I wonder how many onions I had eaten before I ever really noticed them. Though most kids in the U. S. of A. seem to go through a stage of “hating” onions when they are obvious to see or taste, onions are the flavor backdrop for much of the cooking I grew up with, including most of my childhood favorite dishes. One of the stories my Mom and I like to laugh about as we discuss child-rearing at family gatherings is the day I happened to be around while she was preparing the beef roast. I was aghast at all the weird and strong-smelling denizens of the spice shelf and refrigerator she was heedlessly sprinkling and dousing it with. “MOM!” I protested, “You’re ruining it!” “But, Jay” she rejoined, “I always do it this way.” An educational moment. I don’t remember all the substances in question, but I do remember some pickle juice, and I am sure there was some minced onion involved. I grew to accept the notion of onions in food, and even learned to cry my way through getting them cut down to size.
Still, that’s not exactly what I mean by noticing. I think that gets its start in high school when I took a freehand drawing class. One of the early assignments was to draw an onion. In the end it may have been my favorite drawing that came out of the quarter. What a luxury to pay such exquisite attention to such an ordinary member of my environment, the light curling around and through the amber-hued crispy skins. Also educational.
As I helped with shopping or putting away groceries, those yellow or red net-bags bulging with onions were often among the items, and when Janelle and I married and established our own household, our style of cooking relied, if anything, more heavily on onions for flavoring and interest than the style I had grown up with, since we hardly ever purchased meat. I think a bag of dry onions or a bunch of green ones nearly always made it onto the shopping or market list. I even learned to mince bulb onions in a way that protects my tender corneas from irritation (I’ll share my secret with anyone who wants it).
Since college, one of the most solid of my life’s ambitions has been to develop a self-reliant lifestyle for me and mine. It wasn’t hard to notice, in those early years of marriage, that this was going to imply learning to grow onions. Lots, and lots, of onions. Just how many was unclear. All we knew was that we bought embarrassingly many of them, and that anytime we managed to squeak a few piddly ones out of our early gardening attempts they were gone almost immediately. Also noticeable was that we rarely had big, beautiful, long-lasting onions (like the ones from the store) from our patches. This irked me and made me curious. Just how did the professionals do it, and how could we replicate their results in our way, on our scale? Given the challenges we had in growing them for our own puny table, I was also a bit dumbfounded by the sheer volume of onions needed to supply the general market. Who grows all those onions, I wondered, and under what circumstances, with what consequences for the soil and waterways? Like most commodified agricultural products, with onions this is invisible to the customer. A bag of onions is a bag of onions.
The first big, lovely garden onions I got to see growing close up were from friends of ours from church who took us a bit under their expert gardening wing. They took joy in growing the biggest onions they could possibly; they had enriched their soil with good compost for years, and knew how not to skimp on the water. The onions responded. But they were growing mostly Walla Wallas, which are huge and mild, and don’t store for long. I think the storage onions they did grow were used up well before spring, so by the end of winter they were shopping for onions like the rest of us.
Now I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist (usually), but I do have a perfecting tendency (this is different). I will always be grateful to those friends for the leg up in understanding garden plants and gardening, but my inquisitive mind wasn’t satisfied with buying plants from the hardware store and making them bigger in my doted-on garden plot. No. I wanted to know what it takes to have a reliable supply of nice-sized, deeply flavorful onions from our own ground right through the winter to the next spring’s green onion harvest. It also grated on me that I didn’t know how the people who grew dry sets and green starts did it, that the results were so variable and that the varieties found locally didn’t store very well for us. I found the process unsatisfactory and frustrating at times.
Choosing excellent varieties to grow from seed, and maybe even propagating and using our own seed began to appeal to me as a remedy for this, so I bought seed from the best storage onion variety I could lay my hands on. According to the Seeds of Change catalog at the time, that variety was Newburg. I had been advised not to bother with direct sowing of onions, and indeed I found the timing tricky. But we got some pretty acceptable onions (along with some pretty shrimpy ones…you’ll have this) and they did store well…this process was more promising. Then I read Carol Deppe’s classic Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties and caught the vision. I’ve always been a little prone to “if you want something done right you’ve got to do it yourself”, so…
At first I thought I would be a Newburg breeder and just adapt it to our location. Onions are sensitive to day length, which varies by latitude, and all plants have their palette of traits that make them well or poorly suited to their environment. I assumed I could select for a genetic subtype of Newburg that did well here. Mostly I think I was right, and we made a few years of progress before my perfecting mind became a little dissatisfied. We were having some trouble with a black, sooty fungus that tended to colonize under the dry scale layers of skin and eventually spoil the onions in storage. The onions from the hardware store that filled in our expanding patches seemed less susceptible. I wasn’t going to stand for that! It seemed to me that the onions with the stiffer “wrappers” were less vulnerable, and Newburg was a bit tender in that department. There was also a tendency for Newburg to be a little too UFO-shaped for easy mincing, and I could see it was going to take me a while to select a rounder onion. So I went hunting and landed on “Cortland.” I bought some seed and tried it out in 2011.
