Sunday, May 1, 2011

When Onions Bolt

I love it when my worlds collide, and things that I learn while mothering or homeschooling spill over into the everyday.  That's what it's all about right?  Mothering and homeschooling are supposed to prepare kids for the real world and not just be composed of arbitrary rules and lessons to be learned.

I have had a book called "Saving Seeds," by Marc Rogers, sitting on my shelf for a long time, so I decided it would be part of our homeschooling.  Our science curriculum is taking us through the seed cycle,  photosynthesis, and the parts of a plant and plant cells.  This would tie in nicely, and I would get to read my forlorn little book!

We read the section on onions last week, and I discovered why my onions misbehaved so terribly last year!  I have always known that onions were biennials, meaning that they would not go to seed in their first year of life, but needed to go dormant and then through another growing season before they could put energy into seed.  What I didn't understand was how that applied to me as a gardener, growing my onions for consumption in the first year.  We, as gardeners, treat onions like annuals, planting them in the spring, then harvesting in the fall of the same year.  Especially in the Pacific Northwest, where onions would not survive the wet, cold winter, we have no concept of the full life cycle of the onion.  

This is why I was confounded when the red onions I grew last year decided to use up all their precious bulb energy in sending up these enormous 1.5 inch diameter flower stalks!  This is known in the gardening world as "bolting."  I think of it as our gardening plants fleeing domestication and running away from us as fast as they can.  I kept pinching off the heads and breaking off the stalks, but they would not be deterred.  I had never grown red onions before, always perceiving them to be a hot summer type crop, not conducive to the short growing season in the Pacific Northwest.  Last year, however, the Co-Op in town had little red bulbs, about 3/4" in diameter, taunting me as I went to fetch my bundle of Walla Walla Sweet onion starts.  I remembered how my Walla Walla's grew so rapidly, but begged to be eaten or chopped up within a month of harvest, due to their high water content.  I wanted something that could be stored as a whole onion over the winter.  These red onions were purported to be just that sort of onion.  


When I harvested the red onions in the fall, they were often split by the gargantuan stalk, or rotted where it had been.  They were small and squat, having disliked my heavy wet soil.  When I dried them, they dried to almost nothing and didn't keep well at all.  What had gone wrong?
In "Saving Seeds, " Marc Rogers talks about saving onions, he recommends saving the best onions in a cool dark place after the first growing season, then setting them out again the following year in early spring.  The onion then, should spend that growing season going about the business of reproducing, having spent the previous growing season storing up energy to do so.  

What I believe must have happened with my red onions is this: the farm that started the onions must have grown them, allowed them to go dormant, then sold them to the Co-Op.  I then bought them, replanted them, and allowed them to go about their life cycle, thus satisfying them and frustrating me.  The Walla Walla Sweet starts that the Co-Op sells must therefore be started in the same season they are sold, so that this issue does not arise!

What I've decided to do this year is to grow red onions from seed, avoiding the possibility of my onions going to seed.  I'm not sure I've started them early enough to get their whole first year's growing season in, but I'm going to try it.  This year let no onion bolt!  Be subdued, ye onions of Creekside Haven!