Consider the onion*

*Shameless knockoff of my favorite extended food essay Consider the Oyster by M.F.K. Fisher


Love me, love my family

I posted a couple of days back about long-stored vegetables and their unexpected rewards. (To those of you who’re curious about a list of seeds/varieties, please hold on while I complete it!) I thought one item in particular needed some clarification (thank you, Danielle) and that is the onion. Actually, it is the onion family.

When one begins to consider local eating, one of course assumes this means one should just locally source any one staple item, like onions. If one is growing one’s own food you probably need to just grow a lot of onions. Well, growing a truly local diet does NOT mean I have 100 pounds of storage onions socked away for an entire year!  It means I have storage onions for approximately half the year. The other half of the year we eat our fill of onion-like things. (Go through every kind of vegetable and likely you’ll find the same story for me: early, middle, storage.) Nothing, with the possible exception of parsley, is eaten in the same form year-round. And this, dear reader, is a good thing.

So: It’s April 23, and I have a grand total of 2.28 pounds left of Fedco’s Clear Dawn (OP yellow), Rossa de Milano (OP red), and an unknown white onion. I grew all these in the garden last year and harvested them at the end of July. They’re still firm but a few are getting sprouty. What’s a girl to do, then, to flavor her dinners? Two and a quarter pounds won’t hold us until the end of July!

1. Leeks. Leeks have a far longer season in our garden than onions. I start the seeds indoors with the onions, then transplant them out at the same time. I start a second sowing in the garden, too. Leeks can be harvested out of the garden all winter long, right up to when they’re likely to go to seed in the spring. One can also force leeks into producing thinner, tender shoots by harvesting their seedhead, and I have also done this. I grow a Fedco variety called Bleu de Solaize, which is kind of short, but have also grown King Richard; the latter don’t reliably last through the winter everywhere, though.

2. Potato onions. These are planted shallowly in the ground much like shallots. They bunch up and produce a ton of baby onions. They can perennialize. In colder climates, they may not keep through the winter, but they’re a lesser-known old-fashioned variety of onion that really should be grown more. I grow a variety I got at the feed store. They’re a bit of a pain to peel, but they do in a pinch.

3. Multiplier onions. Similar to potato onions, but with a wilder growth habit: these are also called Egyptian Walking Onions. They top-set readily this spooky looking spider of a set of onions. The spider then weighs itself down and plants itself right in the garden. Reliably, these are the first things that shoot up and grow for me every spring. I am not sure the variety, as I got them as a gift.

4. Perennial (Bunching) scallions. This is an Asian variety of green onion that, well, bunches together and does not form bulbs. You can divide the greens and replant them to form more clumps. I grew them in the greenhouse and used the greens and the whole darned plant stalk. I have two types: Fedco’s Nebuka (white) and Kitazawa’s Red Beard (red). These grew quite easily from seed. I leave them alone in their corner.

5. Chives. Need I say more? I adore chives. They form a happy perennial patch in the herb garden, and require no care.

6. Shallots. Now, here is the easiest thing to grow ever from something you can get at the grocery store. And what’s wonderful about shallots is that, once you have them, you can replant the small or wrinkly ones and thus extend your supply forever. I have never done well growing them from seed, but…from the grocery store? Bingo. They are planted very shallowly. Each shallot will yield a bunch of paired babies. Harvest them when their stems yellow, like most onions.

7. Garlic, green and not. I grow storage garlic (softneck) and I grow eat-it-now-and-die-of-happiness garlic (hardneck, artichoke-type) and I perennialize some nasty stuff that started sprouting on me. So I always have a patch of garlic that I can haul out of the garden and eat. Green garlic is sublime. Hardneck garlic scapes are sublime. Storage garlic is not sublime but is necessary.

8. “Green” onions. Any onion green is a green onion in my book! So atop every salad or every soup is whatever is green and growing.

9. Eat-em-now onions. These are the sweethearts like Walla Walla, Vidalia and cipollini onions. Like early potatoes, there is a short but happy season for these things.

10. Those aforementioned storage onions. Yep, I grow from seed, but I also have been known to purchase seedlings and sets. Sets do not have the reliable storage quality that seed-grown onions have, but they’re readily available and you of course can get them just to keep you in onion greens. The most variety you’ll ever get is if you grow your own from seed. Unfortunately, it’s a long and arduous process. BUT! This time of year, when I have those sprouting onions? I select the prettiest and biggest, and stick it in the garden. It will immediately form a pretty seed head. I let the seeds dry out and then…voila! My own well-grown, well-known seed variety that I know will grow for me and will last.

So: Moral of the onion story: If you can grow your own, don’t stop at storage onions, folks.

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10 responses to “Consider the onion*

  1. What a great essay. You really give me inspiration, and just now, a glow of pride in my own bitty allium garden.
    I have seed heads now; not sure if I’m ready for onion grad school, however.

  2. I really enjoyed – and benefited from – this discussion of onions and their associates. I’m a beginner gardener and have been contemplating shallots and scallions for this first season. As one who cooks Chinese cuisine regularly, I can never have enough scallions and garlic at hand. And shallots? To die for…

    Nice invocation of M.F.K. Fisher.

  3. Thanks so much for posts like this one. I have tons to learn and this sure helps.

  4. CC: Would that I did know enough for onion grad school! Honestly, my first couple of tries at growing my own from seed were pretty pathetic, which is why I brought out reinforcements in any and all other forms of onion out there. It’s insurance.

    Susan: Yep, if you do a lot of Chinese or Asian food, then bunching shallots are the way to go. Coincidentally, Barbara Damrosch published a column this week about the same thing. I love that woman.

    Michelle, we all start somewhere! I never ventured much beyond onion sets and garlic bulbs until I moved out here.

  5. I love it – and if you can’t grow your own – keep a sharp eye out at the farmers market like I do, and you’ll find them all in all of their seasonal glory! Yum yum yum!

  6. I just posted a small bit about the wild onions we have growing throughout the yard! They are no where near the size of other’s but being wild, I can dig em up throughout the year for cooking. I gave them their own bed this year. Transplanted the tightly grown clumps into a spacier spot. If you would want to try your hand at some, let me know and i can send you out a good bunch. They multiply like crazy! Last year I put a few in the bed and they have 3 times more bulbs. Now to see how big they will get with an inch spacing..
    FYI- I am in Ohio, so they are winter hardy.

  7. Hayden: I thought it was absolutely crazy that here in the Fruit Belt there are next to no farmers’ markets! Can you believe that? And the ones that are here are…not exactly inventive affairs. So before you move back, you should practice your DIY skillz!

    Tammie, how funny. We of course have them too. I only experimented with them the first year we moved in: they were so HARD and even after long cooking they never cooked down! Of course their greens used as chives are fine. But, did you find that with your own wild ones? That they’re little white pebbles of onioniness?

  8. great info El!! I grow several rows of onions, and shallots are great, 1 or 2 are perfect for a meal. Leeks, hmmm… need to grow those!

  9. Well Stacie get busy with the seeds then! Otherwise Territorial Seeds still has plants on order: check it out here

    http://www.territorialseed.com/product/1348/s

    Harris Seed also has plants.

  10. I dice them up. I have not experienced the hardness- yet. Now I will have to go out and munch one whole just to see…

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