The Antes Garden - March 2016
This winter continues to bring surprises. Temperatures alternating from warmer-than-usual to real, winter weather. After a long spell without any snow we finally got hit, hard! A far different winter than the one predicted by The Farmer’s Almanac, proving once again that weather is generally unpredictable. We have to take what we get and make the most of it. As this issue of the Newsletter goes to press we are again experiencing a winter storm warning. We can only wait and respond accordingly.
While March can provide some really bad weather it’s also the month when we begin to think seriously about the coming spring. For many generations the Pennsylvania Dutch in the Goschenhoppen region planted their kitchen gardens and many field crops in accord with astronomic and astrologic signs incorporated into the annual Almanac. The first sowing of seeds in the kitchen garden was for onions. These were planted as soon as the soil could be worked, hopefully around the first of March. Appropriate weather or not, St. Gertnaut’s Day, March 17th, was the day to start cabbage seeds in the “Grautkutch,” an early type of elevated cold frame, often attached to the sunny side of a building or incorporated into the garden fence. Tradition held that cabbage seed sown on any other day would result in a bug-infested crop. Incidentally, it was the Almanac printers who changed the name of the recognized “saint’ for that date to Patrick in the mid-nineteenth century to suit the Irish who immigrated in large numbers in the 1840s.
The onion plant, Allium cepa, (Zwiwwle in dialect) is also known as the bulb or common onion and is the most widely cultivated species of the genus Allium. The onion plant is unknown in the wild, but has been grown and selectively bred in cultivation for at least 7,000 years and was included in Charlemagne’s extensive listing of worthy plants. While actually a biennial, it is generally grown as an annual. Seed production is left to commercial growers. Onions can be grown from seed or from sets. The seeds are sown thinly in shallow drills, thinning the plants in stages and utilizing the thinnings as greens. Onion sets are produced by sowing seed thickly in early summer and the small bulbs produced are harvested in the autumn. Carefully stored in cool, dry, low light conditions, the bulbs are planted the following spring and grow into mature bulbs later in the year. Their main advantage is the earlier availability of green onions (scallions) and earlier mature bulbs than those planted from seed. Howwever, the cultivars used for this purpose do not have as good storage characteristics as those grown directly from seed.
The onion has long been employed as a disinfecting agent in cases of contagious diseases. Sliced onions were hung in sleeping rooms in the belief that the infectious matter would be absorbed into the onion and not affect the patient. This belief was eventually transposed into use as a disinfectant for poultry houses and pigstys, with bundles of cut onions hung throughout the interiors. Along with the potato, halved onions are often used to cure, or remove, warts. One of the cut sides is rubbed over the wart and both halves are then buried where water dripping from the eaves of the house will fall on it.
One other species of Allium often grown, A. proliferum, (Wnderzwiwwel in dialect) we know as the Egyptian or walking onion, named so for its habit of incrementaly shifting its location slightly in each generation. Described as a tree onion its round and hollow leaves grow up to three feet in height. At the top end of the leaf stalk a cluster of bulblets or bulbils grows. These bulbils are essentially “sets,” or baby walking onion plants. As the plant matures the leaf stalks dry out and fall over, depositing the bulbils at some distance from the mother plant. When conditions warrant they will sprout, becoming the next generation. If they are deposited late in the growing season they overwinter in that location and will sprout as soon as conditions are appropriate in the spring, often poking greenly through frost and snow. Among the earliest growth in the garden they are avidly sought out after a long winter of diminishing food stores.
Let’s hope we can plant our first onions on the first of March this year and that spring will follow in an orderly way soon thereafter. We will be looking for help to prepare and plant this year’s garden. If you can’t wait to sink your fingers into good soil and have a role in the annual renewal of life then come on out to the Antes Plantation on Tuesday evenings as soon as the weather warms up and join us. You’ll be glad you did.