Mixing Soil and Seeding Onions

Last week, the propagation greenhouse crew had its annual onion-seeding marathon, 574 flats in three partial workdays with the help of four people. This was the single biggest one-crop planting of the year

Onions are a staple vegetable at the farm, yielding throughout the summer, and storing well into the fall and winter. Gathering Together Farm is growing the following varieties this year (a couple new ones plus tried and true favorites):

Red Storage–‘Ruby Ring’, ‘Red River’, ‘Cabernet’ from Osborne Seed Company

Sweet–‘Walla Walla’, ‘Candy’, ‘Exhibition’ from Osborne Seed Company

White–‘Sierra Blanca’ from Osborne Seed Company

Yellow Storage–‘Talon’ from Territorial Seed Company, ‘Trekker’ and ‘Frontier’ from Osborne Seed Company

Shallots–‘Ambition’, ‘Saffron’ from Johnny’s Selected Seeds














Sarah (above left), Paula (above right), and Leslie (who politely opted not to get her photo taken) do most of the routine seeding and propagation greenhouse upkeep. Joelene schedules all the plantings, investigates any problems with equipment or germination as promptly as possible, and oversees the crew, making sure they have what they need to work effectively and efficiently.

Fine Pumice

Soil is the foundation for healthy and successful plant starts. The propagation greenhouse crew mixes all the potting soil used for spring and summer seeding and transplanting from scratch. The soil recipe is based on a mix recommended by Eliot Coleman (organic farming proponent). Over the years, the mix has evolved into the farm’s current recipe.

Gathering Together Farm Greenhouse Soil Mix Recipe

8 gallons composted rabbit manure and leaves

4 gallons peat

4 gallons fine pumice

2 cups powder mix (a 1:1 ratio of green sand, kelp meal, oyster shell flour, fish bone meal, glacial rock dust, and crab meal)

Sifted Compost

All the ingredients are loaded into the farm’s cement mixer that’s exclusively dedicated to mixing soil. They’re tumbled until they’re evenly distributed. The soil then gets unloaded into a wheelbarrow.

For seeding onions, Sarah, Paula, and Leslie mixed soil and filled 574 flats of “162’s” (flats with 162 cells).

The soil was lightly packed into the flats.














Flats were stacked 20-high so that the soil in each cell got compressed slightly, leaving a depression for the onion seeds. The flats got stickers to mark the variety with which they would be seeded.

This is the electric seeder. It was purchased used from Peoria Gardens many years ago. Sarah is the primary seeder operator these days, though she “studied” under Joelene’s tutelage.

Here’s the base of the seeder. Each flat is manually placed here to start.

This is the hopper with onion seeds. When it’s turned on, this tray is agitated to get a better distribution of seeds, so they can be sucked up by the  seeder tips.

This header with seeder tips rotates down and sucks up at least one seed per tip. (The one on the far right has two.) When it rotates back up, the suction is released, and the seeds fall down the tubes…

…into individual cells. The tips and tubes can be reconfigured to work with different sized cells, but Gathering Together Farm uses the electric seeder on primarily 162’s.

A steady “ca-chunk, ca-chunk” is the soundtrack as the flats move haltingly down the line, stopping briefly for seed deposits in each cell.

The flats are pushed along automatically by several oscillating arms that give each cell wall a shove down the line.

Sarah has to manually grab the flats off the base before they’re pushed off the end onto the ground (which happens on a very rare occasion).

This occupancy gauge signals to the seeder that a tray is passing through, but if it doesn’t sense a flat, it halts the seed dropping mechanism, avoiding major seed losses as things get busy, and Sarah can’t make it back to feed in the next flat fast enough.

Each tray passes through the seeder twice to ensure that each cell gets at least two seeds. When Sarah is seeding something that she knows has a particularly bad germination rate, she will sometimes send each flat through three times.

In between loading and unloading flats, adding more seed to the hopper, watching to make sure all the mechanical parts are doing their respective jobs, giving flats an extra shove when necessary, and subconsciously keeping track of how many times each flat has passed through the seeder, Sarah tops off the sown flats with a pumice-rich soil mix.

These flats of onions will spend the next two months in the warmth of the propagation greenhouse. During that time, they will be thinned once, trimmed once, weeded twice (because the compost does have some weed seeds in it), and watered daily. The field crew will transplant them outside in mid April where they’ll need weeding at least once more before harvest (not to mention lots of irrigating).

Expect to see fresh onions at our farmers’ markets and in CSA boxes in late spring/early summer. Until then, we still have some of last season’s storage onions available.

Working Hands

Pretty hands don’t exist in the kitchen. There are no manicures. No pampered skin, nor painted nails. Instead there are calluses and burns. A half-moon- shaped cut that slices through the nail-bed to the quick requiring a trip to the Emergency Room and three stitches put in with strong black thread. Jergens would be appalled.

Kitchen hands bear the marks of the trade. They know their way around a knife, move from left to right down the board and down the line. They reach into hot pans and hot ovens, retrieving baguettes without fireproof protection, prodding cuts of meat to test for doneness. A medium rare steak should feel like the web of muscle between the thumb and forefinger. Or like your plump lower lip. Full and filled with appeal.

