Tag Archive: allium


Oh, Onions.

Ode To The Onion 
by Pablo Neruda
Onion,
luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
happened
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
make you,
onion
clear as a planet
and destined
to shine,
constant constellation,
round rose of water,
upon
the table
of the poor.You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
unmoving dance
of the snowy anemoneand the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.
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Red Soldier Beetles making sweet, sweet love on an onion flower.

What would our meals be without onions? Like a kiss without a hug, I say! Sure, it lacks the structural necessity of eggs, or the  essential savour of salt, it’s not like you couldn’t live without the onion, I suppose.  But who wants to??  Cook up a pan of onions, and it already smells like FOOD in the kitchen, you pull drifters off the sidewalk and husbands from the yard, sell boy scout hot dogs by the pound, all because of the delicious smell of onions.  Now, I won’t go into the cookery of them (other than to say you can’t caramelize an onion in ten minutes no matter what anyone tells you so don’t try…) because that’s not my wheelhouse.  Nope, I’m going to talk about
growing them.
So, why can’t you grow big, fat onions like the grocery store sells?  WHY?? Onions are actually tough bastards.  Anyone can grow an onion and they’ll probably be okay no matter how terrible a gardener you are. But big, fat, juicy, resplendent onions luscious as the globes of a lingerie model’s bottom?  That’s trickier.
Firstly, onions grow in layers, which I’m sure you figured out already, but may not have realized that each leaf corresponds to one of those crystalline shells. If you have 12 leaves you get 12 rings.  Fat juicy healthy leaves make-well, you get the picture. Those leaves will transfer their carbohydrates into the bulb, making that sucker plump up- this is the ‘bulbing’ stage. After that starts no more leaves will be produced. So before you get to the big fat onion satisfaction part, you have to grow the top bits as big and green and leafy as possible.
So how d’you do that?  First, we must begin with where you live and what kind of onion you’re going to grow. We’re talking about Allium cepa here, the bulbing or common onion.  I’ll save the other members of the family for another post.
There’s short day, intermediate, and long day onions.  Which one will do the best for you depends mainly on your latitude, and a little bit on how early you get started. The goal is to pick a variety that gives you as long as possible to grow as many large leaves prior to bulbing. The variety, however, must not require so many hours of day length that your area will not reach the bulbing threshold needed to trigger the start of the bulbing process. In the Northern Hemisphere, the farther you are from the equator, the longer the days will be during the summer and, therefore, the longer period that you have to create foliage. In general, long day types are better keepers than short day types.
So essentially, if you live above 35th parallel of latitude you want long day onions, below it you want short day onions.  If you’re right on it, within a few degrees, there’s intermediates. Or you can try an intermediate pretty much anywhere as they start bulbing when the day length reaches 12 to 14 hours. Almost all areas of the country reach that range of day length.
SO which ones are those, Miz Helpful, right? I won’t be cruel and tell you that your nursery knows best and will automatically carry the ones best suited.  They might, but many companies are terrible at being specific about their onions.  For instance we get bags of sets listed as ‘red’ ‘white’ and ‘yellow’. Gee, thanks a lot. There’s too many damn onions to give you a really full and complete list but here goes with some of the most popular:
Short Day Onions:
Georgia Sweet (aka Yellow Granex, Maui, Noonday)
Texas Legend, Texas Early White, Texas Grano ( if it says “Texas“, it’s probably a short day, ok?)
Red Creole
Vidalia
Southern Belle
Red Burgundy
1015 Supersweet
Contessa
Pinot Rouge
Mata Hari
Rio Bravo
Milky Way
Intermediate Onions:
Candy
Super Star
Red Candy Apple
Cimmaron
Australian Brown
White Portugal