I liked them. They had courser wrapper scales, which seemed to help with disease resistance and storage life, and they had a more favorable shape—round to elongated—for mincing without tears. Now, unbeknownst to me at the time, Cortland is, at least in some catalogs, sold as an F1 hybrid (the first generation of a cross of two distinct varieties of the same species). The seed I got was not labeled as such…I can’t remember my source. Anyhow I liked the results, but not quite enough to switch entirely; they were less consistent in size than our strain of Newburg and I think less consistent also in some growth form and life cycle traits which lend themselves to storage. For a while I thought about raising both varieties, collecting seed from each in alternate years, producing enough seed of that year’s variety to last for two years of planting it. This would have been fine (except maybe for some challenges related to the hybrid issue for Cortland) and would have kept the seed from each variety pure, but as usual I couldn’t leave it at that and gave in to the urge to put both in the genetic cauldron and stir.
My method for this was an adaptation of my usual: plant out the ten to twenty best onions from each variety in the fall, overwintering them in the soil—this is the hardest part of the whole thing for me: to take the finest fruits of our careful labor from the onion season and return them to the soil in the vulnerable hope that they might make it through the winter to sprout out and produce a seed crop the next year. They look so delicious and perfect. It feels so strange to give them back. But if I want all my onions to be like that someday, that is the path to it. The American consumer in me has a hard time with this, but my deeper values, and the deeper American values, are well served by this discipline.
Anyhow I grouped them by variety but placed the groups within easy pollinator reach of each other while they flowered and set seed over the growing season. I was hoping to harvest the seed supplies from each group separately and then sow them separately also to keep track of whether I liked Newburg with a touch of Cortland or Cortland with a touch of Newburg better. Unfortunately some of the resulting clusters of heavy flower stalks splayed out so badly as to pop the parent bulb cluster right out of the ground. I had no easy and quick way of supporting them against this in that location, so I grabbed the affected bulb-flower combos and heeled them in by the garden fence where I could easily tie them up. In my typical mid-season haste, I also lost track, during the move, of which plants had come from which cluster. So my 2012-harvested seed supply was labeled as follows: Newburg, Cortland, and Mixed Newburg and Cortland. This was not a tragedy: in the end my real quest is for excellent, user-friendly, dependable onions all winter and the process that I believe in the most at the moment is a nice heterogeneous mixture of traits in onions from quality stock, from which I can select the premium specimens for development of our own landrace. That might give the experts ulcers—I don’t know.
In 2013 we put out indoors-started, wispy little onion plants as snow was falling. It turned out to be six or eight inches, I think in early April or maybe late March. When the snow melted we could see that nearly all the plants were killed. We ended up needing to buy plants and sets (about 40 dollars-worth, I think).
In 2014, we had better success. The ping pong table was overloaded with onions from our own seed spread out to dry, and many of them quite good sized. I could identify some of the pure Newburgs and Cortlands, and I could see a goodly percentage that were of mixed ancestry: indeed I did like the balance of traits very well. I think most of my keepers for seed were probably the mixed ones. Hybrid vigor may have been a strong factor in the success of this generation, so we’ll see where things end up. The flats of plants I have going in a sunny window (started January 1…hopefully we get some bigger plants this time!) here in early March of 2015 are from the same seed supply. Sealing the fate of my project as a total mishmash, this year I have totally lost track of which onions came from which seed…we will truly be selecting whichever bulbs look the most promising, nothing more or less.
