groups of shallots – so around 50-60 super-flavoursome bulbs.

I’d love to be able to plait them, but time and inclination made the onion bag a necessity this summer!



How to use pea sticks to grow peas

Early pea flowers

It’s pea-growing season! Peas are avid climbers, and if you want to make supports for your climbing peas from pea sticks, then I’ve put together a handy guide. It’s quite easy really – but there are a few tricks that I’ve learned that help. I purchased my locally-grown hazel pea sticks from Wasseldine in Bedfordshire. They’re grown and expertly coppiced within a few miles of my home, and I went to pick them up pre-bundled. So a relatively fuss-free start! The pea sticks were cut at an angle at the bottom, making them easy to push into the ground.

I recently laid a new no-dig bed, and decided to grow peas there as it’s a great spot with lots of sun, and the pea plants will help fix nitrogen into the new veg bed too.

How to Use Pea Sticks as Plant Supports

Here’s my quick how-to on how to use pea sticks as plant supports:

1. Firstly, you need to make sure your ground is level, and you’ve marked out roughly where your two shallow furrows/drill trenches for your pre-soaked peas – or pea plants – will go in. 

2. Next, separate your pea sticks. If you’ve bought them in bundles like I did, they should have been coppiced roughly to the same height. If not, don’t worry – there will be plenty of opportunity to trim them up later, and lots of twiggy-ness is good! Stick each pea stick in the ground at an angle, leaning in towards your second drill trench, placing them roughly a foot apart. Don’t worry if there are a few bare patches between the main stems of the pea sticks at this stage.

pea sticks

3. Repeat alongside the next drill trench, once again pushing the pea sticks into the ground at an angle so that the tops of the pea sticks are woven into each other like a long ‘X’ shape, but with a little more room at the bottom. The twiggy parts of the sticks should mostly hold the opposing and adjoining pea sticks firmly together. Weave, weave, weave. But if there’s some wiggle room, and you have surplus pea sticks to hand, you could always weave in some horizontal hazel sticks in too, or alternatively bind some of the tops together with twine or string.

4. Trim out any twigs or branches on the outer sides that stick out too far, too high or too horizontally. You’re aiming for a vague arch ‘X’ shape overall. Don’t discard your prunings though!

5. Your next task is to fill any gaps at the bottom of the pea sticks (where the stems are thicker and the branches more sparse) with smaller leftover twiggy pieces that you just pruned, or have to hand. The peas will really appreciate having the extra support for scrambling as they establish and grow. 

6. Finally, it’s time to plant in your peas or pea plants around a foot apart. Line the drill trenches with compost and water well… but don’t plant yet! Plant more on the inside of the pea trellis base – the plants will grow upwards and towards the light, and being placed in this way will give them a little extra cover from being munched by birds!

7. Give your peas a final watering in. Established plants that have been planted in might sulk for a week or so, but should eventually establish themselves and start clinging onto your magnificent natural framework that you’ve created! 

I still have another bundle of pea sticks that I’ll be using for sweet peas, mina lobata, and some other annual climbers this year (I haven’t decided whether I want to try thunbergia, morning glory, or both… or more!), as well as thicker, sturdier hazel bean poles from my climbing french beans as well. 

The naturally-sourced sticks should last a couple of seasons at least, especially if they’re packed away and stored over winter once the plants have died back.

 

Spring is early – and the growing season is on

crocus in bloom

Tonight I stayed out until around 5:30pm, spoiled by gorgeous blue skies and warm sunshine on a February afternoon. I spent the late afternoon clearing and edging, getting my fruit border in order, with some progress around the greenhouse. We’re now almost ready for a proper spring clean in there, and maybe even in a position to get some replacement glass panes finally!

It’s all go here at the Smallest Smallholding, and it feels good to be back in the mix, working with the soil and seeing everything steadily springing to life after winter. The tiny narcissi are out, and purple crocuses are basking in the unseasonably warm weather. Thank goodness they’re here because the bees are out already, and nectar is in pretty short supply around here!

Strawberry/raspberry bed ready for mulching

Strawberry/raspberry bed ready for mulching

The strawberry/raspberry beds have been dutifully cleared and edged (thanks Mum), the no-dig long plot and big plot are almost ready for mega mulching and early sowing, and I’ve scoped out where my new veg patches will go too.

I currently only have four beds (and a space for the polytunnel… that’s another story for another day… ), one of which is non-rotatable as it’s home to my Cambridge Strawberry plants and my summer Valentina raspberries. So that makes crop rotation a bit of an issue, hence the need for more veg plots!

Kitchen Garden Field

Kitchen Garden Field

After visiting my mum’s friend’s kitchen garden last year, I was pretty awe-struck and came away with lots of ideas and a wish list. I’m starting to get Rich on side about “giving up” some lawn space to more plots, as we have plenty of space on the ornamental side with the long border for my daughter to rocket up and down when she feels the need. Anyhow – as much as she loves running about, she’s a total explorer too and I feel she will really enjoy “assisting” me out with sowing, watering and harvesting this year. She loves to help! So I’m sure more veg plots will be a winner all round. 

Freshly laid turf – 2012

At lunchtime today, Rich and I headed down to the back border, a square patch that was turfed years ago, and has since done nothing of merit or interest. We’ve decided to create a curved grass path, cutting great swathes of the turf out to make way for a “hot” herb border… in my mind, the south-facing fenced side will play host to the likes of lavender, rosemary, nepeta, perovskia, and maybe some cardoons and artichokes too. Lots of height, lots of colour, lots of food for pollinators. The soil is poor and well-draining, so any Mediterranean sun-loving plants should do well there.

Cosmos and Lavender

Cosmos and Lavender – winning combo!

I have so much in my head that I want to achieve this year. Getting the hot border planted up is a pretty monumental task outside of life as Mummy and holding down a job AND everything else in between, but I feel re-ignited. We have already pushed further ahead this year than I imagined, and with my daughter happy to potter and play as I squirrel away at various horticultural tasks… well, it feels like this year is on the right path.

In my unheated greenhouse (you know, the one with panes missing and a door permanently wedged open), I’ve only got nasturtiums on the go as yet, not quite trusting that Mother Nature is done with sending arctic blasts and beasts from the east to our shores. A bit late to the party, I’ve optimistically shoved some garlic cloves into pots (whether they divide is another question), and the shallots are nestled in too, ready to shoot and root before planting outside.

Inside, my Picasso potatoes are chitting away happily on a kitchen windowsill, and this weekend I have a few packets of veg and flower seeds ready to sow. I also lost my mind a bit and went on a rampant spending spree in Wilko, picking up packets of dahlia tubers and ranunculus corms amongst a selection of other bold beauties. So those will go in soon, and then I will patiently wait for nature to do her thing. 

cardoons and artichokes

Cardoons and artichokes from the weekly market

And lastly, testament to my growing obsession with buying seeds and plants (seriously, I couldn’t sleep thinking about it the other night), I raided the plant stall at our local market today, coming home with 2 types of globe artichoke, one cardoon, and a substantially sized Mrs Jessop’s Upright rosemary plant – all for a tenner. No doubt I’ll be back for more bargains, but if I’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that I must get my plant purchases in the ground before I part with any more hard-earned cash. And maybe pay some bills first.

So busy, busy, busy in the kitchen garden. And I feel all the better for it!