Homeland Security: The Potato Onion

Potato or multiplying onion

Potato or multiplying onion

No more buying onion sets, no seeds, and no seed companies. The potato onion, or multiplying onion, sees to its own future. "Little ones make big ones, and big ones make little ones." I had heard this saying about multiplier onions -- and I notice it could apply to humans as well as onions -- but had not understood it until this year. The onions in the photo at left came from our garden this past summer, the harvest from a planting of smaller "sets" in early spring. On November 1, my favorite gardener planted these mid-sized onions so we will have green onions in the spring of 2009, mature bulbs in mid-summer -- and lots of baby "sets" to replant again next November.

The potato onion joins us to a new annual gardening cycle, not quite permaculture, but moving in that direction. With the human assist of lifting and drying the sets from mid-summer to late fall, perhaps the potato onion is best described as an assisted perennial. I am interested in more foods like this -- foods we can count on cultivating and propagating ourselves without needing to rely on seed companies.

Dad's family grew potato onions when he was young. An angelic person -- we'll call her Betty -- helped care for him near the end of his life, and brought potato onions back to our family's gardens. It's Betty's advice we are following as we begin cultivating this (almost) year-round, tasty, long-keeping, disease-resistant heritage onion.

For our part of Kentucky, Betty advised planting the small sets in November, eating some of the shoots as green onions (scallions) in the spring, and lifting the mature bulbs from the earth in mid-summer. The little sets planted in November will make big onion bulbs by mid-summer -- along with bunches of baby onions that we will dig up, let dry, and replant next November.

I'm excited about having a few foods in our garden that we can propagate ourselves. I also love having a fine plant in our yard that Dad had enjoyed, an ancient one with quite an exotic provenance.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Maine Potato Lady offer potato onions online, but may be sold out for this year. Ask gardeners all around you and you may find someone who still has some unplanted sets for this fall.