We’ve had some pretty cold temperatures this winter again and I find myself wondering about those carefully selected seed onions holding their own against the elements. Are they really OK with this? By the onset of winter they sure looked perky with the tops of their beautifully-shaped bulbs peeking out of the soil and their unruly topknots of green leaf sprouts. I would hate to see them succumb. But I have a back-up plan just in case: I had so many good seed onions last year that I divided them into two groups. The onions with the truly superior shapes that I didn’t want to risk losing to the storage maladies (they always seem more resistant to these when actively connected with the soil) I planted in fall as usual. The rest of the onions with merely excellent shape and size I braided together and hung in the garage with the eating onions, with the plan to plant them out when the weather warms. Many times I have had to remove flower stalks from plants grown from spring planted dry sets from the hardware store, so I assume the spring-planted bulbs will be able to set seed. My thinking was that if I want onions that withstand storage conditions, the easiest way to accomplish that is to subject the potential parents to said storage conditions and see if they bear up well. This also accomplishes some education for me (which is the greater risk…winter storage or winter weather?) and hedges our bets against both challenges.
Here is what I would ideally, eventually like to accomplish with onions: I would like to be able to direct-sow onion seed at the end of summer (soon after the seed has been produced), have the plants overwinter in the soil, and then harvest a reliable, excellently flavored and shaped supply of superior storage onions in July. I would ask the onions to prove themselves in storage through fall and winter and plant them out for seed the next spring. This seems to me to be the most resilient, low-tech method of onion culture I can come up with, and seems like the nearest adaptation of the onion’s preferred natural life cycle to our circumstances. I might like to accomplish the same thing for a deeply red onion, perhaps with a more disc-like shape to it (that would make nice pizza topping onion crescents)
There is another thing I’ve noticed about onions that might be a trait I would like to exploit. It seems if you clip off the flower stalks from full size onions trying to set seed in their second year, they turn into a cluster of full size onions, and overwinter again. Furthermore, it seems like if you clip just a percentage of the flower stalks from any particular seed onion (they always send up at least three, in my experience), the bulb divisions pertaining to the affected stalks will fill out for the winter again, but the bulb divisions that are allowed to keep their stalks will put their energy into seed-making instead and will usually (but not always!) die after having produced seed. This makes it seem as though a person could allow onions to be a perennial crop simply by continuing to clip the flower stalks, or some percentage of them, and being sure to leave at least one onion per cluster. Can it be that this has always been a potential of onions and yet people don’t do this regularly? There are perennial onion species; their bulbing is quite substandard. But one year I pulled a cluster of three lovely onions that had been the result of an unfortunate, serendipitous accident regarding their flower stalks. We ate two of them—tasty and not at all pithy—and I tried to save the one but I think it got dropped and then rotted. I should have planted it back out.
So part of my vision for the onions is to have an ongoing, perennialized population of seed onions, wherein I allow maybe half the seed stalks to survive in any given year, and cause the other half to regroup for winter. This would allow us, potentially, to occasionally harvest mature bulbs from the clusters to trial for flavor! Maybe we could, eventually, eat that luscious seed onion after all!
Under this pattern, the emerging ideal of a seed onion kept in our population would be one that had passed the following set of challenges:
- It would have germinated in late summer and successfully overwintered.
- It would have, in its second season, produced a bulb of excellent size and shape by harvest time.
- It would have survived its second winter in storage, braided with its fellows, with no signs of deterioration by spring planting time.
- It would have successfully resisted disease and insects in its third year, put out at least two flower stalks, and set seed on at least one of them.
- It would have filled out one or more bulbs from members of its cluster from which the flower stalk had been removed.
- It would have overwintered those bulbs and/or any that survived the seed-producing process.
- It would have slowly multiplied to become a small crowd of onion plants over several years.
- It would have survived disqualification, at some point, on flavor grounds.
Seed would be collected from this herd of qualified specimens every year to populate the annual onion patch, from which the majority of our kitchen onions would come. Only if the perennialization were to be fabulously successful could we make a substantial shift away from the annual field. Off the cuff I would doubt that would happen sooner than twenty years from now, if ever.
If selection pressure were added to strongly favor specimens whose bulbs survived flowering well enough to bulb out and overwinter again consistently and that selection were successful, then the plant could be considered to be fully perennialized (or perhaps re-perennialized) in that it would no longer require human intervention in the removal of its seed head to survive the winter.
