The Dirt on Onions

Yesterday evening I decided it was time to harvest my patch of storage onions, so I hunkered down and spent about an hour and a half harvesting the onions and another hour and a half carefully laying them out to cure in the greenhouse.  The time had long come when I needed to harvest the onions, and with an abundance of rain lately, I was worried about the onions rotting in the field and weeds completely taking over the patch, making it much more difficult to find the onions come harvest time.  So with a dry afternoon on hand, I knew it was time to dig in.

This year, I planted two 150-ft beds of onions.  Each bed was 4 feet wide and contained 2 or 3 rows of onions.  One bed was devoted to “fresh eating” onions, as I like to call them, and the other was set aside for storage onions.  The fresh eating onions were onions that I harvested with green tops.  They don’t have any of the papery wrappers that you’re used to seeing when you buy a net bag of onions at the store.  Instead, they are intended to be eaten fresh, no peeling necessary, and therefore, these onions won’t store long.  Generally, they are varieties that are sweeter, containing more sugars, which contributes to their inability to store for a long time, but also makes them delicious raw and helps them to caramelize beautifully.  In the fresh eating onion bed, I also included my summer leeks, which take fewer days to reach maturity than fall leek varieties, and are planted closer together so they remain small and slender, never getting bigger than a thumb’s width.


summer leeks
I planted my summer leeks close together to produce thin, tender leeks. They are noticeably lighter in color than the fall leeks.


Fall Leeks
​I planted my fall leeks farther apart so they would get girthy. You can see how much more blue-green the leaves are than the summer leeks.


My storage onion bed contains five varieties of onions, all of which store well, according to my seed catalogs.  Storage onions tend to be more pungent and less sugary, they make lots of layers of papery wrappers, and they can be cured then stored for months.  Some storage onions can even make it through the entire winter if stored properly.  The telltale sign that the onions are ready to harvest is when their green tops begin to brown and flop over.  The onion is effectively curing itself by sealing off the watery sugars and starches in the bulb by creating a little pinched off crook in its neck where the tops fall over.  This way, the green tops won’t transpire water out from the onion bulb.


Top Flopped Onion
An onion bulb with its top flopped over and shriveled up. This one is ready to harvest!


Perky Onion
This onion, photographed on the same day as the one above, still has its green leafy top standing up straight and tall.


Most of my storage onions had their tops flop over a couple weeks ago, but a few stalwart onions continued to have perky leaves.  I picked all of the onions that had flopped and shriveled tops and laid them out in my greenhouse to continue drying for the next week or so.  In the greenhouse, they will be protected from rain and receive plenty of heat to ensure their papery wrappers are good and dry for storage.  The onions that continued to have perky green tops were all from one variety, Rossa di Milano, a beautiful Italian red onion variety.  I decided that the Rossas with green tops would become subjects in my first attempt to make a braided onion rope.  Braiding is another option for curing onions, especially if you don’t have a lot of horizontal space for curing.  By braiding the onion tops, you effectively make that little crook-in-the-neck seal that would naturally form when the tops flop over in the field.  There are lots of videos online to help you learn to braid onions, and I watched a few before diving in.  Basically, you braid the onions like you would braid hair, and you include some twine in the braid to help stabilize everything and to give you a loop to hang the braid from a hook or nail.  My Rossa di Milano onion braid is currently hanging from the rafters of my front porch where it will get a little breeze to help the curing process and be protected from the rain.


Onion Braid
My first onion braid!


In seed catalogs, onions are classified as short, intermediate, or long day length onions.  You must choose the right type for your spot on the earth.  Farms in northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere have long summer days so they should grow long day onions.  Farms in southerly latitudes have shorter summer days, so short day onions are most appropriate there.  Here in Northern Kentucky, I am almost at 39 degrees latitude, which is the southern edge of the long day onion zone.  Most long day onions switch from growing green tops to making big bulbs once there is at least 14 hours of day length, and at my latitude that occurs after May 6 and lasts until August 5.  That isn’t as large of a window for bulb formation as Maine or Washington, but it’s still three months, and my onions seem to be small to medium in size, accordingly.  The problem with growing short day onions here is that they may bolt (i.e., go to seed) before forming a bulb.  Overall, I am happy with the varieties I grew this year, and I will continue to try different long day onion varieties.  I wish I had started my onions earlier, tended to them better when they were little baby onions in the greenhouse, and got them transplanted in the field earlier, but even so, I have a lot of onions to show for my efforts this year.



