Dirty Business: Swiss Chard, Onions and Leeks

I had a beautiful, sunny, but not-too-hot Saturday to get a bunch of work done.  The vast majority of it involved planting an obscene about of onions and leeks, but we’ll get there soon enough.  The first thing I did was direct seed the remaining Swiss chard seeds in the garden.  These can go in as soon as the ground can be worked.  These aren’t quite a cold crop because they will produce throughout the summer, but they are rather frost tolerant like most cold crops.  Anyway, the first thing I did was turn the soil in the spot where the seeds were going to be, pH tested it (right on the money), then smoothed the ground out with the back side of a rake.  Then I simply scattered the seeds on the ground and brushed soil over the top.

If you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to miss them, so I put a little red arrow in the upper-left corner which is pointing at one of the seeds.  We use the wide-row planting method designed by Dick Raymond (mentioned in the first post) for crops like this, as well as the onions and leeks.  There’s really no reason to plant things like this in single-file.  Wide-row planting also helps with soil and weed maintenance.  For Swiss chard, it keeps the soil from drying out too quickly, and it also chokes out the weeds.  I’ll get to the benefits to the soil for onions and leeks in a bit.

Onions can be grown one of three ways:  from seed, from sets (which are little dormant onion bulbs) and from starter plants, which are exactly what they sound like.  Starting onions from seed is an exercise in despair, and Johnny’s doesn’t sell sets, so we order starter plants.  For Leeks, those can either be done from seed or starter plants.

Last year was our first big experiment with onions.  We’d been planting leeks for a few years with good results so decided to give the onions a shot and see if we could make them work.  They worked so well that we had two huge braids of onions hanging in our basement until just a few weeks ago when I had to buy the first (and only) bag of onions from the store.  So, when we were getting our onion order ready for this year, Mrs. Butcher said we should order two bundles of each of the starter plants this year instead of one bundle each.  I pointed out to her that we do not have the space for that many onions.  She assured me that we did.  I was not even remotely convinced but decided to go along.

We ordered the onions and leeks to be delivered during the same week as the strawberries, but Louis DeJoy had other plans.  The onions and leeks didn’t arrive for another full week after the strawberries and by the time they arrived, they were showing quite a bit of strain from being wrapped together in the box for so long.  They come in bundles of about 50-60 plants each, which are wrapped together with a rubber band, so the greens were starting to rot a little bit.  The first thing I had to do was immediately separate them all out on a pan and put them in a cool dry place so they could dry out a little bit and stay dormant.

So, for those keeping score, that is roughly 250 plants between those three trays.  That’s a lot of plants and I was already starting to recognize that we wouldn’t have nearly enough room for them based on our garden plan.  On the left are the leeks, the center are the red onions and the left are the yellow onions.  We order hard storage onions, rather than sweets because the sweets won’t store for as long as we need them to.  If you’re unsure whether a particular onion variety is a hard storage type or not, there should be some indication on the website or package if shopping in a physical store.  After almost a week they were looking better and were ready to go in the ground.

I pH tested the ground and found that, while both areas were in the acceptable range, the spot where the onions are going was on the low end of the range (6.3), while the leeks were on the high end (6.7), so this will be a nice little natural experiment to see which ones respond better to the soil over the course of the season.  Then I turned the soil with a shovel (because there’s no way to run a tiller through our garden) and used the back side of a rake to even it out. 

Now, again, the common guidance for spacing is not what we’re doing here.  First, the onions are going to be planted in a wide row, and second, they will be planted much closer together than what is typically recommended.  I’m planting these roughly 2 inches apart, and staggering the lines so I can make the most use of the space.  The reason why this works is because we don’t harvest the onions all at once—if that was the plan, then I would certainly plant them further apart.  What we do instead is we start harvesting the onions pretty much as soon as they are usable, by pulling every other onion.  They are little more than scallions at that point, so we wind up pulling several at a time, but that’s a feature not a bug.  By harvesting in this way, we are able to aerate the soil which helps the bulbs grow more easily for those onions which stay in the ground.

The actual planting is pretty routine.  For the onions, they require a fairly shallow planting, so I stick my thumb in the ground, making the holes every two inches apart.  Then I simply place a single starter plant in each hole, and firm up the soil around them.