The Gathering Together Farm kitchen crew has hands that speak of their lives. JC’s ring shines on his left hand as he preps onions for filling, dices veg for roasting, takes apart a pig for charcuterie. Ricky’s hands tell of late night music gigs, endless hours holding a guitar, a banjo, a spatula. Ana’s are feminine, but strong. They bear the pinch marks of the Hobart mixer, and the burns from hot oil that she uses to cook fresh potato donuts. Ben’s are made to make pasta: deft fingers creating classic shapes to impart texture from the old countries.

Here, hands shape, and are shaped by, work.

Greenhouse Planning and Direct Seeding

While agribusiness may rely heavily on cutting edge technology and precision machines, Gathering Together Farm is in a lot of ways old school, using tools and techniques known to farmers for centuries. Joelene’s method of direct seeding in greenhouses showcases a couple of traditional practices that hold their own on our small-ag farm.

Starting back in December, Jolene began the monumental task of scheduling WHAT was going to be planted in WHICH greenhouse (There are no less than 38 of them now) and WHEN. She has a database of greenhouses and their rotation histories that she’s made into a large board with vegetable/fruit-name magnets that she can manipulate into different configurations to help her visually organize her ideas.

Because the GTF greenhouses come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes and each has a different history, she can only plant certain crops in certain houses.  Some greenhouses will be planted with short season greens that will have time to produce and harvest before the ground needs to be prepped for later season greenhouse needs. Some will get early tomatoes and when they’re done, she’ll put in fall/winter crops, quick-to-mature greens, etc.

Because greenhouse space is limited, Joelene prioritizes room for tomatoes (three of four plantings are grown in greenhouses), cucumbers (all of which are grown in greenhouses), eggplant (most of which is grown in greenhouses), and basil (some is grown in greenhouses). There are already two houses full of strawberries and raspberries. She’ll fill in the rest of the houses where time and space allow with other early/late crops of greens, watercress, carrots, potatoes, scallions, radishes, celery, etc.

The preparation for each greenhouse varies also. Some need extra nutrients in the form of gypsum or chicken/rabbit compost. Most are tilled with a small tractor, and then beds are prepared by hand. Greenhouses that will be planted to heat-loving crops will get plastic mulch on the ground, and tomatoes and cucumbers also need trellising. Drip and/or overhead irrigation is already set up in most of the houses, but it often needs a little rerigging or upgrading before it can service young plants appropriately.

Not long after Joelene finalized her full greenhouse rotation schedule and had direct seeded the first few greenhouses, catastrophic flooding hit the farm. When the Marys River receded, greenhouses were left extremely wet and muddy, and most of what was planted had washed away. The high waters also threw a monkey wrench into Joelene’s tightly scheduled plan for greenhouse planting. Joelene took it all in stride, and she made a series of small decisions that will make the best of the farm’s conditions and seasonal timing.

There were four lone greenhouses on the farm that were not flooded, and yesterday Joelene headed out to direct seed one of them. It had previously housed a beautiful potato crop, and after the tubers were pulled, the beds were left intact. While this was convenient because the crew could skip many of the ground preparation rituals, the actual soil was rather chunky and had a top layer of leaf mulch and other organic debris, which were added to enhance soil development. Joelene had planned to plant lettuce for salad mix here, but lettuce germinates best when seeds can be planted almost on top of moist soil. The conditions here just weren’t right because of the rough and dry surface with wet soil only an inch or so below. After deliberating a minute or so, Joelene made a quick switch from lettuce to spinach. This choice meant that she will have to fit in a lettuce planting elsewhere in the next week or so. It also means she’ll have to reconfigure the irrigation in this hoophouse to accomodate three drip irrigation lines per bed instead of overhead watering.

This is Joelene’s seeder. Even though she can drive her seeder tractor into some of the greenhouses, she prefers to direct seed with this relic because she can fit a bigger crop in tighter rows with her push seeder. In this location, she chose to use a disc seeding implement because she thought it would do a better job of cutting into the heavily mulched soil surface.

Here’s the bottom of the seeder unit. It has a dial gauge that regulates spacing of seeds. Each crop is seeded at a different setting, but Joelene has a mental catalog of seed sizing and spacing info in her head.














She fills the hopper with spinach seed.

Inside the hopper, brushes sweep seeds out through the disk implement at a set spacing.

She’s loaded up.

In this case, Joelene not only had to walk up and down the rows 12 times, but in order to get the spinach seeded through the mulch layer, she had to put a good deal of pressure on the seeder frame as she traveled.

After a quick trial, she checked the spacing, depth, and consistency.

Each of the four beds got three rows of spinach. The seeds were embeded deep enough that they’re not visible anymore.

After seeding the whole greenhouse, Joelene tightly shut the door flaps. Today she will go back and cover the beds with floating row cover to add extra heat to the soil. The spinach will be ready for harvest in about two months, and when it’s finished, this greenhouse will get planted with cucumbers in early June.

Without any soil preparations, seeding this greenhouse took about an hour start to finish. There are still over 30 greenhouses to plant in the next few weeks, and many of them will require quite a bit more labor to get them ready. Winter may be a quieter time on the farm, but there is certainly no shortage of work to do.