Curing, Storing

With only two days of August left, we have entered a new phase at the farm: bulk harvesting.  To this point in the season, everything that we bring to the market has been picked fresh with the exception of potatoes, which we normally dig less than a week before the market, wash, dry, and let cure for 1-3 days.  Today, things changed.  We began harvesting our winter squash (pie pumpkins, butternut, delicata, and acorn squash), which we will now let cure before we begin bringing them to the market.  Next up will be storage onions, which also need time to cure before they can come to the market.  Before too long, we will have beans to pick, dry, shell, and store.  Then come sweet potatoes and two varieties of potato that we still have left out in the field.

Storage vegetables all require different conditions for curing, which is the process of toughening up the skin so the vegetables aren’t susceptible to invasion by rotting organisms like mold, fungus, and bacteria.  After the vegetables have cured, they want different conditions for storage so they remain in a stable condition until you’re ready to eat them.  Curing and storing vegetables can be tricky, especially if you don’t have large, well-ventilated climate controlled areas, so a new farmer like me has to make the best use of the spaces that we’ve got.  Winter squash, once they are picked ripe off of their vine, want to sit in a well-ventilated area that is warm (70-80 degrees F). This allows the stem of the squash to dry up and the skin to thicken, creating a nice sealed exterior impenetrable to rot organisms.  If the squash isn’t nicked or bruised, it can survive a very long time, sometimes all through the winter and into the spring!  I don’t have a space right now that can provide these conditions for hundreds of pounds of winter squash, so my best alternative is to put them in a greenhouse.  While the greenhouse is currently hotter and not as well-ventilated as I’d like, the winter squash will at least be dry, warm, and elevated off the ground.  Elevation is important for air circulation and for keeping the squash a little bit out of the way of bugs and rodents that would like to eat them.


Butternut and delicata squash curing on wire racks in the greenhouse
Butternut and delicata squash curing on wire racks in the greenhouse


Pie pumpkins curing up off the ground on pallets in our hoophouse.
Pie pumpkins curing up off the ground on pallets in our hoophouse.


I could have allowed my winter squash to continue sitting in the field on their vines and let them cure out in the open air.  With lots of hot, wet days in the forecast, however, I didn’t want to run the risk of having my squash rot, especially because most of their vines have died back and therefore aren’t providing the life support the squash need to fight off the agents of rot.  Also, as the squash sit in the field, their starches convert to sugars and they become more delectable to the palates of deer and other vermin.  So, I decided that it was finally time to get the winter squash up and out of the field.  Now we can cut down the forest of weeds that have grown up around the winter squash, and hopefully sow some quick growing cover crop to help return some fertility to the soil and create a dense stand of cover crop instead of a dense stand of weeds.


After we picked winter squash today, my dad mowed in the dead squash vines and weeds.
After we picked winter squash today, my dad mowed in the dead squash vines and weeds.


The squash will only need a couple of weeks to cure before I can put them in storage, which will likely be on a covered porch where they will be out of the sun and rain.  There they will remain until the temperature drops below about 50 degrees.  Once that happens, I will need to bring them indoors so they can remain cool, but not too cold.  Ventilation is also important in the storage phase.  Hopefully, I will have a lot of my winter squash sold by the time 50 degree weather comes around.  Whatever is remaining will go on shelves in my house until I sell it or eat it all.  And I plan on eating A LOT of squash this winter – aside from being delicious, winter squash are packed full of nutrients and may help fight seasonal affective disorder during cold and short winter days.


​Fight off the winter blues by eating more pumpkin pie!
​Fight off the winter blues by eating more pumpkin pie!


