The Humble Onion

I love onions. One of my tricks when I spent the day reading and forgot to start dinner was as soon as I heard my husband’s car in the driveway I would jump up; whack a cast iron pan on the stove, turn it on high, add olive oil and onion. By the time he stepped over the threshold he invariably said,” Something smells good!” I responded, “Just a few more minutes!” Onions save the day! Honestly, how anyone can resist their sweetness is beyond me.

Now I know onions aren’t the most expensive vegetable in the grocery store but since we eat so many of them I’d like the cleanest chemical –free ones we can get. No better way to do that than grow them yourself. You see the sets in all the hardware stores and garden centers in the spring. These are an easy alternative and one I took advantage of as a young gardener. Sets are simply onions seeds that are planted so close together literally to stunt their growth. They are then harvested, dried, and sold as sets. The next time they are planted their growth continues. But just like some plants that are root bound never fully recover, onions grown this way don’t always reach their full potential. Some just can’t break that dormancy and never grow at all. Another way to grow onions, which I have also tried; is by buying plants. These plants, usually grown in the south, are pulled up and sent through the mail. They are sent dried and as still alive are more consistently successful than sets, though are certainly stressed in the process. The lengths to which onions growers go to sell you these started plants sends the message that you can’t do it yourself. This is just not true. Growing onions from seed is easy and productive. I live in upstate NY and garden in Zone 4b/5a. I have successfully grown onions from seed for years. It does require staring seeds indoors or better yet in a cold frame. They don’t mind the chill. Packages recommend starting onion seeds in February. While this would be ideal, I have had success seeding them directly in the garden as late as May 1st, Admittedly they aren’t as big but I seek only to show you planting from seed isn’t hard or mysterious.

I follow Elliot Coleman’s suggestion of planting onions in groups of 5-6 and spacing these groups a foot apart from each other. This makes weeding between the clumps so much easier. The onions grow outward with no reduction in overall size at maturity.

When you harvest leeks and onions leave a few behind. The bulb will flower the second year. The resulting flower will rival any Allium bulb from the Dutch bulb catalogs. Tall spikes, some varieties grow to 5 feet, are topped with stunning white or steel blue spheres. These flowers have the added benefit of attracting dozens of beneficial insects. Seeds will develop from the flowers and will self-sow if left to their own devices. You can cut the flower before they drop and dry it upside down in an airy location out of direct sunlight. If picked before the seeds develop the resulting dried flower can be striking in dried arrangements. Alternately, you can collect the seed to plant next year. To do this, timing is key; you want the seeds to be as mature as possible but not yet dropping. Again, dry upside down in the same conditions as above but secure a lunch size brown paper bag with a rubber band around the flower to catch the seeds as they drop. It may not breed true if other varieties were around to cross-pollinate. The results can be a pleasant surprise and are worth a corner of the garden if you have the room. Seed saving is also an economical plan if funds are limited. Many fine old varieties would have been lost if not for some frugal gardeners.

~ Kat

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