Let’s face it: When it comes to crops for the vegetable garden, onions are one of the least sexy things you can grow.
Garlic, it seems, is the most vivacious and interesting member of the allium family. Nobody gets excited about the lowly onion like they do their heirloom tomatoes or half-runner beans.
There aren’t boards on Pinterest dedicated to favorite onion recipes or pretty onion displays that you can re-create yourself if you have an inordinate amount of creativity, time or money.
No, the onion is not the most revered of vegetables, but our food would be pretty bland without it. Maybe it’s time we took a closer look at the lowly bulb and gained a greater appreciation for it.
Of course, onions have not always been on the bottom of the list when it comes to vegetables. Ancient Egyptians swore oaths with their hand on an onion due to the spherical shape of the onion representing eternity and spiritual wholeness.
In Europe, Africa and northern Asia, the practice of cromniomancy was a divination technique using onions to discern everything from the weather forecast to romantic choices. To choose between two potential mates, the name of each would be carved on an onion. The onion that sprouted first would bear the name of the diviner’s true love.
Who needs a matchmaker or online dating when all you really need is a good sack of Vidalias?
First off, when I say the word “onion,” you probably think of the type you find on the grocery shelves — Vidalia, Walla Walla or some nameless yellow, white or red variety. These onions (Allium cepa) are the most commonly grown onions. The world of onions, though, is much more diverse and much more interesting than that.
There are bunching onions, perennial multiplier onions and even walking onions. And let’s not forget about the rest of the family members! There are leeks, shallots and garlic — just to name a few.
The bulb onion that most folks commonly use is a biennial plant, meaning that it will live two years. In the second year, the onion will bloom and die at the end of the season. When you plant these onions, starting them from seeds will give you the two full years of growth. Starting them from the little sets you buy at the garden center will cut the life down to one year, since they have already had one year of growth.
My reason for discussing onions in the fall, though, is not for these common, everyday onions that are planted in the spring here. There are much more interesting onions that should be planted right now. These onions aren’t biennial like their common bulbous cousins — they are perennials that come back year after year. The two perennial onions that are commonly grown are the “multiplier” or “potato” onion and the Egyptian walking onion.
Known by a multitude of names, these “winter onions” are planted in the fall just like common flower bulbs such as tulips and daffodils.
Once they start growing in the spring, their tender green shoots are harvested as green onions. While the bulbs are edible, it’s good to save most of them for seed in the coming year, since they are perennial and will regrow.
The multiplier/potato onions form clusters of irregular bulbs up to three inches in diameter. These bulbs can be dug up in late summer when the greens die back, separated and replanted in October for the next year.
Early on in my career, I have to admit that I was bewildered when someone called my office and asked if I knew where to find “tater onions.”
The Egyptian walking onion gets its name from its multiplying behavior. The onion will send up a stem that holds several small bulbils that will grow into new plants. Once the bulbils get heavy enough, the stem will fall over and new plants will grow from the bulbils. This behavior makes it looks like the onions are spreading in steps, hence their “walking” name.
It is usually hard to find starts for these onions locally, so check out garden catalogs to order them. Several heirloom catalogs carry them, but I will warn you that they often sell out early. I bought mine from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange last year, but I’ve also seen them in a few other catalogs like Territorial Seed Co.
In addition to the perennial onions and garlic, it is also time to plant their “gourmet” relative, the shallot. Shallots are also perennials that can be replanted year after year. With shallots you collect the larger bulbs produced in the cluster and use the smaller ones to replant.
And don’t think that fall is the only time for perennial onions. You can sow seeds of Japanese bunching onions in the spring as well. They grow in clumps, if left undisturbed, and you can harvest fresh green onions through most of the year.
And while I know that onions aren’t the most exciting things to grow, adding these interesting relatives to your garden can be rewarding and give your dishes great flavor throughout the year.