Once I have time and money to add more infrastructure to my farm, it would be fantastic to have dedicated curing and storage areas for my winter squash and other storage vegetables, especially because storage vegetables allow a farmer to continue to make sales well after the growing season has ended.  Last year, when I worked at Local Roots Farm outside of Seattle, the farmers, Siri and Jason, purchased an insulated shipping container for storing winter squash.  The container had vents on one end that could be opened or closed to help regulate the temperature and it had a dehumidifier and a fan to keep the air moving and at the right humidity.  We still had some squash rot in storage, but for the most part, it allowed us to keep literally tons of squash safely stored through the fall and winter.  You can read more about the shipping container here on the Local Roots Farm blog.

Picking, carrying, sorting, wiping, and moving winter squash can be a tedious task, but luckily Chris and I had many extra hands on deck today.  Many thanks go to our parents, Jana, David, Sue, and Roger.  With their help, we managed to not only pick the majority of the winter squash patch, but also pick all the tomatoes for market tomorrow, and we finished up before lunch and the onset of rain for the next couple of days.  I’m quite glad the winter squash are spending the night dry and under cover instead of out in a warm, wet field.



After the Market

The past few weeks at the farmers market have been the busiest of the year.  There are a few factors contributing to this, as far as I can tell.  With cooler-than-normal temperatures this summer, folks have been out enjoying the weather and spending a little extra time at the market, especially now that it’s corn, tomato, and watermelon season.  There are so many beloved summer vegetables ripe and ready right now that it is truly the best time of year to visit the market.  Chris and I have spent some long days harvesting in preparation for the busy July and August markets, and every time we pack up the truck to head to the market, I am amazed that we are able to fit everything.  We like to keep our booth stocked for the duration of the market, rather than run out of things early, which means we often come home with leftover vegetables.  When I worked at Local Roots Farm in Seattle, leftover vegetables weren’t a problem.  We had an honor system farm stand on the road where we could sell nice leftover vegetables, and anything that was wilted could go to our laying hens or pigs.  Here at Dark Wood Farm, I don’t have a farm stand, and we don’t have any farm animals except for Smudge the cat, and she’s not too keen on leftover chard.  So you might be wondering what we do with our leftover veggies, and the answer is – we do lots of things!  Chris and I both love to cook, so in the days following a farmers market, we prioritize cooking with the items left over from market.  For example, today I used up one bunch of sorrel, a bunch of chard, three onions, some leeks, a tomato, and several peppers, and that was only for one meal – lunch!


Tomato Salad
​Part of our lunch today: heirloom tomato, bell peppers, and seared padrone peppers with sea salt.


Whatever we don’t eat either gets stored, sold, donated, composted, or preserved.  Here’s a little bit about each of these avenues:

Some leftover items, like potatoes, will store perfectly fine until our next market in a few days, so we hang on to those.  The tricky part about holding vegetables until the next market is finding a good place to store them.  Each vegetable has a preferred temperature and humidity, so you often can’t store everything in one place.  Some veggies need to be refrigerated, some don’t.  Most of them need to be kept out of the sun and out of the reaches of rodents or other animals looking for a feast.

Some of the higher demand items get sold to friends, family, and neighbors, especially the ones that live along the road between the market and the farm.  From time to time, the Rabbit Hash General Store, just 3 miles down the road, will sell some of my nice leftover goods.  We also donate lots of greens and other perishable items to a food pantry run by CAIN – Churches Active in Northside.  They pick up the veggies right at the end of our Wednesday market in Northside, then stock their pantry for guests on Thursday morning.

