Yes, it's early, but, I've already begun this year's garden. In keeping with my rather ambitious goal for the year —growing at least half of my own food — I'm going to need a lot of everything. Storage onions, in particular, are at the top of my list, since I use them nearly every day. Oh, and apparently I'm not alone in that. The average American is said to eat 20 pounds of storage onions each year, according to the people who keep track of such things at the National Onion Association, and, interestingly, when you fold in the rest of the world's onion consumption, each man, woman, and child eats 13.67 pounds of onions annually. In Libya alone, people eat, on average, over 66 pounds of onions per capita!
That said, I don't think I'll need quite 66 pounds of onions, so I planted about 50 seeds each for two rare, heirloom varieties -- Yellow of Parma and Red of Florence -- and I know I'll give lots of extra onion starts away. But here's the rub. To get them up and growing early, I'm using a low-watt, full-spectrum fluorescent lamp and a seedling heat mat. Both of those devices do draw some electric current, and I'd rather not use any. Still, in order to grow large storage bulbs in the chilly north where I live, I have to start the seeds several weeks before my last average frost date. The best way to do that is with the proper amount of soil warmth and day length.
True, I do have other options. In lieu of using electricity, for instance, I could simply direct seed my onions into the garden and hope for the best. But that route isn't terribly practical, since any storage onions I managed to grow that way would be quite small, come harvest time. I could also hit up my local nursery for onion “sets” -- baby onion bulbs which were started last year -- or established onion seedlings for transplanting, but the nursery owners are just as likely to use heat mats and lights to speed their production. Besides, then I'd also have to add in a car trip to the far-away nursery. Funny how there always seem to be trade-offs when trying to live -- and garden -- a little greener.
This story originally appeared in "Plenty" in February 2008.