Southport Yellow Globe
Southport Red Globe
Early Yellow Globe
Italian Red
Flat Madiera
Rich Sweet White/Yellow Exhibition
Rossa Di Milano
Red Ruby
Red Amposta
Balajo
White Wing
Zoey
Long Day Onions:
Red Torpedo (borderline intermediate)
Ailsa Craig
Kelsae (if you’re trying to grow huge prizewinners, this is your onion.)
Spanish
Walla Walla
Copra
Highlander
Red River
Red Zeppelin
Red Bull
Cipollini
Big Daddy
Cometa
Calibra
Cabernet
So, aside from planting the correct type of onion, what else?  Fertilizing.
Nitrogen.
I know they’re growing under the ground, which means we tend to go heavy on the phosphorus as if it were a potato or beet, but onions actually like a very healthy dose of nitrogen, more like leaf crops.  See, we’re growing leaves to grow the bulb, right?  You want a very fertile soil overall to grow big onions, they are heavy feeders.  However, excess N applications can result in late maturity, large necks that are difficult to cure, soft bulbs, and poor storage quality. A higher percentage of fertilizer N is absorbed by the plant if the fertilizer is applied when the onion root system is well developed. Split applications of nitrogen are used more effectively by the plant than a single pre-plant broadcast application. Fertilizer N applied before planting should be banded well away (6″) from the seed on the furrow side of rows in two-row onion beds. Side dressed nitrogen applications or nitrogen applied in irrigation water can be an effective means of providing supplemental nitrogen to the crop during the season. If rainfall is very heavy, or temperatures are cool, you may want to increase it a little as both of these things will decrease available nitrogen.  Back off the nitrogen applications in mid July.  Too much delays maturity and affects storage quality. My favourite organic high nitrogen fertilizer is blood meal.  You can side dress with it and/or water it in, and it keeps the rabbits and deer away from new greens nicely.
Phosphorus is essential for early growth and best applied before planting, banded 2″ below and to the side of seeds.  That way the rather stubby roots can get to it easily. Bat and bird guano is about the best source possible, rock phosphate is pretty good, bone meal is too slow unless it’s powdered. Fish emulsion or meal is just about perfect if it’s around 4.2.2. or 5.2.2.
Potassium isn’t a huge need in most soils, but it is needed, and as long as your soil isn’t alkaline, a sprinkling of wood ash in the soil before planting is great for onions.  (From a nice clean fire obviously, not one you threw plastic wrappers or garbage into because eeeew.) You could also use greensand, granite dust, banana peels (composted), & kelp.
Magnesium.  Epsom salts is not a magic cure for everything- but in this case, it can be really helpful as onions need a decent amount of it, and in the PNW where I live, soils are often magnesium poor. Acid sandy soils often need a little extra.
Sulphur.  Since sulphur is what gives onions their characteristic smell and taste (And tear-inducing qualities) it stands to reason that they need a good dose of available sulphur. Careful with it though, as sulphates acidify soil and onions like it on the sweet side. If you use flowers of sulphur on your soil do it well in advance of planting as soil bacteria can take up to a year to convert it into a form that plants can use.  Plus you’ll get a big bounce in pH as it works that can be hard to keep track of. Kitchen veg scrap compost generally has plenty.
Irrigation: Onions usually have smallish root systems, (although very loose soil can help them grow much bigger,) so attention to irrigation is absolutely necessary for big juicy onions. There’s lots of veg you can force into growing huge deep roots to compensate for less frequent watering, but onions are not one of them. Also, maintaining an even soil moisture is important in reducing incidence of double-centred bulbs. Moisture at the very top of the soil is quite important, so a good mulch (I like straw) is helpful if not essential.  Onions also do not do well with competition from weeds, so- mulch.  You can quit watering when the green tops fall over, which means the onions are imminently ready to come out.
Seeds or Sets?
