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SEEDS OF DIVERSITY: Heritage Varieties and Your Garden: Onions

by Garrett Pittenger


The ultimate test of a variety is its suitability for a purpose; and many of the recently developed hybrids are eminently suitable, but not for the purposes that most of us who grow organically have in mind. Many of the older crop varieties, selected and developed for home growing and consumption, are "new" once again in terms of their relevance to our growing methods and our food and specialty market needs. Onion varieties are a vivid illustration of this principle.

I had been seeking a multiplier onion that would enable me to grow good storage onions from sets year after year. In my quest, I had tried the promising large yellow "potato" or multiplier, offered by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, with disappointing results. My lack of success, in retrospect, was probably due to the variety’s lack of adaptability to my latitude. Alliums are very particular about day length, which signals them to grow or go dormant. For that reason, onions suitable for the south are generally unsuitable for Canadian growing seasons. They want to grow when the ground is still frozen here, and when they should be growing, our summer day length induces early dormancy before they are fully developed.

A few years ago, Heather Apple, my friend and fellow seed saver, gave me a small start of "German Brown" Shallot, which she had acquired from a member of her Durham Region COG chapter. I was pleased with its reasonably large size (two-inch diameter), productivity (about eight bulbs harvested for each one planted – where else can you get an 800% return!) and ability to remain firm and sprout-free well into the following summer. The real bonus is the cooking quality: rich flavor and many small layers of bulb scales that make it easy to chop finely. The light red color is an extra benefit.

I now grow three onion varieties: Kelsae Sweet Giant, a seed-grown heritage exhibition variety available from Stokes and Dominion, for big, sweet fall onions for salads; Stuttgarter, the stand-by set onion that is a reasonably good keeper, for early green onions as well as for large cooking onions in early winter; and the German Brown Shallot as my main crop. As a home gardener, I find that I really do not need to compete with the commercial growers of cooking onions. I am better off using this spectrum of varieties, each for its own season, and leaving the mass production business to others. In this way I have varieties highly adapted to my purposes and better eating quality at the same time. With the German Brown Shallot, I also have the convenience of a variety that gives me planting stock as well as a food crop from the same planting.

When you are planning your garden for next year, consider a few heritage varieties for trial. Join Seeds of Diversity Canada for access to heritage varieties, then maintain those that become your favorites and offer them to other gardeners and farmers through the annual seed listing to keep them alive for future generations. When you buy seeds, patronize seed companies that continue to offer the old favorites and those that bring heritage varieties back to the marketplace. A truly sustainable agriculture is founded not only on the health of the soil, but in the genetic legacy of our plant varieties and animal breeds. Keep them growing.




Copyright 1996. Garrett Pittenger

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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