Dave Holmgren, in his excellent book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability describes the speciation process as balls rolling on a table with whirlpool shaped depressions in it, wherein the balls represent organisms through evolutionary time and the depressions represent ecological niches. That is to say that there are strong forces influencing organisms to take the particular forms they do. In that discussion, he describes situations in which similar niches were filled on divergent continents by organisms generating from wildly dissimilar evolutionary origins. He makes the assertion that the domestication of animals and plants, by contrast, has never created a new species, but only reformed existing species to our purposes. I have no basis for contradicting this assertion, but I would say that we might be well served to mimic the speciation process somewhat in our plant and animal breeding endeavors by tugging a little depression of our own creation, as it were, into the surface of that table; consciously forming niches in our agroecosystem and then inviting and assisting species to re-calibrate or even re-formulate their genomes or genomic expressions to occupy the niche.
But, oh, be careful little intervener how you intervene: If the real issue is what kind of niche we design, we would do well to recognize the power that this has to shape our own future. For example, if we decide we want onions that store well in the human-built environment that means we lock ourselves in to the notion of storage facilities for onions. Might there be a way to eliminate the need for facilities by altering the niche? How about the removal of the flower stalk I mentioned? Does that level of attention and activity indicate a tolerable level of dependence in the relationship? Every time we breed assuming a dependence on us or our activity or attention, we codify those interventions. There are plenty of tomatoes that will produce fabulously in perfect conditions…show me the tomato that will produce well in marginal conditions. Evolving systems, including organisms, respond to the kind of opportunity with which they are presented. The broiler chicken, one of the frequent targets of my scorn, is perfectly adapted to the conditions set forth for it by its breeders. Or perhaps more accurately, by the creators of its niche. Which is to say, to an extent every person who buys and loves cheap, flabby chicken meat from the supermarket. Which is to say, most of us. The story is that a local chef recently held a taste test of the same recipe made with heritage breed chicken versus Tyson. Tyson won.
Many of us are becoming aware of ways in which the massive changes in agriculture in the last century have wreaked devastation on the soils, waters, and climate of our planet, not to mention human health. There may be a few masterminds behind portions of this calamity towards whom future generations may direct their ire, but in general I see these changes as the natural result of changing conditions having begged changing forms. The trouble comes in when we realize that the conditions that begged the forms are unsustainable and that the forms they have begged are having effects that reify the need for those conditions, or perhaps rather adapt the environment to an assumption of those conditions. But since we know that the conditions (i.e., high energy in the form of fossil fuels) cannot persist, we can recognize that we are applying cataclysmic selection pressure to all our biological, social, and economic evolving systems to prepare them for a future that will eventually surely disappoint. In other words, the energy-boom evolutionary cataclysm will, at some point, be followed by the lack-of-energy catastrophe. None of us knows what life forms will persist through these challenges. All we know is that whatever forms are present on the other side will waste no time in picking up the pieces, using what is at hand to begin the age-old task of making a life for themselves in their new circumstances.
And so we come to a recognition that we have, with our energy boom and our exploitive agricultural habits, created problematic niches for our domesticated organisms. One response to that is to begin the next phase of the evolution of our consciousness of our role in the world; that is, perhaps it is time to begin taking care with the niches we create, such that our relationships with the species we depend on can be more mutually enriching, less codependent. We can hone the habit of noticing when too much artifice or artificial energy are going towards supporting a crop organism. We can exchange our tendency to bend creatures to our will for the skill of recognizing the potential for thriving when we see it. We are creatures of imagination, and I think we can learn to do this. We can learn to gently pull down on the taut fabric of the ecosystem, and watch with delight as the organisms around us roll into their new niches.
Maybe the most helpful way to say it is that we want the onions to make their home with us. You could say that pulling a depression in the fabric of our place is, as much as anything, an invitation to the onions to stay and settle here. In so doing, we take the next step in making this a more suitable home for us, too.
P.S. As winter is winding down, it has become evident that all or nearly all of my carefully selected yellow storage onions planted out last fall with such tenderness and keen awareness of vulnerability have, in fact, died. Whether this was weather related or they were afflicted with disease or pestilence is unclear. What is clear is that it is a stroke of luck that I saved out some to winter in the garage. Over half of those made it through just fine, and they have now been planted out. Interestingly, the Red Wethersfield (a red storage onion) seed onions made it through unscathed not 50 feet away. I worry that perhaps I planted the yellows in too wet a location: they were planted at the base of a young grape vine that occupies a position downstream of the spillway of our parking space. The Reds were clustered around a Basswood sapling in a mounded planting bed in the open. This is a process of mutual adaptation: our part of the deal is to learn what simple things we can do to make their lives livable, and some of the lessons are hard ones.