Surprisingly, when all is said and done, we have very little vegetable matter leftover to compost.  I started two compost bins when I moved onto the farm in January.  They are simply cylinders of wire mesh with a few support poles.  They are each three feet tall and a foot and a half wide.  I dump vegetable scraps inside the cylinder and then top it with a handful or two of carbonaceous or “brown” material like dry leaves.  Lately, I have been using some of the chaff I winnowed off of my mustard crop mixed with some cocoa bean husks that I picked up from the new chocolate shop at Findlay Market, Maverick Chocolate.  These dry materials help balance out the wet, nitrogenous food and veggie scraps and keep the compost smelling pleasant.  I’m 8 months in, and the first cylinder is only about 60% full!  As all the microbes and insects quickly work their way through the compost during the heat of the summer, the volume compresses, even though Chris and I are adding a couple bowls of fresh material every day.

Compost bin
One of our compost bins, holding 8 months worth of compost!

For me, the most exciting aspect of market leftovers at the moment is the opportunity it provides to squirrel food away for the winter.  This past winter, when I first moved onto the farm, my pantry was bare except for a few winter squash, shallots, garlic, and root vegetables that I stowed away in little nooks and crannies of my car when I left Local Roots and moved home to Kentucky.  Luckily, I quickly befriended some local farmers including Barry at Red Sunflower Farm, and he was kind enough to share some frozen beans, squash, and canned tomatoes to help me get through the winter until the first asparagus and rhubarb peeked through this spring.  Now that my farm is in full abundance, I intend on stocking my pantry for the winter so that I can eat some healthy farm foods even when the ground is frozen.  A couple weeks ago, I wrote about drying herbs and saving mustard seed, and I mentioned how I had been putting off canning because of how hot it makes the kitchen.  Now that tomato season is here, I’ve had to suck it up and deal with the heat in the kitchen.  At the end of each market, I normally have some dented and bruised tomatoes that didn’t survive the truck ride to the market, so they have been going into the canning pot then onto my shelf for making chili and tomato-y beans and greens this winter.

cooking a pot of tomatoes
​A pot of roma and heirloom tomatoes cooking down before being packed into jars for canning.
​Pulling finished jars of tomato out of my great grandma's pressure cooker from 1961.
​Pulling finished jars of tomato out of my great grandma’s pressure cooker from 1961.
Summer in jars - my mom's canned green beans and my canned crushed tomatoes.
Summer in jars – my mom’s canned green beans and my canned crushed tomatoes.

I am growing a small Italian heirloom tomato called Principe Borghese, which no one seems to want to buy.  I decided to try growing it when I read in the seed catalog, “used for sun-dried tomatoes as it has few seeds and little juice.” Sun-dried tomatoes! YES! I love sun-dried tomatoes, so I was sure that several of my market customers would be excited about a tomato that is exceptional for drying.  Well, my instincts perhaps were wrong, because I normally bring home 75% of the Principe Borghese tomatoes that I pick.  I’m not worried about it, though, because it takes me about 10 minutes to cut up the leftover Principe tomatoes and put them in the dehydrator, then in 48 hours I have a jar full of aromatic sun-dried tomatoes.

​Sun-dried Principe Borghese tomatoes bound for some winter pasta and pizza.
​Sun-dried Principe Borghese tomatoes bound for some winter pasta and pizza.

My latest experiment in food preservation is homemade hot sauce.  I am bringing two types of hot peppers to the market currently: green jalapenos and fish peppers.  They have been selling so-so, and after Wednesday’s market, I had a pint of each that no one bought so I decided to try making green hot sauce.  Following this recipe online, I chopped the peppers in my food processor with some salt, then transferred the hot pepper puree to a jar to ferment overnight.  The next day, I added vinegar, and I am currently letting it sit for a week to develop flavors before I will sieve out the pepper chunks and put the liquid hot sauce into a bottle.

 ​Jalapeno and fish hot peppers; hot sauce in the making!

​Jalapeno and fish hot peppers; hot sauce in the making!


Hot peppers pureed with salt, fermenting into hot sauce.
Hot peppers pureed with salt, fermenting into hot sauce.

​Instead of looking at my leftover market vegetables as a burden, I choose to look at them as a challenge.  How can I find more outlets for my vegetables, how can I improve my composting system, which new recipes can I explore, and how can I preserve these vegetables so I have food from my own farm when fresh vegetables are out of season?  I am learning so much from these challenges, and setting myself up to have a winter with fewer trips to the grocery store, so I am thankful for the overabundance.


