It’s early March, the robbins in my part of Northampton never left, so I can’t say that they’re a sign of spring. This year, though, we’re getting a traditional New England mud season. We haven’t had one of those in a while. Good thing I got some great new rubber boots for the mid-winter consumer extravaganza this year! I’ll no doubt be mucking about in my new boots some cordorouy pants and a pair of rainbow suspenders in just a few short weeks.

garden picture

I get to get my hands in some soil even this early, because I’m starting onions and leeks.

soil picture

OK, it’s not real soil and it’s probably the most expensive cubic foot of soil I buy, but the seeds do like it.

Planting seeds is dirty business and as the heated planting shed with running water is still on my to-do list, my seeds get planted in the kitchen. That means dirty kitchen, which could mean angry boss. I’ve taken the precaution of slipping a mickey into her morning tea. She’s sleeping like a baby. Well not the way the babies in our house slept, more like a cat.

I would really love to get one of Johnny’s soil block maker. These are great ways to make soil blocks and save on plastic — if you get the whole system, it makes transplanting easier. It also will cost upwards of 100$. So, when I’m rich and famous, I’m there. As it stands, I’ve already invested several dozen dollars on some plastic.

dirty trays and assistants

Apparently one of my interns last year didn’t clean these up, so I’m going to have to do it now. I use bleach to kill any and every microbe lurking on these from last year. It is possible I’ll lose some good ones, but there are lots of fungi that would just love to infest my little seedlings. This is also why I use the sterile seed starting mix.

I wanted a nice picture of last year’s onions to show you, but I only have three puny ones left. I figured showing last year’s harvest next to this year’s seeds would emphasize the joyous circle of rebirth or some such. Whether or not you buy that, it’s pretty astonishing how tiny that seed is — and onions seeds are hard. I feel like I’m putting a little piece of rock into the soil

big onion little onion

I cooked these with some potatoes from the Thornes farmers’ market and some of my boss’ eggs. Well his chickens’ eggs. They were delicious with schriracha sauce and tortillas (neither of which were locally sourced at all).
I really wish I didn’t have to admit this, but I’ve had some mixed luck with onions and leeks. In my old garden in Hadley I didn’t get enough light, so they just didn’t get very big. Some years only a few bulbed nicely. The last two years in the Northampton garden have been much better. Onions are pretty straightforward, they need a stable supply of water, plenty of light and good soil. Pests don’t bother mine much, though the neighborhood Tom does like to assist me in my fertilizing. Unfortunately his fertilizing style disturbs the plants and is a little too hot.

Back to the mixed luck. I’m using seeds, but I’ve used sets and transplants in the past. Sets are little immature bulbs — they are super easy, but I’ve always found I get smaller bulbs in the end. Transplants are pretty easy too and they’re not too expensive, but it feels like cheating. Besides, it’s really not hard to do seeds. Last year I planted some indoors and some outdoors around the beginning of April. Both sets matured. I only wished I’d planted more. I harvested around 100 good bulbs, but in this household I find that we’ve often cut up an onion and warmed olive oil before we’re fully sure what we’re going to cook: we put them in everything.

tucked in plants

I always pre-wet the soil. That is I make mud. I press this into my pots so that the soil is firm but not packed. Then I put the seeds on top and sprinkle a little soil on top of that. Top the whole deal with a clear plastic top and I head to the dungeon.

the dungeon

I do actually spend the money to get the expensive plant specific lights. I’m sure they’ll grow with the normal fluorescent bulbs, but chlorophyll absorbs light at two specific places that aren’t well represented in regular light. The special bulbs serve up the yummy wavelengths in the blue that plants love to eat. I also put them on heat mats that keeps the soil at a cumfy 70 degrees or so and give them light for 16 hours a day. It’s longer than what they’ll get outside, but it seems to be OK.

So the seeds are tucked in and happy downstairs, now I just have to wait for them to pop up. I probably won’t be planting anything else for a few weeks, but I do have to get outside and start pruning raspberries. I can’t wait to get muddy.