Friday, October 8, 2010

Gardening: Vegetable Excuses and Shady Onions


I want onions in my garden.

This would seem to be a perfectly reasonable goal for someone with a vegetable garden, if it weren't for the lack of sun mentioned in my previous post. I've tried, two years in a row, to grow shallots - really, potato onions - without success. The sensible thing would be to give up on growing my own onions and buy them from the grocery.

The problem is that groceries peel the papery skin off of onions, and as a result the onions go bad, quickly and unpredictably. I don't know why they do this. It's not as if they have the produce folks peeling potatoes or bananas or apples and putting them in stacks to rot and attract fruit flies. They add wax or even plastic to cucumbers, in spite of the cucumber's nice protective skin. But they're apparently under the illusion that the average grocery customer lives in terror of papery outer onion skin.

I've seen onions that appear to be the victims of frantic personnel _clawing_ off the last bit of loose skin that could possibly be separated from the bulb. I've seen gouges. I've seen almost entirely unprotected white or yellow union flesh. I've seen onions so naked that they attract fruit flies. Why, oh, why, can you tell me why they do this?!

Ahem. Anyway. Whatever the nefarious reason, the result is that onions from the grocery far, far too frequently turn up moldy when cut open. I'm tired of unreliable onions, so I want to grow my own - if not for all of my onion needs, at least for backup. What I grow doesn't have to be onion bulbs, it just has to taste of onion.

There are chives, of course - those are already growing. But they're a little too mellow and well-behaved for general onion purposes.

The Idiot Gardener tells me that leeks can grow in cool shade, so that's the first strategy.

And that makes me think of the mythical (to me) perennial bunching onion, an onion that's supposed to grow in stalks like scallions, bunching together and reproducing like chives. I've never successfully grown these, but that may be because I started the tiny seedlings in the same shady place where I planned to grow the onions on. If I instead start a patch in blazing sunlight (perhaps in a pot) maybe nice stocky divisions from a season or two later would consent to grow in less sun? It's worth a try.

The third strategy is onion sets grown to scallions. I've always vaguely disapproved of onion sets - such a big "seed" for such a small onion. But I find myself wondering if a set will consent to produce a decent scallion with limited sunlight, like a tulip is almost guaranteed to produce a flower the first year? And could I store a supply of sets in the fridge and plant a fresh handful every week or so, to keep the onions moving? If so, that could be a fine plan.

The last strategy is Egyptian walking onions. These are the onions that first put out normal green onion  stalks, then produce little bitty onions on top of the stalks, as if the onion failed to pay attention in onion class. These aerial onions, I'm told, can then be planted as if they were onion sets, and will produce scallions. So perhaps I could keep a small patch of walking onions in a sunny spot, producing enough sets to make scallions in the partial shade? I suspect that the answer is, no, I can't, but it's also worth a try.

Meanwhile, I will continue to complain about nude onions, and grocery personnel will continue to give me that good-natured confused look when I do so.

Image: By Hedwig Storch. Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I grew some Ishikura, which are allegedly Japanese bunching onions. I thought they were spring onions when I bought them. I planted them in a metal trough. They grew so slowly that I gave up them. They spent the summer against a wall, shaded by tomatoes and leeks. When I pulled some leeks last week, I remembered them. I haven't eaten any yet, but they look plentiful. I'll take a picture and do a taste test in the next few days!

  2. I am also quite put off by this systematic stripping of onions. Grocery stores are horrible, aren't they? I live in a city with absolutely NO growing space, so all of my vegetables are funny little contraptions in pots on my windowsills (I don't even have permission to grow on a fire escape). Most of my luck has been with herbs, but I'm making bold attempts at tomatoes, currently. Best of luck with your onions! :)

  3. Best of luck with your onion growing. I have no advice to give as I can't grow onions either, climate being my reason - onions seem to hate salt-sea air. Loved your comment re Honorine Jobert. Thanks!

  4. they guy parked next to me at the farmers market told me that when you plant onion sets, to barely put them in -even let a bit of the crown be exposed. his onions were gorgeous. i had onions, but not as big. im growing some now - we'll see. good luck!

  5. Hey, TIG! Cool - I'd love to hear. It's also reassuring to know you grew them in a container.

    Yo, Vanessa! It's weird; even my very favorite, otherwise really good grocery insists on stripping the things. You'd think there was a law.

    Christine! Howdy! That was a fabulous photo.

    Yo, Chickory! Ah, thanks for the advice. I'll plant them that way.