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Gardening : Time for Onions; How Sweet They Can Be : Cultivation: In the Southland, onions are planted now for spring harvest. Several varieties are famed for their sweetness.

October 14, 1990|BILL SIDNAM | Sidnam has written garden columns and features for The Times since 1975.

It has been said that it's difficult to imagine a civilization without onions. The Greek historian Herodotus reported that an inscription on one of the pyramids of Egypt listed the sum spent for onions, radishes and garlic for the workers.

The Welsh today wear leeks on St. David's Day to commemorate an ancient victory. And General Grant, so they say, once wrote the War Department, "I will not move my armies without onions."

For Southland vegetable gardeners, October is onion month. Unlike most areas of the country where onions are planted in the spring, we plant our onions now and harvest them in the spring. By growing your own, you can sample varieties not usually available at the market.

We're not talking about green onions or scallions, but about full-sized, slicing or cooking onions. Full-sized onions are easy to grow once you plant the right kinds in the proper season (green onions and shallots aren't nearly as finicky).

There's good news for onion aficionados, the same super-sweet and mild trio of onions made famous in Vidalia, Georgia, Maui and Walla Walla, Wash., will grow well in Southern California gardens. These, and others suited for the Southland's climatic zone, should be planted from seeds this month.

Choosing proper varieties plays an important role in successfully growing onions.

Most varieties that grow well in the northern sections of the United States will probably do poorly in Southern California and vice versa. Therefore, the home gardener should be very selective when ordering seeds from catalogues or purchasing from seed racks.

Here's a rundown of onion varieties that will produce well here:

Grainex Hybrid: When grown in Georgia, this is the famed Vidalia onion; world renowned for its sweet, mild flavor.

It is also one of the varieties used to produce Maui onions. This variety will never bring a tear to your eyes. I have grown Grainex Hybrid onions for a number of years in my garden in Orange County and have never been disappointed with them. Grainex Hybrid produces large, straw-colored bulbs that are ready for harvest in late spring from an October planting. Seeds for this variety are also sold as Grainex Hybrid 33.

Texas Grano 502: This is the other variety that is sometimes used in Maui to produce the popular Maui onions. It is similar to the Grainex Hybrid; however, the large bulbs are rounder.

Walla Walla Sweet: This onion is not supposed to do well in Southern California because it is a northern latitude, long-day-type. However, I've grown it with success for three years. The onions are large, round and sweet. Is it as sweet as the Grainex Hybrid? In my opinion, it's not quite as sweet and mild as the Grainex Hybrid, however, it comes close.

Sweet Burgundy: Here is a beautiful, large, flat onion with a deep burgundy color. This onion also has a sweet flavor, although it is not as mild as the Grainex Hybrid, Texas Grano 502, or Walla Walla. Slices are perfect on hamburgers, and it makes an attractive addition to a salad.

California Falt Red: Produces, flat, thick, large red onions that will reach huge sizes (I've grown them to three pounds). They are sweet, but mildly pungent.

Italian Blood Red Bottle Onion: A beautiful, unusual, large onion. Also known as Italian Torpedo Onion, it is elongated and shaped like a bottle. The color is deep red and the flavor is pungent and tangy. It is a good cooking onion, or if you prefer strong-flavored onions, it can be sued fresh.

None of the above varieties, except Italian Blood Red Bottle and Burgundy, store well. Storage life may be prolonged by refrigerating.

Onions need full sun. Ensure drainage by spading the soil and enriching it with organic materials--compost or peat moss. Add an all-purpose vegetable fertilizer. Water thoroughly and let the soil settle.

Onion seeds may be planted directly into the soil or planted in flats for later transplanting into the garden.

If planting seeds directly into the garden, follow the directions on the packet. When planting transplants, space them five inches apart and plant them so the soil covers the base of the bulb and anchors the plants firmly. If the transplants have long, heavy tops, trim the tops to about half their length.

Onions need an ample supply of water since they are shallow-rooted. That is especially true with Maui-Vidalia-type onions. The soil should always be kept moist.

Onions also are heavy feeders. When the plants are six inches tall, apply a side dressing of vegetable fertilizer and water thoroughly. Repeat that feeding when the bulbs begin to enlarge in the spring.

The onions are ready for harvest when the bulbs grow large and the tops begin to yellow and fall over. From a fall planting, that usually occurs in late spring. When the majority of the tops fall over, bend the rest of them over, as that hastens the ripening process.

Dig them up in about a week and let them cure in the sun for two days. Turn them several times during the process. To complete the curing, cut the tops off about an inch from the bulb and spread them out in a cool, dry, shady area for two weeks. Don't crowd the onions; leave room between the individual bulbs for air to circulate.

Seeds for some of the onion varieties mentioned, such as Grainex Hybrid, will be available at local nurseries. In addition, plants for California Flat Red are often available locally.

Seeds for Burgundy, Italian Blood Red Bottle Onion and Walla Walla Sweet are available by mail from Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Highway, Albany, Ore. 97321. Seeds for Grainex Hybrid and California Flat Red may be ordered from Burpee Seeds, 300 Park Ave., Warminster, Pa. 18991, and seeds for Texas Grano 502 are stocked by Hastings Seeds, Box 115535, Atlanta, Ga. 30310. All three firms offer a free catalogue.

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