One of the Joys of Maturity
Onions We Grew in 2014
Until this year, we had primarily grown the same four varieties of onions in our garden for six or seven years. We were fairly happy with the varieties, but three of the four were hybrids which tend to come and go from seed catalogs as they're replaced with seed developers' latest and greatest releases. With some of our favorites down to just one or two sources for seed, I decided this year to test some new-to-us, mostly open pollinated onion varieties to give us options for the future.
Our onion trials were anything but scientific. I started some seed indoors in early December (mainly a germination test for old seed), more on January 22, and some late arriving seed on February 2. I transplanted the onion plants into our main raised garden bed on April 16 and 19. The onion rows were double rows with a 4" interior row spacing, interspersed with tight plantings (12" away) of carrots and peppers, so all didn't receive the same amount of sunlight due to shading from nearby plants.
All of the varieties we tried, both old and new, germinated well. It turned out that we had a nearly perfect growing season for onions this year. That's great for onion production, but doesn't tell one much about how well a variety may do under less than ideal conditions. But we've definitely found some promising options for what we may grow in the next few years.
Below are the initial results of our onion trials. I've grouped them by type and then alphabetically, marking the hybrids we may replace with an asterisk. Links in the comments are to the seed source. So far, we're just rating the onions on how they grew. Our results really won't be complete until we have cooked with the onions and also see how well they store over the winter, as we're looking for a balance of excellent flavor and good storage potential.
Yellow Storage Onions
Copra - Our three feet of double rowed Copra onions had the misfortune (or bad planning on my part) to be surrounded by some very healthy pepper plants, a cage of tomatoes, a trellis of early peas followed by cucumbers, and an unusually aggressively spreading petunia! Despite the competition, the Copras produced a heavy crop of fairly large yellow storage onions. While I really wasn't looking for another hybrid storage onion to replace our main, hybrid storage onions, Pulsar and Milestone, Copras could definitely serve that purpose if they store well over the winter in our basement.
Update: The last of our Copras stored well until late March, but it appears (as of December, 2016) that the variety has been discontinued. Fortunately...
Clear Dawn - We grew the Clear Dawn open pollinated onion for the first time in 2016. It was was bred out of the Copra variety and introduced by Beth and Nathan Corymb of Meadowlark Hearth after being entrusted to them by biodynamic growers Claire Hall and Don Jason. We were pleased by the flavor and storability of the new variety. The Fedco Seeds catalog refers to it as "the best open-pollinated storage onion."
Jaune Paille Des Vertus - These onions sorta got away from me. They matured somewhat small, flattened bulbs that began to rot in the ground as I awaited their neighbors in the row to ripen. While I really wouldn't want to depend on them for our winter storage, I'll probably try the Jaune Paille des Vertus variety one more time, pretty much on the interesting descriptor of them on the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds site. I'll just have to watch them more closely as they mature and get them out of the ground promptly.
Update: The last of our Jaune Poille Des Vertus onions stored well into March.
Milestone* - Milestone onions have been one of our two yellow storage varieties for years. Miletones produce a larger, sweeter onion than Pulsars, our other, old favorite, but don't seem to store quite as well. This year's crop of Milestones produced some enormous onion bulbs that I hope will dry down and store well.
Although Milestone seed was only available from two suppliers (that I know of) this year, I was able to pick up a packet of the seed this summer when I ordered some garlic bulbs. We'd had to drop our previous supplier of the seed, and the other supplier had an outrageous flat rate shipping charge that made buying a single packet of seed cost prohibitive. But with the garlic order, I was able to get some seed that I hope will store well and be viable next January.
Patterson - We almost didn't get to try the Patterson hybrid onion this year. We ordered our seed knowing it was backordered until late January. When I saw that the supplier's site had pushed the backorder date to March 1, I wrote Johnny's Selected Seeds, complaining strongly about the delayed shipping date. They got their act together, shipped the seed, and I was able to start our Patterson onions on February 2.
Some of our Pattersons proved to be the largest of our storage onions this year. Of course, sometimes big onions don't store all that well. But we've already used some of the onions for cooking and liked the flavor. So if they store at all well, we may have another good storage variety for a few years (Patterson is a hybrid.). Note that in a 2011 trial of Copras and Pattersons, the Mary's Vegetable Garden blog found Copras to be a better option (for her) for long-term storage.
Pulsar* - One of the strengths of the Pulsar variety isn't readily apparent during the growing season. Cured properly, Pulsars can store well in our basement through most of the winter. The onion bulbs run a bit smaller than other storage varieties such as Copra, Milestone, and Patterson, but dry down to thin necks that hold out moisture and rot. For 2014, there was only one source for Pulsar seed, a seed house we no longer use. Our Pulsar crop this year pretty well exhausted our saved seed, so we'll definitely be moving on to something else next year in storage onions.
Stuttgarter - The seed supplier's description for Stuttgarter onions reads, "A tasty old favorite that sets medium-large, yellow onions with a good, pungent flavor. This variety is among the best keepers and produces well. Plant some of these for winter eating and store them clear through to next spring."
That description is one reason we do trials of varieties, as our Stuttgarters were the most disappointing of all the new-to-us varieties we tried. The plants seemed to lack vigor, with us losing more Stuttgarter transplants than any other variety. The onions were small and some started to rot in the ground before we got them pulled. While they could still make us believers if they truly do store "clear through to next spring," I'm guessing that this is a variety that just isn't well suited to our growing conditions.
Yellow of Parma - If our Yellow of Parma onions store well, they will almost certainly be included in our future plantings. They produced beautiful, large yellow onions with golden skins, showed some resistance to early toppling over in the winds that buffet our garden plots, and generally were the star of our yellow, open pollinated onions this year.
