Up Your Gardening Game with Sweet Onions

Up Your Gardening Game with Sweet Onions

For many people in the Panhandle, gardening season begins when the weather warms in spring and nurseries start setting out tomato transplants.   While I understand the allure of the yummy summer veggies and spring/early summer are the most traditional times to garden, cultivating a winter garden in the Panhandle unlocks many tasty options.  Among these cool-season garden veggies is a classic southern staple that is among the easiest and most rewarding of all vegetables to grow, sweet onions!

‘Texas Super Sweet’ Onions almost ready for harvest in a Calhoun County garden. Photo courtesy of Joe Leonard.

Sweet onions are very popular in the culinary world for their mild flavor and soft texture and are among the most widely grown group of onions across the world, but the most famous of them, Vidalia’s, hail from Georgia!  Despite its fame, the “Vidalia” onion is actually nothing more than a trademarked name for a specific variety of sweet onion that was bred in Texas (‘Yellow Granex’ and its derivatives), grown in a 20-county region in South Georgia with excellent onion-growing soil, and made famous by excellent marketing from the Vidalia Onion Committee.  While they can’t be called Vidalias legally, you can absolutely grow your very own Vidalia type sweet onions at home here in the Florida Panhandle!

Sweet Onions are most easily grown at home if purchased in the fall as “sets”.  Sets are small bulbs that have been started, harvested, dried to prevent rotting during storage, and shipped to garden centers ready to be “set” out in home gardens.  Sweet onions may also be grown from seed but take much longer and have a lower success rate.  When browsing onion set varieties for purchase at garden centers or in seed catalogues, make sure to purchase a short-day “Granex” type like “Texas Super Sweet” or similar.   It is critical to remember that sweet onions are classified by how many hours of daylength they require to produce bulbs.  The three classifications are Short, Mid, and Long-Day.  Since sweet onions require cool weather to develop properly, Floridians must grow short-day varieties to compensate for decreased daylight hours in the winter.  In the less hot Northern states, long-day sweet onions are grown in the summer, where they’ll be able to soak up 15-16 hours of daylight.  Therefore, for best results in the Panhandle, select ONLY short-day onion varieties.

‘Texas Super Sweet’ Onions that have been harvested and are ready for use! Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Once you’ve selected your onion sets in the fall, they can be planted in the garden anytime from early October to mid-December.  Individual bulbs should be planted about an inch deep in well-drained garden soil with high organic matter content (mushroom compost, composted manure, or other rich organic matter works) and spaced 4-6” between plants and about a foot between rows.  Onions in general, and sweet onions in particular, are heavy feeders and require ample nutrition to meet their potential!  To meet these fertility needs, I apply a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote or a Harrell’s product at planting and supplement that with either a quick release granular or liquid fertilizer monthly during the bulb enlargement phase.  Sweet onions also have a shallow root system and require frequent watering to develop properly and avoid splits, doubles, and small bulbs.  Don’t let your onion bed dry out!

Finally, sweet onions planted in late fall/early winter are normally ready to harvest in April and May.  However, rather than relying on a calendar, begin harvesting your onions when the tops start to turn yellow and fall over, this indicates maturity.  After harvesting, allow your onions to “cure” with tops and roots still attached for a couple of weeks outside in a shaded, protected area.  Once they’ve had an opportunity to “cure”, remove tops and roots and store the cured bulbs in a cool, dry place (a dark pantry in an air-conditioned room or the refrigerator crisper drawer work fine) and use at your convenience!

While they can’t be called Vidalias, sweet onions grown at home are oh so rewarding and very tasty!  Provided they are planted in quality soil, receive plenty of water and fertilizer, and are harvested/stored correctly, sweet onions will provide a delicious, home-grown culinary treat throughout the year!  For more information about growing onions in the home garden or any other horticultural/agricultural topic, contact us at the UF/IFAS Calhoun County Extension Office.  Happy Gardening!

Plant Preparation for Changing Seasons!

Plant Preparation for Changing Seasons!

As October gets by us and November quickly approaches, I would like to include the preparation on What to Plant? And What to Do? Some great annual plant choices are digitalis (foxglove), petunias, and Shasta daisy. There are many daffodil bulb varieties for North Florida including the following: Carlton, Fortune, Silver Charms, Thalia, and Sweetness. We will be getting into more of the cooler days, so this is a good time to start bulb onions and salad crops such as arugula, lettuce, and spinach. Dill, fennel, oregano, and sage are all herbs that can be planted throughout the fall months.

