Onions in the Days of Old
Recorded history shows that onions became a garden vegetable over 5,000 years ago, primarily in central Asia and the Middle East. However, it is theorized that wild leeks (ramps) growing in cooler, mountainous regions, were a regular staple for prehistoric Homo sapiens 30,000 or more years ago.
Onions were considered by the Egyptians to represent eternal life because of their layered circular structure. They revered them so much that their Pharaohs were buried with them.
Burial chambers in the pyramids showed pictures of onions…and mummies were discovered with onions pressed against various parts of their bodies.
King Heqamaatre Ramesses IV, the third pharaoh of the Twentieth Dynasty of the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, was un-tombed with onions in his eye sockets.
Egyptian slaves built the pyramids eating mostly onions as food. Can you imagine undertaking such a gargantuan task with only onions to eat? No wonder their lives were cut so short doing the pharaoh’s bidding.
The Onion Sure Does Get Around
“The world is just a great big onion. And pain and fear are the spices that make you cry.”
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, The Onion Song (1969)
Across the globe, onions find their way into just about every culture in the world.
As Elizabeth Robbins Pennell, American columnist and writer, put it, “Banish the onion from the kitchen and the pleasure flies with it. Its presence lends color and enchantment to the most modest dish; its absence reduces the rarest delicacy to hopeless insipidity, and dinner to despair.”
The National Onion Association says that this extremely versatile vegetable finds its way into breakfast, lunch, and dinner in nearly every ethnic cuisine.
In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture listed the average annual per-person onion consumption at 20 pounds.
Raw, caramelized, marinated, roasted, sautéed, peeled, sliced diced, chunked, breaded…well…you get the picture. I could mention the plethora of ways to consume onions but, I would be preaching to the choir…so, let’s move on.
TIP #1 – When preparing sautéed onions, always use low or medium heat. High heat will give the onions a bitter taste.
TIP #2 – Cooked onions will not give you “onion breath” but, raw onions will…especially, if they are strong flavored to begin with. Brushing your teeth and using a good mouth wash will counteract the malodorous mouth aroma. Other options to neutralize garbage breath are chewing a few pieces of gum, parsley, lemon or orange peels, or gargling with lemon juice and water. These techniques also work well with garlic.
TIP #3 – Lemon juice or salt will also work on your hands and cooking equipment to remove onion smells.
An Onion By Any Other Name…
Well, we have chives, leeks, ramps (wild leeks), scallions (green onions), shallots, spring onions, and regular onions…yellow, white, and red (or purple)…so confusing.
Chives – With a hint of garlic, this onion-flavored herb is used extensively in many dishes. I like them in scrambled eggs or as a garnish on deviled eggs.
Leeks – Having a milder flavor than scallions, they are firmer and denser. I call them extra large scallions. When picked early, they actually look like scallions. Leeks are silky when cooked. Chop and wash the light green parts and add them to your favorite recipe.
Scallions (green onions) – With an onion flavor slightly milder than regular onions, these popular sweet, aromatic plants, also called green onions are everywhere…eaten raw or cooked…alone or as ingredients in other concoctions. They also add a bit of texture and color to prepared foods.
Shallots – Shallots are smaller than onions with a finer, firm texture. The flavor is similar to chives…with a hint of garlic.
Spring Onions – With a lighter flavor than regular onions, spring onions, battered and fried, are great onion rings!
Yellow – About 87% of onions grown in the U.S. are yellow onions. This is a trustworthy staple we add to anything we cook. Break down yellow onions into the regular yellow variety and the sweet Vidalia onions…and I love them both!
Red (purple) – Red onions are both colorful and flavorful additions to BBQ skewers as well as a raw salad ingredient and a topping for sandwiches. Only 8% of the U.S. onion crop is red.
White – The rest of the onions (5%) grown in the U.S. are white. This is the traditional onion for Mexican and Southwestern food, in addition to white sauces, potato salads, and pasta salads. And, they are very sweet when sautéed.
Ramps (Wild Leeks) – Ramps, also known as wild leeks, wood leek, and wild garlic), can be found in the moist forests on mountains of North America usually in hardiness zones 4 through 7. Smooth broad leaves appear in the early spring but, disappear before flowering. Their flavor is akin to spring onions.
Healthy, Healthy Onions
Onions, being an excellent source of fiber, vitamin C and a number of other nutrients, improve immunity, lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, help prevent cancer, and reduce the risk of ulcers.
Did you know that the healthiest part of the onion is in the skin that we throw away? That skin contains high concentrations of nutrients! Use the onion skin in soup and stew stocks and, after boiling them a bit in water to release their nutrients, then you can remove and discard them if you like.
Onion juice also reduces inflammation and heals infections. Rub some on your body for instant relief from the pain and burning associated with bee stings.
Which Type of Onion Should You Plant?
Short-day – These onions work best in plant hardiness zone 7 and above…for gardeners in the southern states. I suggest planting Texas Supersweet and Cippolini White onions.
- Texas Supersweet – Maturing in about 90 days, these yellow-skin onions get as big as softballs…from 4 to 6 inches.
- Cippolini White – These sweet, white beauties will take much longer to mature…120 to 150 days…but, they are well worth the effort. Roast and caramelize them once they reach anywhere from 1 to 3 inches wide to release their full sweetness and flavor.
Intermediate-day – Plant these onions in zones 5 and 6. These are best for gardeners in the middle states. However, intermediate-day (day-neutral) onions will form bulbs in any zone which makes them suitable for northern and southern gardeners as well. Best bets include Candy Hybrid and Red Candy varieties.
