What about Onions, Garlic...?
January 19, 2009
I love all the members of the onion family, and the tastes they bring to our table. Claims are made they improve our health, and help our bodies fight disease. So why aren't I selling them, you ask?
Onion seed has one of the shortest lifespans of any garden seed. Germination rates fall by the second year, so it cannot be kept for long term storage, no matter what you do to preserve it. Bulbs or cloves cannot be stored reliably for more than one year either.
Onions and garlic grown at my farm readily cross with some kinds of wild onions, and in a generation or two, they morph into something tasting quite different. I don't even know if they are safe to eat. If we had a greenhouse, it should be possible to use it to isolate our garlic and onions from other wild plants. This would be done for the second year, when they flower and pollinate. I hope to have a greenhouse eventually. For now I can save the onion seed or divide and replant garlic cloves, but only for the very next years crop.
I have not kept shallots long enough to know if they cross with wild onion relatives. We aren't that impressed with the taste or yield, so we haven't bothered to pull and carefully store the cloves for replanting. They are prized in French cooking for soups and sauces.
Our Egyptian onions and chives are perennials [permanent plants]. They are more of an ornamental from which you can harvest a few new shoots in the early spring as an onion flavored garnish.
Onions and garlic both like a sandy or at least loose soil. If you have too much rain, mold can form between the layers while they are growing in poorly drained soil like we have. They tolerate the cold, and are a slow growing crop. We plant early and harvest late. Garlic cloves are set out here in the fall, and harvested twelve months later. Most garlic keeps pretty well, but many types of onions, especially the sweeter and softer kinds, do not keep well into the winter. For onions, another consideration is how many hours of day light you have in your area. Commercial growers look for varieties which do well in the zone they are in. Continental USA is divided into three areas, North, mid and Southern Latitudes. To do their best, most varieties need to be grown in the correct zone. Your state department of agriculture should be able to recommend varieties for you to try. Here in the North, I really like Copra onions, because they keep all Winter for us. They are a Hybrid, but I have not found any open pollinated onions which will keep like they do. Since I can't save my own onion seeds for more than one year, I don't mind growing THIS hybrid. Onions can be grown from seed in the garden. They can be started inside in trays or purchased as plants and set out. You can also buy or produce your own sets the previous Fall, and put those out. If you have the space to start onion plants or sets, it could be a nice like cash crop or cottage industry. It does not take that much more time and space to start enough for several families while you are at it. See my article on Cottage Industry.
So my conclusion about this family of crops, and a few others is to buy fresh seed each year from a reliable seed company which has been selling to both farmers and gardeners for a long time. It will not be expensive. They will not sell old seed, and they also know how to store and handle seed properly. There are many companies eager to sell you cheap seed, and some folks who offer a large expensive garden collections some one put together. It is not a bargain, if it does not grow well. If you see Onion seed in a can of so called 'Survival Seeds', you can be sure who ever put that collection together does not know what they are doing. Are you going to instantly learn how to save many different kinds of seeds in one year? Is the selection of seeds offered mostly diet vegetables? When you are hungry, really hungry, are you looking for radishes, watermelon and summer squash? Think about it.
Onion seeds just do NOT keep for years. If old onion seeds are all you have, you may as well plant them, if you have extra room. You might get a few to germinate. Once you have your grains and beans, your Winter squash and pumpkins, and beets, spinach and cabbage, which WILL keep, you don't need to buy that many other seeds every year.