Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Confessions of an Onion Addict

by Jack Ruttle


If it weren't for Dutch elm disease, John Swenson's garden would probably still be a shady place given over to cool lawn, several viburnum bushes, and a collection of spring-flowering bulbs. But when the disease killed the seven large trees that sheltered his yard, the sun poured in and John's approach to gardening took an unexpected turn. Fourteen years later, what began as a flirtation with vegetable gardening has turned into a passion for onions. His collection of edible onions (Allium species) includes potato onions, shallots, garlic, rocambole, leeks, elephant garlic, top onions, various species of chives, and much more. Swenson grows more than a thousand varieties, making it one of the largest in North America.

Big collections rarely look like gardens. In mid-spring this year Swenson's patch in the suburbs north of Chicago looked like an Arlington National Cemetery for mice, with fog from Lake Michigan scarcely a hundred yards to the east rolling eerily across the hundreds of rows of small white markers. Among the 20 or so raised beds, there was a healthy stand of red raspberries, but not a speck of room for other vegetables.

And this wasn't even the whole collection, Swenson told me. Many of the shallots have gone north to the care of onion-breeder friends at the University of Wisconsin, and Swenson has begun farming out clusters of varieties of other sorts of alliums to members of the Seed Savers Exchange. Usually he plants a kitchen garden among all the onions, but this year there wasn't much point in that, since he spent the heart of the summer in the mountains of central Eurasia. There, with a small group of USDA onion breeders, he collected ancient strains of this valuable and pungent group of plants.

Swenson's interest in alliums awakened the first year he put in the vegetable garden. One catalog specialized in exotic varieties from Europe. In it Swenson discovered not just one kind of shallot, but three. He got all of them. And there was something called rocambole, a mystery plant.

"The catalog said something like 'we don't know whether this is a garlic or a shallot, but it's good and only $3 for 25 little bulbs.' I was intrigued and just had to have some. I planted it and became fascinated.

"I planted the tiny bulbs in spring right after the order arrived, and when the tops died down I dug them and found little solid rounds. As a long-time tulip grower, I recognized them as immature bulbs. So I replanted them that fall to see what they would do. The next year it became obvious the plants would get very big. In June, when the scapes (flower stalks) appeared, they got taller and taller and then all of a sudden took a turn toward the ground. I thought it had some loathsome disease, but then it wound up again, made a turn and a half, and straightened out once more. It was just doing its thing; nobody knows why rocambole does this. Then, when I thought it was going to flower, it began to produce a cluster of little bulbils at the top, just like the ones I had been sent originally.

"When I dug the plants, I realized that what I had was garlic, plain and simple. If the seedsman or I had just looked up rocambole in the dictionary, we would have been told as much. But sometimes it's better to learn by doing. Anyway, the nice thing about rocambole is that all the cloves in a bulb are clustered around the stalk like the segments of a tangerine. There are no little, nasty-to-peel ones in the middle like you often get with regular garlic. Plus, you get replacements for planting on the tops. When you plant the bulbils in spring, as I did at first, you get the little rounds. But when you plant in fall, you get bulbs with cloves."

Garlic remains one of Swenson's prime passions. A current project involves selecting and propagating strains of garlic that produce only large cloves the way rocambole does. Ordinary garlic does not regularly produce bulbils on top like rocambole, though some strains will bolt if they're under stress, growing a short stem topped by a cluster of bulbils. Nonbolting garlics, Swenson has found, are much better keepers.

But most strains of garlic are nonuniform, containing a wide range of types. In one 50-pound sack of garlic, Swenson was able to find about half a dozen distinct and desirable bulb types. Some were golf ball-sized bulbs with only five large cloves, four around the outside and just one in the middle. Others were really big bulbs with 8 to 10 large cloves each.

The advantage to big bulbs is that they're a lot less work for the cook, and Swenson feels that it will be fairly easy to get strains of garlic that produce only easy-peelers. He finds that garlic comes true, which means that any gardener can get good results planting cloves from the best supermarket bulbs. Locale can change the way a strain of garlic can perform, however. One of his correspondents in Oregon has two gardens, one a thousand feet higher than the other. He's found that a strain that produces six or eight cloves per bulb at the higher altitude will yield a bulb of the same size but with 12 or so smaller cloves in the valley.

A popular way to grow garlic in China, Swenson tells me, is to plant the cloves close together and deep, either in spring or fall. When the plants reach about eight inches tall, dig them and eat them, leaves and all--the flavor will be mild.

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