Start preparing now so your fall garden will be full of dark leafy greens, multi-colored lettuces, and root vegetables of all shapes and sizes. Photo by Molly Jameson.

In lawns there are a few key things that can be done in October. It is possible to control winter weeds before they appear. This is the time to use preemergent herbicides when nighttime temperatures are between 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit for four to five days in a row. If a green lawn is desired, you can overseed with annual ryegrass when the daytime temperatures are in the low 70s. Remember, the lawn will still need to be watered and mowed to maintain a healthy ryegrass. Watch for fungus like brown patch and large patch disease. This can become active when the soil temperature is between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hollies also attract bees to the landscape.
Credit: Beth Bolles, UF IFAS Extension Escambia County

And last but not least as you prepare for winter around the corner you can plant evergreen hollies that will make it through the cold and provide a splash of color with red berries. Gather pine needles that are dropping and use as a natural mulch, and this is the last month that strawberry plants can be established in a bed or a large container.

Fall Preparation in the Garden!

Fall Preparation in the Garden!

Carrots need enough space so as not to compete for light, nutrients, or moisture. Photo by Full Earth Farm.

Photo by Full Earth Farm.

Yes, that’s right! We made it through the hottest part of the year and we are looking ahead to fall just around the corner!  I am excited to be discussing September and what we can do to prepare for fall in the garden.  As the nighttime temperatures start to cool down, we are given many more options.

For annual color plantings in September, try Ageratum, Celosia, Zinnias, and Wax Begonia to add fall color to your landscape.  Bulbs will also add color, texture, and pattern to a bed.   If you have some extra space, a variety of elephant ears could really accent a bed or you could always go with the classic calla, narcissus or zephyr lily.  Popular vegetables to plant in North Florida in September are broccoli, carrot, cabbage, and collards. See Vegetable Gardening in Florida This is also the time of year to establish strawberry plants.  Some great herbs to get started are Mexican tarragon, mint, rosemary, and basil.

Strawberries growing on "plastic" to protect them from water splashed fungal spores found in soil. Image Credit: Matthew Orwat UF/IFAS Extension Washington County

Image Credit: Matthew Orwat UF/IFAS Extension Washington County

There are many things that can be done in your lawn during September.  Monitoring your lawn for its health and potential insect pests is important this time of year.  Common insects to scout for are fall armyworms, chinch bugs, mole crickets, and sod webworms.  The last fertilizer application should be done by the middle to end of September.  Make sure you choose a fertilizer with little to no phosphorus unless a soil test shows differently.  To maintain a healthy lawn, avoid weed and feed products and only apply herbicides in areas with high infestations of weeds. Weed and feed products are not recommended because the timing of when to fertilize and the timing of the weed killer is not always the same. The best management practice is to use a separate treatment for weeds and when possible spot treat weeds.

If you already have bulbs in your landscape from previous growing seasons, this is the time to divide and replant those that are big.  You can also add organic matter to new planting areas. Continue working on your vegetable plants and prepare them for either transplants for a fast start, or plants seeds for more variety.  Throughout your landscape, it is important that plants are getting the right amount of water as we go in and out of wet and dry weather this time of year.

October will be here before we know it in just a couple of weeks. Look out for the next article to come.  We will be getting into the cooler nights and more options for planting vegetables and herbs!

Rainlily: A Rewarding Bulb for Panhandle Gardeners

Rainlily: A Rewarding Bulb for Panhandle Gardeners

Bulbs are my favorite class of ornamental plants.  They generally are low maintenance, come back reliably year after year, and sport the showiest flowers around.  While many bulbs like Daylily, Crinum and Amaryllis are very common in Panhandle landscapes, there is a lesser-known genus of bulbs that is well worth your time and garden space, the Rainlily (Zephyranthes spp.).

Rainlily, aptly named for its habit of blooming shortly after summer rainfall events and a member of the Amaryllis family of bulbs, is a perfect little plant for Panhandle yards for several reasons.  The plant’s genus name, Zephyranthes – which translates to English as “flowers of the western winds”, hints at the beauty awaiting those who plant this lovely little bulb.  From late spring until the frosts of fall, Rainlily rewards gardeners with flushes of trumpet-shaped flowers in shades of white, pink, and yellow, with some hybrids offering even more exotic colors.  While these individual flowers typically only persist for a day or two, they are produced in “flushes” that last several days, extending the show.  Though Rainlily flowers are the main event for the genus, beneath the blooms, plants also offer attractive, grass-like, evergreen foliage.  These aesthetic attributes lend themselves to Rainlily being used in a variety of ways in landscapes, from massing for summer color ala Daylilies, to use around the edges of beds as a showy border like Liriope or other “border” type grassy plants.