- Candy Hybrid – These onions are very mild and sweet, producing fewer tears when slicing. They grow from 4 to 6 inches wide and mature in about 90 days.
- Red Candy – Red Candy onions are gorgeous. With their deep red color, and amazing sweetness, they are ready for any salad or cooking recipe. These onions will also grow 4 to 6 inches and they mature in roughly 95 days.
Long-day – Long-day onions are most suited for home gardening devotees in the northern U.S. Try Big Daddy or Walla Walla Sweet if you live in this area.
- Big Daddy – This is a very flavorful Spanish type yellow onion with long storage capabilities if kept cool and dry. Also called Cannon Ball, they take 110 days to mature and grow up to 5 inches in width.
- Walla Walla Sweet – Walla Walla Sweet is a great mild choice for northern gardens. This is the closest you can get to the infamous Vidalia onions grown in Georgia. Maturity takes 90 days and they grow from 4 to 6 inches wide.
Check out the plant hardiness zone for your state by visiting the USDA Hardiness Zone Map website.
How to Grow Onions From Seeds?
Starting onions from seeds requires you to begin the germination, seedling transplant, and hardening off processes at least 2 months (preferably 3 months) prior to the last frost in the spring. Be prepared to occasionally cut back the baby stalks to 3 or 4 inches to keep them manageably short. And, don’t forget to eat the trimmings. They are mild…but great added to any dish.
How to Grow Onions From Sets?
You can also buy individual transplants or onion sets…but, make sure to put them in the ground very soon after you get them! Plant the sets using the 50/50 mixture discussed in the note below.
I prefer to start from seeds because there is a much wider choice of varieties available.
Whichever you choose, it is important to plant your onions in the garden as soon as possible in the spring after the last frost. If you plant a second crop in the fall, make certain they are in the ground at least a month before the first frost of the winter.
The seedlings should be about “pencil-thick” when they are put into their backyard garden habitat.
Choose an area in full sun that did not have onion plants last year. See How I Plan My Backyard Garden for information about crop rotation. Also, get a soil test to ensure that the onions get a pH range between 6.0 and 7.0.
NOTE: I use a 5-gallon bucket with a 50/50 mixture of dirt and potting soil and a couple of tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer when putting seedling plants or sets in the garden.
I bury my plants about an inch deep and space them 6 inches away from each other (4 inches minimum) in rows 2 feet apart (1 foot minimum). The extra room helps me when weeding, mulching, and just casually observing my garden growth.
Then, I pack and cover them with the 50/50 soil mixture described in the NOTE above. Placing the onion plants too deep will increase the amount of development time.
Water well and keep the soil moist but not soggy throughout all of the growth stages, especially when the bulbs are forming. Onions have shallow roots and will dry out before you know it if they don’t get enough water. Thus, they will benefit greatly from some well-placed soaker hoses!
I side dress my onions about 6 to 8 weeks after planting with 10-10-10 fertilizer.
It is very important to keep the weeds out of the onion patch. But, weed carefully so as not to disturb the onion bulbs. Those pesky weeds will rob the onions of vital soil nutrients. A good mulching is essential to long term weed control and helping to keep soil moist.
How Big Do We Want Our Onions to Grow?
When I am asked how to grow green onions, my reply is, “If you want scallions, pick your onions when they are 8 inches tall.”
Do you want to grow large onions?
Then, give the onion stalks a few haircuts to encourage bulb growth.
When the stalks are between 9 and 12 inches tall, cut them in half. The energy will be re-directed to the bulbs. Give the stalks a trim 2 or 3 times before harvest to maximize the size of the onion bulbs.
Ready to Harvest
Follow the steps…
Step 1: Watch for the tops to start falling over then bend over the rest of the tops, cover with foliage to prevent sunburn, and let them dry-out in the garden for a week or so.
Step 2: Bring them indoors and keep them in a dry area with good air circulation for several weeks.
Step 3: Cut off all but the top 1 inch of foliage.
Step 4: Leave the dirt on the bulbs and store them in a mesh bag in a cool dry place. They will store longer if they are fooled to think they are still in the soil.
TIP #4: Old discarded pantyhose works great for onion bags! (If you have any left after cutting them up for tomato strings.)
Step 5: Periodically check the onions for wet spots or mold and remove any you find to keep from infecting the other onions.
TIP #5: Refrigerate onions for at least 30 minutes before cutting and keep a fan going to circulate the air. This will greatly minimize the tears that accompany onion chopping duties. Some folks swear by cutting onions close to an open flame such as a candle or stove to keep from crying. Me? I prefer the cold-onion-and-fan approach. It’s much safer!
Pests and Diseases
We, the home gardeners, need to worry about onion flies, stem and bulb eelworms, onion leaf miners, and leek moths.
We also need to be concerned about white rot and neck rot.
The best prevention is to rotate crops. Don’t plant onions in the same place every year. If you do plant in the same spot, the pests and diseases will be right there in the soil waiting for their next round of attacks!
In all cases of observed pests and diseases of onion plants, the best strategy is to completely remove the infected plant from the area and burn the remains to protect the healthy plants that are left in the garden.
An onion can make people cry. But, there’s never been a vegetable that can make people laugh.
Will Rogers, actor, humorist, social commentator
There are some folks around the globe who do not particularly like onions. Are you one of them? Or, do you know an onion hater? I would enjoy hearing about it in the comments or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.