Most people do buy onion sets, (Those mesh bags with teeny little onions in them) because it’s easy and they’re widely available. Technically, sets are second year plants and they can flower instead of growing a nice bulb if not treated well, or if you get a solid drop in temperature after they start to grow. But hey, if you’re late to the game and feel like the spring is definitely sprung, go for it. I like to know what I’m growing and they are quite often inadequately labelled. I prefer, if I remember to do it early enough, to grow from seed. It is also ridiculously cheap. Your nursery will probably carry young onions ‘in the green’ in pots in spring, looking quite a lot like tufts of grass and those are just fine too. Separate them!  Each little onion needs some space to become a nice big bulb. 4-5 inches apart is good.
Starting Seed
Do it early. February or March is about right for spring sowing.  You can also do it Octoberish if you have very mild weather and plan on planting in fall, or a great growing area indoors to overwinter them in. It’s a good idea to use fresh sterilized starter mix to be on the safe side.  I have also completely disobeyed this rule and been fine. Worm castings enhance germination and I like using them in my starter mix to start seeds.  This is anything but sterile.  It also complicates things, in that any seeds in the castings already will germinate and grow like crazy, so you might have to weed it a bit and that can be irritating (and confusing if you have grass seed germinate).  So- duly warned, make your choice.
Bottom heat is extremely helpful to get even, fast germination of seeds (not just with onions, with pretty much everything.) Onion germination is fastest as 68-77°F (20-25°C), with slight temperature drops at night. You can cheat if you don’t have seed warming mats by putting trays on top of the refrigerator.  Put tops on the trays or put them in a bag so the moisture stays even- in just over a week you should have sprouts. After they sprout though, you need some light.  A couple of fluorescents are totally adequate for this. Seedlings are ready to transplant to larger containers (or possibly outside, with protection like reemay or row covers if you have an early spring) when they have three leaves each. If it is too cold out- definitely wait! Consistent exposure to temperatures below 50°F (10°C) for more than 10 days can cause onions to bolt (produce flowers) rather than producing big bulbs.
Planting out
Not too deep!  The neck of the bulb should be just under the surface. Space 4-5 inches apart for large onions, you can crowd if you just want green onions. Make sure you’ve banded your fertilizer or soil amendment into the soil before planting. Mulch to suppress weeds, or sow some fast growing greens like lettuces, something you plan on pulling/cutting young so it doesn’t shade out the onions too much.
How MANY?
Important question- if you’re going to try to grow all your onions for a year, how many would you grow? Average consumption is somewhere around twenty lbs. per person, per year.  Assuming you do a good job you can expect 10-15 lbs per 10 ft. row. Always expect lower than average yields to be on the safe side.  You have no idea what’s coming your way. So if you really want to be hedging your bets with extra onions to give away or french onion soup all winter, twenty feet per person!
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This year the weather seems to be putting those of us in the Pacific Northwest in our place.  Normally, it’s we who are envied and hated in February or March, lording it over the rest of the latitude and parading about in shorts and sandals.  Well, not so this year. It’s been that chill-to-the-bone 2 degrees over to 2 degrees under sort of wet torture and I tell you, I can’t wait until it’s over with. Some plants have made it through surprisingly well despite the cold, since it hasn’t been TOO cold- like Onions.  I try to do something that is in evidence in the garden or at least soon will be, and one of the few things that seems to be growing in spite of the slush and hail is the onions.  Chives are well up, obviously making good time on the rare days it goes above 6 degrees, the red and Spanish Onions are making firm advances, and The Walking Onions never went away.