Unknown Rainlily species blooming in a raised bed. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.

Continuing along the list of Rainlily attributes, the genus doesn’t require much in the way of care from gardeners either.  Most species of Rainlily, including the Florida native Z. atamasca, have no serious pests and are right at home in full sun to part shade.  Once established, plants are exceedingly low-maintenance and won’t require any supplemental irrigation or fertilizer!  Some Rainlily species like Z. candida even make excellent water or ditch garden plants, preferring to have their feet wet most of the year – putting them right at home in the Panhandle this year.  And finally, all Zephyranthes spp. do very well in containers and raised beds also, adding versatility to their use in your landscape!

The one drawback of Rainlily is that they can be somewhat difficult to find for sale.  As these bulbs are an uncommon sight in most garden centers, to source a specific Zephyranthes species or cultivar, one is probably going to need to purchase from a specialty internet or mail-order nursery.  As with other passalong-type bulbs though, the absolute best and most rewarding way to obtain Rainlily is to get a dormant season bulb division from a friend or fellow gardener who grows them.  There are many excellent unnamed or forgotten Zephyranthes cultivars and seedlings flourishing in gardens across the South, waiting to be passed around to the next generation of folks who will appreciate them!

Even if you must go to some lengths to get a Rainlily in your garden, I highly recommend doing so!  You’ll be rewarded with years of low-maintenance summer color after the dreariest of rainy days and will be able to pass these “flowers of the western wind” on to the next gardening generation.  For more information on growing, sourcing, or propagating Rainlilies, check out this EDIS publication by Dr. Gary Knox of the UF/IFAS North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC) or contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office!  Happy Gardening!

 

 

 

AUGUST What to Plant? What to Do?

AUGUST What to Plant? What to Do?

Native Gaillardia. Photo courtesy UF/IFAS.

The hottest days of the summer are here and you might be thinking, “There is no way something could survive this heat!”. You might also be wondering “What can I do in my landscape?” Well, you are correct – it is hot and there are not many plants that thrive in this type of weather, but the good news is we are at the end of the summer season and there are things we can begin to do to get ready for fall. It’s not too late to get the last of the summer vegetables going such as lima beans, cucumbers, eggplants, and peppers. Many cool season crops can also be planted by seed now and tomatoes will thrive going into the fall season. See Vegetable Gardening in Florida

There are some heat-tolerant annuals like vinca, gaillardia, bulbine, and coleus that can be planted now in the landscape. See Annuals. Any time of the year, even late summer, bulbs like Aztec Lily, Butterfly Lily, Walking Iris, and Spider Lily can be planted. See Bulbs for Florida. Not many herbs do well in our Florida sun this time of year, but Bay Laurel, Ginger, Mexican Tarragon, and Rosemary can be planted as transplants now but not as seeds just yet. See Herbs.

August and late summer is the time of year that you may be seeing damage in your lawns. This could be caused by insects, disease, or irrigation failure. It is important to determine the cause, so the proper remedy is used. Some ways to avoid lawn damage are checking your mower blades regularly and making sure they are sharp. Also only cut the top one third of the blade of grass to not stress it in the heat of the day. It is good practice to test your irrigation clock and have a rain sensor. Some municipalities in north Florida prohibit the application of fertilizer during the summer rainy season from June to September so check with your local extension office. See Insect Management in Your Florida Lawn

You can become more self-sufficient by growing your own healthy food in your backyard. Photo by Molly Jameson.

There are some other maintenance measures you can take in August to help your landscape and prepare for the fall season. If older palm fronds are yellowing, this could indicate a deficiency in magnesium or potassium. Talk to your local agent or visit your local store for an appropriate palm fertilizer. See Palm Nutrition and Fertilization.  Are you holding on to those beautiful fall mums or decorative Christmas poinsettias? Now is the time to pinch them back to allow time for buds to set for winter blooms. Finally, it is a good time to deadhead (remove old blooms) and fertilize flowering annuals and perennials. We’ve had substantial rain this summer, so keep in mind that the soil could be lacking nutrients. A soil test can give you data that indicates what you need for the up-and-coming growing season.

Information for this article can be found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publication: “North Florida Gardening Calendar” by Sydney Park Brown: ENH1190/EP451: North Florida Gardening Calendar (ufl.edu)

Video: Lilies in the Coastal South

Video: Lilies in the Coastal South

Lilies offer one of our most striking flowers in the garden.  Learn a few basics about growing lilies in your own garden with UF IFAS Extension Escambia County Master Gardener Volunteers.