Wasps and Washing

I wanted to give y’all a little update on last week’s discussion of cabbage moths and their caterpillars’ never-ending appetite for my cabbages and kale.  WASPS HAVE ARRIVED!  There are several species of predatory wasps that can help control cabbage moth populations in the garden.  Depending on the species of wasp, they may eat the caterpillar to feed to their wasp babies, or they may lay eggs on the caterpillar, then the wasp larvae emerge and consume the caterpillar.  This past week, I have noticed quite a few wasps flying around the cabbage patch.  Upon closer examination, they were crawling around, looking for and consuming cabbage moth caterpillars.  Nature at work!  Chris and I have seen fewer caterpillars this week, perhaps due to increased wasp dining, but also perhaps due to the rainy weather, which keeps the moths (actually, they’re really butterflies) from flying around and laying their eggs on my brassica plants (kale, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, collards).  Either way, the caterpillar damage seems to be less at the moment, and I’m glad that I have wasps around the garden helping out!

A wasp consuming a cabbage moth caterpillar on a brussels sprout plant.  You'll notice all the holes that the caterpillar has munched out of the leaves, stunting the plant's growth.  Eat away, our little wasp friend!
A wasp consuming a cabbage moth caterpillar on a brussels sprout plant. You’ll notice all the holes that the caterpillar has munched out of the leaves, stunting the plant’s growth. Eat away, our little wasp friend!
Today, my mom, dad, and their friend, Ric, came down to the farm to help out.  I’ve had a new car canopy sitting in it’s box in my living room for the last couple of weeks, intending to put it up over the area where I wash vegetables, but unable to find the time to actually put the thing together.  While I was out picking veggies for Sunday’s market, my parents and Ric put together the canopy and re-arranged the wash station so that I now have everything under the cover of the canopy.  This will be so helpful for keeping everything shaded and free from tree debris and rogue bird poo.

The wash station now has a canopy to help keep us and the vegetables shaded!
The wash station now has a canopy to help keep us and the vegetables shaded!

​Another view of the wash station, including a spray table (on the right), the bath tub wash bin (on the left, far side), and a drip table (on the left, near side) where clean totes and vegetables drip dry before going in the cooler.
​Another view of the wash station, including a spray table (on the right), the bath tub wash bin (on the left, far side), and a drip table (on the left, near side) where clean totes and vegetables drip dry before going in the cooler.

Chris and I do most of our vegetable picking in the morning when the plants are cool(er) and moist.  Once the veggies heat up, they respire faster, which leads to wilting.  We want the vegetables we sell at market to look nice and perky and to last longer in your refrigerator, so it’s imperative to get them out of the field in the morning when their respiration rate is lower.  Once they are picked, almost all the veggies get sprayed off by the hose on a wire mesh spray table or dunked in water to remove dirt from the field.  My dad helped me construct an elevated stand that holds a bath tub that I can fill with water for cleaning the vegetables.  The dirty water is easily drained out of the bottom of the tub, then it gets cleaned and sanitized before the next round of vegetables comes in to be cleaned.  Once the vegetables are rinsed, they are organized in plastic totes and placed into our awesome veggie cooler trailer and kept at 39-40 degrees F until they go to market.  I have several bottles of water that I freeze before the market, then place inside the totes once we open them at the market.  That helps hold the vegetables at a cool temperature inside the totes for the 3-4 hours we’re at the market.  Keeping the veggies fresh and clean looking is definitely time and energy consuming, but I think the end result is worth it – several customers have told me how long their Dark Wood Farm vegetables last.  Even though Chris, my mom, and I spend a lot of time cleaning the vegetables, I always suggest that you wash again at home.  We don’t use any sprays or dangerous chemicals on your veggies, so you don’t need to worry about that.  However, an extra rinse with cool water will help remove extra dirt that didn’t come off in the first rinse and help alleviate any wilting that happens during the time between buying the vegetables and getting them in your fridge.