If you’ve never heard of Walking Onion, you may have heard another name for it instead.  It may masquerade as Egyptian Onion, Tree Onion, Winter Onion, or Topset Onion, depending on who you ask. Even the latin binomials can get you into trouble- you might find it as allium cepa var. proliferum, var. viviparum, var. bulbiferum…whatever you prefer to call it, genomic evidence has conclusively shown that they are a hybrid of the common onion (A. cepa) and the Welsh onion(A. fistulosum). Personally, that’s all I really need to know- there’s no mistaking it when you see it!

The history of this onion is a bit muddled with heresay and myth, as any plant with a long and convoluted journey will be.  Word has it that the name ‘Egyptian Onion’ actually originated with the gypsies that were said to have transported across Europe with them, not necessarily with the country of Egypt.  Egyptians definitely had the common onion, A.cepa, but the cross of A. fistulosum comes out of Asia.  Just to really mess you up, the Welsh Onion (A. fistulosa) isn’t Welsh at all. “Welsh” preserves the original meaning of the Old English word “welisc”, or Old German “welsche”, meaning “foreign”. To confuse the issue even further, a specimen of this unique onion variety came to the attention of Frenchman Jacques Dalechamp, in his country in 1587. I have to assume this means it was noted in his magnum opus,  Historia generalis plantarum which listed 2731 plants from his personal experience, near Lyon in France. This variety was ‘officially’ introduced into Great Britain in 1820 from Canada. Which is odd considering the French obviously knew about it more than 200 years before that.  Historians have been puzzled to see the tree onion, along with the Welsh onion, growing wild in North America. I’ve even seen claims that it originated here-probably due to garden escapees, since neither parent plant is native to North America.  Here’s my own pet theory: this hybrid onion was likely in common use by the time the Romans came to Britain, since one parent is from the Middle East, and one from Asia- it seems very likely to me that, since the common Roman did eat plenty of onions and Rome itself being a nexus of trade for Europe, the cross may have occurred during that period. Onions being an easily packed and stored staple, it would have been transported everywhere the Roman army marched, which covers a lot of ground. From Spain, Chris Columbus transported onions to Haiti in 1492-93. Subsequent settlements brought them over again -according to diaries of colonists, bulb onions were planted as soon as the Pilgrim fathers could clear the land in 1648. They don’t mention which onions, of course, but the hybrid vigor and easy transport of bulblets from the Walking Onion make it a likely candidate. Spreading from there it could have been rediscovered inCanada and brought toBritain once again. The Walking Onion has almost literally walked it’s way around the world.

The name ‘Walking Onion” comes from its habit of bending over with the weight of the bulblets at the top which then root and form new plants.  It can be so funky looking, sometimes with onions growing yet smaller onions, and those growing yet smaller ones out of that, all curling crazily every which way- you might want it as a curiosity even if you hate onions. Walking Onions are a strongly flavoured onion variety, but the bulbs, greens, and bulblets can all be eaten, and the bulblets are particularly nice to use for pickling or like shallots. This onion is very cold hardy and in milder climates can be picked most of the year (Although in late summer it generally dies down until the weather gets cooler, only a few weeks break.) In areas with more severe winters it could be grown under row covers to prolong the harvest, otherwise it’s one of the first things to make an appearance in the spring garden. These Onions can survive freezing cold winters with temperatures plummeting well below-24°F! They are hardy to zone 3.

Growing Some

Onions-any onions-can be heavy feeders in the garden, although they will survive in harsh conditions with less than ideal soil, you certainly won’t get as much from them that way.  Rich garden soil with plenty of organic matter worked into it and good drainage with plenty of sun exposure is, as usual, the key to getting lots of large, quality vegetables or bulbs.  Onions are perfect for tucking into the garden when you harvest something else, it’s easy to keep some extra sets (bulblets) in the shed to fill in gaps.  (I’ve stored these onions as sets for 2+ years, much longer than you’re supposed to, and they grew just fine when planted, finally.)  Onions-all onions-are great companions for a wide range of plants.  Roses may love garlic, but they love onions too, planting some in your rose garden may increase the perfume, (alliums concentrate sulphur and sulphur improves rose fragrance,) ward off aphid infestations and repel the dreaded black spot.  Actually, if you really want to combat fungal diseases like powdery mildew and black spot, you’re best off chopping up an onion and soaking it in water overnight, adding a drop of mild soap, then spraying the leaves with it directly.  The mild sulphur in the mix is fungicidal and antibacterial and in my experience, works very well.  Its very confusing odour plays insects for fools, and may help protect other crops from routine infestations. Onions partner well with fruit trees, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and other brassicas, and carrots.  They don’t grow well with legumes or parsley.

Getting Some

Now here’s the tricky part.  I’ve never seen Walking Onion in a regular garden center.  Usually even the fancy types are not labelled well, even in a fancy full color package where you’d expect it.  (Like the ‘red’ garlic I was looking at-seriously?  There’s maybe a hundred types of red garlic-thanks a lot~!) It can be ordered off the web, although you will get bulblets and never seeds, since it rarely sets seed at all.  This is an ideal plant to find at a plant trade or swap session, looking in yards and asking nicely for a handful of sets, or asking around your gardening friends.  So get out there and talk to someone who loves their onions.