A successful onion harvest

A successful onion harvest this year. Hurrah.

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Last year, half of my storage onion crop rotted. I ran out of storage onions some time in January and bought at least 1 bag of onions from Trader Joe’s every week from then until spring, when scallions became available in the vegetable garden. Probably $3 to $4 a week. It’s not so much the money as my exasperation with myself that the rotting situation happened at all. When an onion rots, it doesn’t mess around. You think perhaps half of the onion might be salvaged for immediate use. But no. The whole thing is brown and slimy and fit only for the compost pile. Exasperating.

This year was different, for reasons I will explain. Above are photos, first of Patterson yellow storage onion straight from the garden with dirt still clinging to nice, firm onions. Never wash a storage onion. Below that are photos of Redwing red storage onions after they have been curing for a few weeks. As can be seen, the outer layers of tissue have been discarded, along with the garden dirt. Good compost material.

Last year, I pulled the onions when their leaves were dying back and left them to dry on straw in the vegetable garden. This is a procedure recommended in many garden books. It may work in an arid climate. Not so much in New Jersey. From this year’s observations, I would say that storage onions can be left in the garden for as long as you like, so long as their roots remain firmly in the garden soil. I pulled them over a period of weeks and did not observe deterioration at any point. As soon as the onions were pulled, I brought them indoors, dirt and all, and placed them loosely in trays in my new grow light cart. Without the grow lights, of course. They were either in air-conditioning, or on cooler, less humid days, near an open window with good air circulation. What a much more satisfying experience.

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From time to time, I would rub off loose layers of tissue until they were clean. Daisy, my yellow lab, is usually oblivious to garden doings, but she strenuously objected to the sound of loose skins being rubbed off of onions and garlic. She would whimper and take herself upstairs as far from the cleaning activity as possible. There was a squeaky noise associated with the cleaning, particularly with the garlic. It must have been much more excruciating to dog ears than to human ears. Poor Daisy.

It’s important not to peel off skin or tissue that is not loose. I think of it as leaving a scab alone until it’s ready to fall off of its own accord. The whole drying process with storage onions takes several weeks. It’s an very sensory experience. Touch. Smell. The sight of beautiful, shiny onions finally ready for winter storage.

Storage onions are now in brown paper bags in the coolest, darkest corner of the basement. I check the bags frequently, hoping to catch any onion that’s softening before it  ruins other onions. So far, just 1 bad onion. I’ll hope for the best as winter progresses.

Some onions planted this season were not storage onions and were eaten through the spring and early summer as scallions in salads and as fresh onions in various recipes.

Storage onions were of 3 varieties, all from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. For several years, I have ordered onion plants from Johnny’s. This year, I also started onions from seed. Starting from seed is obviously less expensive. I’ll try to move in that direction as soon as I’m sure I can do it successfully. I really dislike buying onions from the store, so I’m determined to grow and store enough onions to last through the winter until spring scallions are ready to eat.

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So, 3 varieties of onion plants. Patterson yellow onions on left above. Redwing red onions on right. Red marble cipollini onion center front. That strange onion to the right is an Egyptian walking onion. I don’t know what to make of Egyptian walking onions.

The smaller Patterson yellow onions and Redwing red onions above are the ones grown from seed. Seed was started in January. The plants were kept under grow lights until planting out in March. Germination was good, and I probably crowded them to fit the garden space allotted for them. So, given proper attention, I’m sure onions from seed can be as successful as the onion plants. That’s a decision to be made in January when I’m ordering for next year. I will say in defense of the small onions that they are so incredibly good in stews and soups when you put them in whole. The pleasure of biting into a little onion all soaked up in chicken stock or tomato sauce is something special. Sometimes small is good.

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The 3 onion varieties are all commendable. I like the cipollini red onions, seen at center above, for salads. Their deep red and white rings are not only crunchy and delicious but visually appealing as well. Good garden lettuce, a little feta cheese, good olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and cipollini red onions. That’s summer. Although cipollini onions are not listed in Johnny’s catalog as storage onions, I’ve had good luck with their lasting through the winter.

Above on the left are the Redwing red storage onions. As you can see, they also have distinctive red and white rings. Johnny’s catalog points out that Redwings are late to mature so may be better grown from transplants. Perhaps I should continue to buy Redwing onion plants while trying to grow Patterson yellow onions from seed. Hmm.

To the right above are the Patterson yellow onions. The large ones are from onion plants. The small ones from seed. They are delicious for everything sautéed, roasted, or simmered in a soup or stew. The best bought onion cannot compare.

At center bottom are the sliced Egyptian walking onions. I want to have an opinion about them, but I don’t. I apologize. I should not have included them in the photo.

So, progress made with onions this year. I’ve learned more about curing them for winter storage. I’m moving toward growing my own from seed rather than buying expensive onion plants. Mostly, they have become part of my enjoyment of the vegetable garden. Watching them grow in early spring. Tending them while they dry and cure. Cooking good stuff with them. Guess they are a blessing.

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