It looks pretty haphazard, but trust me, these are all pretty well organized and the lines are staggered nicely.  Here’s what the onion row looks like from a different angle:

First, now you can see why we can’t use a tiller in our garden beds.  Second, you can see the garlic in the background.  They are the deeper green, and taller, shoots.  Of the onions, half of them are reds and half are yellows.  But—and here’s the problem—those just represent one bunch of each type.  I still have another full bunch of reds and yellows to plant.  When Mrs. Butcher got home and I informed her of our predicament, she said, “we’ll figure something out.”  Of course, “we” actually means me.

Eisenhower once made a comment along the lines of “plans are often useless, but planning is indispensable.”  We make a garden plan each year when we get ready to place our order with Johnny’s.  It almost never goes exactly as we initially planned, but it does allow us to have a good visual so we can make adjustments quickly.  In this case, I had to completely take over the parsley bed (the parsley will get planted with the peppers like we did last year).  The cabbage bed now has a bunch of onions in it—but more spread out so there is actually room when transplanting the cabbage takes place; and roughly half of the asparagus bed now has onions in it.  That’s the real crap shoot here because I have no idea where most of those asparagus stalks are going to come up so there’s a better than average chance that some of those onions are going to get pushed out of the ground.  Needless to say, I will not agree to get so many onion plants again next year.

Planting leeks is a slightly different process.  They are still planted two inches apart, in staggered lines, and are harvested throughout the season.  But they need to go much deeper in the ground so that only about an inch of the plant pokes up out of the ground.  For this purpose, I use the handle of a small hand rake and made all the holes in the leek bed, then filled the rest of the asparagus bed.  Here’s the other difference:  after placing a leek in each hole, I don’t firm the soil around each plant.  Instead, nature will take its course with rain and the soil naturally forming around each plant which will allow them to self-blanch.  As the season goes on and the plants get taller, I’ll add some more soil around them so that the white portion of the leeks will get longer.  Normally, this kind of hilling would be done with a hoe to bring the dirt up in little hills, but I can’t do that in these narrow beds so I’ll have to pull the soil from elsewhere and then gently pour it around the leeks.  Anyway, here’s how the main leek bed looks:

As you can see…it’s hard to see the leeks because they’re barely above the dirt line.  Lots of white sweet potato and leek soup in our future.

I finished by giving everything a good soaking with water mixed with fish emulsion.

We were just in a garden center to pick up some peat pots and saw there are still plenty of onion sets still on the shelves, so if you’d like to give this a shot it looks like you’re right on time.

About butcherbakertoiletrymaker 557 Articles
When you can walk its length, and leave no trace, you will have learned.


  1. I agree that scattering seed (sounds Old Testament-y) makes a lot of sense. As far as I can tell the big advantage of neat rows and spacing is it makes weed seedlings easier to identify.
    I got my little raised bed reloaded with soil and salad green seeds planted yesterday. But we’re already starting to see the first crop of 17 year cicadas. A bunch of holes in the lawn and I saw my first nymph. May will be busy.

    • Normally, when we scatter seed, it’s much more densely packed because there’s more seed to use.  This, in turn, is how the weeds get choked out because they just can’t compete.  This little patch of dirt for the Swiss chard has more gaps than usual because there wasn’t much seed left. 

  2. Made a fucking fantastic curry which included the second head of bok choy I harvested. Only 4 heads left, but seeing as I live alone I feel like a ratio of 1/week is a solid way to enjoy it. 

    Also Costco has tomato plants that are 3 feet tall for $13. So now I have a lovely healthy Better Boy to put in a raised bed once I build it. I was hoping to do the raised bed today, but 6 hours of rain have scuppered that plan. 

  3. Also, with the leeks – did you need to do soil amendments to make it a sandier soil? I thought leeks needed sandier soil but I don’t remember why I think that beyond probably soaking them after purchasing to get the sand out. 

    • Generally speaking, leeks don’t like sandy soil as much as onions do because leeks are heavy feeders so need soil that is quite fertile.  However, as you’ll see throughout the season this year, I’m not exactly a by-the-book gardener.  Our available dirt is very limited so we do the best we can with what we have.  We do throw a bunch of several-year-old horse manure in there every Fall to let it season over the winter, and everything seems to have responded very well to that.

  4. I’ve already harvested and eaten all of my kale. The caterpillars were riddling them full of holes, so harvested it all as baby kale. The red chard is doing well and is a nice medium size now. Radishes too. My tomato plants are mostly still 2” or so tall, except for one that popped up on its own from last year’s fallen fruit. That one has grown like crazy and is probably 9” tall! I can’t seem to get photos to work in comments, so words will have to do

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