Last year, I planted probably a couple hundred feet of onions in the spring, but the weeds got so thick I didn’t even see the onions anymore. I thought they had died. Not realizing that onions are a biennial, I got excited when I saw onion sprouts popping up in rows in that same plot in February or March. I thought, “Well, there’s at least one thing going right so far!” I hoed between the rows. I pulled thistles out of the rows by hand. I laid down cardboard between the rows. I’ve been visiting weekly to keep the weeds down. I side-dressed all the onions with organic compost.
They’re amazing to see. They’re the biggest onions I’ve ever seen! A bit of reading over the weekend told me why. Nobody grows onions the second year unless they’re growing them for seed. Being biennials (meaning they live for two years), onions spend their first year putting all their energy into growing fat bulbs. That’s the part we typically call an “onion,” the part that grows underground. Sometimes people will pull them while the bulbs are still really tiny so that the leaves can be used as green onions. (Also called “shallots” depending on what part of the country you’re in.) The plant then uses the energy stored in the bulb to survive the winter and send up its first shoots in the spring–just like daffodils and tulips.
The second year, though, the plant is focused on reproduction. It grows huge, thick, tall leaves and a flower stalk that eventually blooms and makes seeds. It’s still edible and tasty. It’s just that the bulb gets really small–a real disappointment from such a huge plant. The leaves, on the other hand–the part we call “green onions” or “shallots”–are huge! Basically, it’s like a large leek, but with more flavor. I’m guessing they’re about three feet tall right now. The flowers haven’t opened up yet. I’d like to yank these out of the ground now and sell them before they bloom, so they’re at their most nutritious. Also, I’ll be able to plant something else in this nicely tended plot once all the green onions are harvested.
I won’t be in the Clintonville Farmers Market until June, though, and these big green onions won’t wait! They won’t keep like long-storing onion bulbs, but they’d be great chopped up in any dish that calls for onions. (They’ll also add more color.)