Red Creole - Our Red Creole matured far earlier than any of our other onion varieties this year. They produced very small, red bulbs, many of which we enjoyed early as we waited on other varieties to mature. Red Creoles have a good, strong onion flavor, good for soups and stews, but a bit overwhelming in salads and such. If you're looking for a good, red, short season onion, Red Creoles may serve your purpose.
Red Zeppelin* - Two new hybrid red onion varieties were released somewhere around 2008. With the names "Red Zeppelin" and "Grateful Red," I had to try at least one of them. Red Zeppelin seed was cheaper then, so it was our choice. Our crop of the hybrid this year confirms why we've been growing them for so long. We got more large, good onions from them than almost any other variety grown, yellow or red. Hopefully, seed for the variety will remain available for some time. But if not, we now have three very good options for open pollinated replacements.
Update: As usual, we had good Red Zeppelin onions in storage well into February, the best storage of any of our red onions.
Rossa di Milano - Our short (3') double row of Rossa di Milano red onions had very few gaps in it, showing it to be one of the hardier varieties we grew this year. The onions have a dark red outer wrapper, but the the interior is light red with very little coloring towards the inner onion. Just based on hardiness, bulb size, and attractiveness, this could be a variety we grow for years and years.
Southport Red Globe - Like our Copra onions, our short double row of Southport Red Globe onions, growing at the opposite end of the same row as the Copras, had to compete for light and moisture with surrounding plants. We lost a good many of our Southport transplants during the growing season, but those that survived produced the deepest, darkest reds of any of the red onions we grew this year.
According to the variety description of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Southport Red Globe onions were "first released in 1873." I suspect the variety won't disappear anytime soon from seed catalogs.
Southport Red Globes are supposed to be a good storage variety that grows well in northern latitudes. We haven't cooked with any of them yet, but so far like what we've seen from them.
Tropeana Tonda - Our Tropeana Tondas also grew in that challenged row that had pepper plants shading the onions as the onions approached maturity. Other than one issue, Tropeana Tondas might have been our choice for a replacement for the Red Zeppelin hybrid. They produce large, somewhat elongated, glossy, dark red onion bulbs. Their red coloring continues well into the interior of the bulbs, giving that much sought after red outer line in rings or slices of onions. But...
...Tropeana Tondas also have a tendency to double or split, something that makes such bulbs poor candidates for storage. I almost missed the splits, as Tondas have pretty heavy outer wrappers, and there almost certainly will be splits starting inside the bulbs that I didn't find. While we'll use the splits and even plant a few plants of the variety next year, this isn't a red onion I can see counting on as a long-term storage onion. We'll see how the single onion bulbs store (and taste).
Walla Walla - Almost all of our Walla Walla onions were still upright and growing when I harvested them along with the rest of our onions. Since I cut their growing season short, these onions were a bit smaller than the usual, huge sweet onion globes we usually grow. While I've experimented in the past with other sweet onion varieties, Walla Wallas have been the most productive for us on our soil. Storage of the variety is limited. They begin to rot in about two months, but we use most of ours fairly quickly in canning green beans, making bread and butter pickles, and in our annual batches of Portuguese Kale Soup. When I was younger and my system could tolerate such stuff, we used to make a simple, but delicious French onion soup with them.
We didn't test any other sweet onion varieties this year, as we're satisfied with the Walla Walla variety. We've tried other sweet onion varieties in past years, especially one year when there was a seed failure for Walla Wallas, but haven't found a better option for our growing conditions.
Curing the Onions
Once onions begin toppling over either from maturity or in our area, from strong winds, we like to pull them and let them sit a day or so in the sun for the tops to begin drying down. With rain on the way this year, some of the onions only got cured in the sun a few hours before being moved to our garage. There, they went onto a makeshift drying table of a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood stretched over some old furniture. But with the volume of onions we grew, the table was a mess of wet onion leaves, an open invitation for mold and rot. So I cut the onion leaves back to within 3-4" of the bulbs to get the leafy mess off the table.
After a couple of weeks on the table, the onions will be bagged by variety in old mesh potato bags and hang from the rafters of the garage for another week or so before going into our basement for long-term storage.
I think we've found some good varieties of storage onions to grow in the future. Some of them may be hybrids, as both the Copra and Patterson hybrid onions did quite well for us this year. But we also may have found a gem in the Yellow of Parma yellow storage onion. And all of our open pollinated red onions did well, with the reservations noted above.
I'm not terribly concerned about growing hybrid onions over open pollinated varieties, as onion seed doesn't store well. The issue of hybrids being discontinued bothers me, but having to come back to buy hybrid seed year after year is something I'd be doing anyway, as I'm not prepared to start producing onion seed from open pollinated varieties, something we do with several pea and tomato varieties no longer available from seed houses.
Given the choice between a hybrid that probably has a maximum of ten years in seed catalogs versus an equally good open pollinated variety that may have already been around fifty years, I'll go open pollinated every time. Such a practice works well for us, as a crop failure of one variety really doesn't hurt us much. Commercial growers, however, having to produce a saleable crop every year, probably will continue to rely on hybrids because of their concentrated harvest and possible better disease resistance.
With the upswing over the last few years in seed houses specializing in heirloom seed, there's probably going to be plenty of open pollinated onion varieties on the market to choose from for years to come. We list many of those heirloom seed suppliers on our Trusted Suppliers page.
I hope you've found some useful information from our onion trials. I've learned a lot about onions this summer, but I probably won't be growing thirteen different onion varieties at one time ever again! It's been fun, but also a lot of work.
I'll try to come back to this page and update it as I learn how our onions stored and cooked up. But right now, I realize I need to pull together some info from our blog over the years and post a feature story about how we grow our onions.
From Steve Wood, the at Senior Gardening
last updated 12/15/2016