Fridges and Fathers

In honor of Father’s Day, I want to share with you one of the many projects my dad has been working on for the farm – the refrigerated trailer.  When I moved onto the farm in January, I knew I was going to need some sort of refrigeration for the vegetables.  The summers here get hot and a lot of the vegetables I am growing need to stay cool (down to around 41F) for up to 24 hours before they go to the farmers market.  I looked into buying a used large-sized commercial refrigerator, but I don’t have an obvious place to put it where it can be plugged in.  The barn would work well because it’s covered, but it doesn’t have power, so that was a no-go.  There’s limited covered space around the house, and I was worried about a refrigerator sitting outside and getting wet from the rain and the snow.  With that option out, I immediately thought about walk-in coolers.  Lots of farms use them, and the farm where I worked outside of Seattle, Local Roots Farm, even had a walk-in cooler that was powered by an air conditioner instead of a compressor.  This is an energy-saving option made possible by a little device called a CoolBot that tricks the air conditioner to run at temperatures lower than normally possible.  The only problem is that I am renting the farm and don’t plan to be here forever, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to install a walk-in.

That’s where the refrigerated trailer comes in.  While poking around on Craiglist looking for farm equipment, I came across an ad for a “Veggie Trailer.”  It was an insulated 6’x12′ trailer that contained an air conditioning unit inside.  The guy who had built it had used it to cool vegetables to take to market, but he was getting out of the vegetable growing business and wanted to sell it.  Here was an option that worked for me!  The trailer could be pulled up by my house where the air conditioner could be plugged in, it was weather proof and water tight, and could travel with me when I move off this farm onto my own property.  So, I bought the trailer and my dad and I hauled it home to the farm, and I started using it to store and cool my vegetables overnight before I’d take them to the market.  The only problem was that the air conditioner could only cool the trailer down to about 55F at best, and on warm days, it struggled to get below 70F.  That didn’t really help much with my veggie cooling issue, so I had to keep everything inside the trailer iced down to keep them cool enough.  But what about the CoolBot?!  I knew a CoolBot would help solve my problem, but unfortunately, the air conditioning unit inside my trailer wasn’t compatible with the CoolBot.  My dad found a used air conditioner that would work with the CoolBot, and this past week, after he retired for the second time, he spent several days installing the new air conditioner, adding extra insulation to the trailer, and hooking up the CoolBot.  The final version of my refrigerated veggie trailer is awesome, and it’s now sitting out in the shade under a big sycamore tree next to my house waiting to be put to use.  We had to work out some electrical issues over the last few days, but everything is up and running and the CoolBot-powered air conditioner is cooling the inside of the trailer from ambient temperature down to 40 degrees in less than 15 minutes, which is amazing!!!  I am so excited to put the trailer to use, and can’t thank my handy dad enough for doing all the hard work, especially since he’s retired (again).

​Here she is, the refrigerated veggie trailer, sitting outside my house in the shade.  In case you were wondering, it came with the air-brushed license plate and NRA sticker.
​Here she is, the refrigerated veggie trailer, sitting outside my house in the shade. In case you were wondering, it came with the air-brushed license plate and NRA sticker.
​Here's the air conditioning unit that dad installed.  He attached it securely to the tongue so it can travel.
​Here’s the air conditioning unit that dad installed. He attached it securely to the tongue so it can travel.
This is the inside of the trailer, complete with insulation, air conditioner, and CoolBot.
This is the inside of the trailer, complete with insulation, air conditioner, and CoolBot.
The trailer already had blue foam insulation on the walls and doors.  Dad added extra insulation to the floor so that the sinking cold air won't leak out of the bottom of the trailer.
The trailer already had blue foam insulation on the walls and doors. Dad added extra insulation to the floor so that the sinking cold air won’t leak out of the bottom of the trailer.
The CoolBot is super snazzy and awesome.  It tricks the air conditioner into running below it's lowest thermostat setting.
The CoolBot is super snazzy and awesome. It tricks the air conditioner into running below it’s lowest thermostat setting.