In the midst of this pandemic, many more people than usual are planting vegetables in home gardens. And they’re spending more time and more money doing so. In a typical year, one in three households in America grows some type of vegetables, and they spend billions of dollars doing so. This summer, those numbers will surely be much higher.
In this column, I have written extensively about gardening in the Pee Dee region. Do an internet search for SCNOW homesteading, and you’ll find links to dozens of articles. This week, I’m going to discuss an often-overlooked crop, but one that is simple to grow and indispensable in cooking. I’m talking about the humble onion.
Onions are one of the most-eaten vegetables in the world, and one of the earliest that was cultivated in gardens. Ancient Egyptians grew onions as crops as early as 3500 B.C. (for those keeping track, that’s over 5,000 years ago). The domesticated onion has its origins in Asia, but native species of onions occur worldwide.
On the homestead, onions are quick, easy and inexpensive to grow. They also have a long shelf life and are used almost daily in the kitchen.
To grow onions, start with seeds, small transplants or “sets.” Sets are tiny onion bulbs about the size of a clove of garlic.
I have grown onions from seeds with variable success. It takes a lot longer until harvest, and you don’t save that much money. For example, this year I bought 100 onion sets for less than $4 at a local home improvement store. If you’re curious, the box contains Red Baron, Snowball and Stuttgarter varieties, which translates to red, white and yellow onions.
To plant onion sets, till up the soil and work in less fertilizer than normal. I would use a handful of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100-square-foot onion patch. Too much nitrogen will actually cause excess leaf growth and minimal bulb development. As always, make sure the soil has a good amount of organic matter and a pH between 6 and 7. Choose a location with full sun and, in the Pee Dee, make sure to get them in the ground in March, April or May at the latest.
Poke holes into the soil with your finger about 2 inches deep, and 4 to 6 inches apart. Put the onion sets in the holes with the sprout ends pointing up. That’s the end without fine, hairlike, dried roots. Cover them with soil or mulch, and water them. It’s really that easy.
You can start harvesting onion leaves when the plants are about a foot high. Only snip one leaf per plant every week or so, and let the plant continue to grow new leaves. Use them like you would green onions.
You can also harvest small onions anytime. They can be used as a substitute for pearl onions, but they will have more intense flavor.
As the onions grow, they might send up a flowering stalk. Early on, it will look different from the other leaves, with a swollen tip. You should cut those off to keep the plant’s energy from going into the flower instead of the underground bulb. You can eat these “scapes” by cooking them as you would asparagus.
If you have patience, allow the rest of the onions to mature for a couple of months, and harvest when the foliage begins to turn yellow and starts to die. Dig them up carefully, using your hands instead of a spade or shovel, because there is less damage done to the onions.
Some folks harvest onion bulbs by first bending the leaves sharply at the base, where the bulb emerges from the soil, and letting the foliage dry out completely. They say the onions are sweeter or have longer shelf life in storage, but I haven’t really noticed a big difference either way.
Let the onions dry, then cut off the dried leaves and roots. Brush off any dirt and store them as is. If you wash them, allow them to dry thoroughly. Store them in the refrigerator or at room temperature in a dark place.
If all of this seems like too much time and effort, or if you have extremely limited gardening space, consider growing green onions. Green onions are also called shallots, and they are a different variety from the bulb onions described above.
Again, you could start from seed, but there’s a much simpler, faster approach. Buy green onions from the grocery store, use the greens as you normally would, and then plant the white bulb end. You can plant them 2 inches apart in the ground or in a container. Within a few days, the green onion leaves will start emerging. In a week. you will be able to start harvesting the greens sparingly from each plant.
Onions are arguably the easiest vegetable to grow. Locally, you can have a crop in summer (planted in spring) and another crop in winter (planted in fall). And green onions can be planted year-round, as I described. I take them for granted because I always have some in the garden. Clearly, I love my onions, even though they can be a real tear-jerker.