I had thought about addressing a big issue this week like the just-released proposed immigration legislation or the FDA’s food safety regulations, but with the sad news from Boston I’m going to drill down a bit into the comforting world of growing vegetables…
With our Leek season officially over and the first Spring Onions of 2013 in your boxes, it seems like a good time to talk about growing the pungent orbs that provide the underpinning for so many great recipes from so many different cuisines. All over the world wherever there is winter, fresh onions in some form have been one of the first new vegetables of spring, savored by humans for thousands of years.
As ubiquitous as onions are in farm fields, markets, and kitchens around the world, it might be difficult to imagine that they are one of the trickiest vegetables to grow. Why? First and foremost, they grow slowly and have few leaves. This means they must be carefully tended and kept free of weeds for most of their life, which can be as long as 9 months. Unlike most vegetable plants, which have large leaves that shade the ground around them, onions have tall, thin leaves that grow almost straight up.
Second, there are several different types of onions adapted to specific growing areas and seasons. “Short-day” onions are grown in areas closer to the equator where there is little variation between the length of day or temperature over the course of the year. Further north or south, growers must be careful to choose the right variety for the time of year and their specific geographic location, from among hundreds.
Here at Terra Firma, we plant onions in the fall that grow through the winter, bulb up as the days start to get longer in the spring, and are ready for harvest in June. These are commonly called “overwintering” onions, and are the ones we harvest fresh this time of year for your boxes. But we are also planting onions now that will grow through the heat of the summer for harvest in September — so called “Long Day” varieties.
Unless you farm in a place like Walla Walla Washington, or Vidalia, Georgia, no one can tell you exactly what variety of onion to plant or what day you should plant it. And yet these two critical details make the difference between getting a nice crop of big bulbs or a field of tiny ones. Onions can fail in other ways to: an entire planting can go to seed without making a single onion, or the plants may just grow straight like leeks without ever making a bulb.
We’ve learned from experience that getting it right with onions one year doesn’t ensure success the next year, so we always hedge our bets. We plant different varieties at different times, spreading out the risk that any one combination will fail — but also lowering the chance that we will ever have a great crop.
The third factor that makes growing onions so difficult is properly curing and storing them. Onions need warm, dry weather to develop the skins that preserve them after harvest. Too much humidity during this time will cause them to get moldy, which is why most onions in tropical areas are eaten fresh. And direct sun or excessive heat at this time will actually cook the onions.
Once harvested, onions will keep nicely if stored at the proper temperature and humidity with enough airflow. But if any one of these factors gets out of whack, the onions will quickly rot into mush. More than once, we’ve harvested a beautiful crop of big, pretty bulbs only to lose a large percentage in storage.
The field of onions we are harvesting for your boxes today had a rough time in January during the extended freeze. Many of the leaves were burned and eventually died, but the plants grew back nicely and are doing well. But there’s still over a month until they will be ready for harvest as bulbs, and we never know how they are going to turn out. In the meantime, we are happy to get some of them harvested and into your kitchens so you can enjoy them.