Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables
Confessions of an Onion Addict (page 2 of 4)
by Jack Ruttle
When it comes to the true onions (Allium cepa), Swenson urges gardeners to grow the kinds that divide in order to multiply--potato onions and shallots. If you save and replant a portion of the crop each year, you can avoid the extra work of growing from seed or the very limited choice available in commercial onion sets. Most multipliers are superb keepers and highly esteemed for cooking, though a few are mild enough for salads. Young plants can be pulled early for scallions, and shallot tops can be cut in spring for chives. Swenson points out that in production trials, potato onions yielded the greatest weight of food per square foot of any vegetable except staked or caged tomatoes.
Shallots and potato onions come in a range of colors (white, yellow, red, pink, and purple), sizes and bulb shapes. Potato onions tend to be flattened spheres, while shallot bulbs tend to be taller. The key distinguishing feature, however, is in how they multiply. A single shallot will always divide to form a cluster over the course of the growing season. Potato onions multiply differently, depending on the size of the bulb you plant. Big bulbs (two to three inches) will produce a cluster of smaller bulbs; small bulbs often just grow into single large bulbs.
It astounds Swenson to think that the potato onion, a valuable and common garden onion a hundred years ago, nearly disappeared from the American gardening scene. About 10 years ago some seed-saving gardeners began to promote the potato onion in gardening magazines, and a few seed companies began to sell it. Today some USDA onion breeders think it's a crop with real promise. The rare varieties, Swenson says, are available only to members of the Seed Savers Exchange, but the varieties that are currently being sold are among the very best.
Shallots have never been as popular in North America, but they've always been easier to obtain than potato onions. In Europe shallots are big business, and have long been available through importers. Swenson's current favorite among shallot varieties is 'Prince du Bretagne', which he gets from wholesalers in Chicago's copious produce market. Each shallot approaches the size of an egg. If you can't find it locally, he recommends trialing the varieties available from seed houses. The gray or true French shallot, he warns, is extremely pungent with a thick, tough outer layer and is best grown for its tender leaves.
Seed onions (A. cepa cepa) began to edge out the multiplying onions over a hundred years ago primarily because they could be increased so economically from seed. And people were drawn to the very large bulbs that seed-grown onions could produce. Today there are hundreds of varieties with a wide range of attributes. Besides being dependably large, meaty and tender, some are exceptional keepers. Others, like the 'Granex' (also known as 'Texas', 'Vidalia', and 'Maui Sweets') for the South and the 'Walla Walla' for the North, are pleasingly mild and juicy.
Swenson admits that the onions one grows from seeds or sets are not among his interests. He doesn't have time to raise onions from seed, and besides, that class of onion is receiving ample attention from a small army of plant breeders. Swenson's onions are the more perennial kinds, the underdogs of the contemporary allium scene.
For people who want to grow the seed-type onions, however, Swenson strongly recommends exploring the wealth of varieties we have today. And that means starting from seeds rather than purchasing sets. Onion sets are just tiny onions of varieties that keep exceptionally well. Growers plant the seed very close so the onions can't get very big. Swenson says you can either plant seed early in a greenhouse or cold frame to get large onions the first year or sow the seed close together outdoors in summer, to produce sets for the varieties you want. Study the seed catalogs closely, he advises, choosing varieties that match your area's day length and have the culinary qualities you favor.