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Experiments with onions (including I'itoi)

 
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Last year I did a major onion experiment, growing potato onions and shallots (closely related), walking onions, Syboe onions (scallions), and I'itoi onions. I am in zone 4, Vermont.

Walking onions will grow wild here, so they easily made it through the winter under mulch and snow. Mine were given to me by a local gardening friend, and I think she leaves them in the ground over the winter, so I expected them to survive easily and they did. I've read that walking onions are the closest type to the original wild onion, so they are very hardy.

I planted some of my potato onions and shallots last fall, after soaking them in a 9:1 water/bleach solution for about 5 minutes. It's too soon to tell how well the fall-planted onions did, as I just remove the mulch a few days ago and now we're getting more snow today.  I have plenty more which will be soaked in bleach and planted this spring. We'll see if the soaking greatly increases the bulb size, as Kelly Winterton reported.

The Syboes appear to have survived the winter both in the open raised beds and in cold frames. It's early yet, though.

The I'itoi don't appear to have fared well. Right now it appears that none at all survived the winter either in the raised beds (under mulch and a foot of snow), or even in the cold frames. These are adapted to the Desert Southwest, so it's not surprising that they would be less cold-tolerant than other onions. But I'm still surprised that the cold frames didn't protect them better. However, it's possible that they are still there under the soil and will re-sprout in the cold frames once things warm up more.

As a precaution, I split the I'itoi into four groups last fall:  open garden; cold frames; harvest, dry, and store inside; and grow inside under lights through the winter. Now I'm glad I did. :-)

The ones grown inside under lights are small, but they have continued to grow and divide. One plant turned into seven plants through division. All of these will be transplanted outside, but only after last frost. I am wary of losing any more of these rare plants, so I don't want to take any chances.

If the I'itoi do well this summer, and multiply as well as they can, I can probably make up for the losses in one season. They are so hard to find that there is no guarantee of getting more if these are lost. I'm hoping to get them established in Vermont, but it looks like they will have to be harvested every fall, dried, and stored inside through the winter months.

Is anyone else growing I'itoi and experimenting with them? There is hardly any information available on the Net, so anything at all is welcome.

 
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Cathy, your experiments are very interesting. Thank you for sharing. I have no experience with growing I'itoi, but am currently grow multiplier onions and have grown Egyptian walking onions in the past. I find the multipliers do so much better for me than standard globe onions.

I'm curious though, why are you soaking them in bleach water before planting? Obviously, I've never done that (that's why I'm asking!) and have never seen it recommended in organic or permaculture gardening articles. Like I said, I'm curious.
 
Cathy James
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Kelly Winterton tried soaking his potato onion bulbs in a 9:1 water/bleach solution, and the bulbs came out as much as 3X the size of unsoaked bulbs. I didn't soak bulbs my first year, so it will be interesting to see if I get the same size increase from my soaked bulbs.

See Kelly's account here:  https://docs.google.com/document/d/1QEJ7PBA1zyYPxDlfYtMnSPoZzQdyowK77cLGz4MRTos/pub

He describes his dipping process under "2018".  Then scroll down to "September 2018" and look at the pictures!  Wow!
 
Leigh Tate
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Thanks Cathy. I'll be interested in your results.
 
Cathy James
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The fall-planted potato onions that were soaked in a 9:1 bleach solution had very high germination rates, and sprouted early. It's too soon to tell if the bleach succeeded in reducing the virus load and making the bulbs larger, but it's already clear that it did no harm. The remaining potato onions were also soaked in this solution and planted a couple of weeks ago.

Fall planting multiplier onions clearly works even in zone 4. The fall-planted potato onions are already putting up stalks well above ground, while the spring-planted ones have produced a good root system but not put up any above-ground green shoots yet.  The Syboe onions that over-wintered in place are starting to sprout, but they are just getting started, well behind the potato onions.

The walking onions are even farther along. They don't seem to care about winter at all, but pop up as soon as the snow is gone and the soil thaws.

At first I thought that all of the I'itoi had died over the winter, but I found one bulb completely intact under the soil of the cold frame, looking great, firm, not at all soft or mildewy. It just hasn't started growing yet. So it's possible that the I'itoi did survive the winter underground, but need a lot more warmth before they will germinate.  We'll see. I'm not going to plant the remaining I'itoi bulbs until winter is definitely past, probably around mid-May.
 
Cathy James
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Another update on the onion experiments...

The walking onions are by far the most robust. They sprout early, shoot up rapidly even before it gets warm, make very thick stalks that can be used for scallions, and after a week or so of warm temperatures (pushing 80F, but now cool again), the first one appears to be starting to form its first bulbil. They are almost weeds in this climate.

A month ago, the fall-planted potato onions were far ahead of the spring-planted potato onions. The fall-planted ones were already dividing when the spring-planted ones had just barely sprouted. But now, a month later, the spring-planted onions have largely caught up and any differences in grow patterns between the two are subtle. It also appears that the spring-planted onions may have had slightly higher germination rates with fewer losses, but this could be an illusion. I did not fall-plant enough onions to have a statistically meaningful sample.  Regardless, all are growing well and a high yield of potato onions is expected.

The Syboes, a form of scallion, did not survive the Zone 4 winter as well as I hoped, despite being covered with leaf mulch. I estimate that I lost about half of them. The lost bulbs appear to have rotted and could not sprout. Those have been pulled from the bed and composted. The other half of the Syboes are doing well. I purchased them from an individual grower who is also in Zone 4, but out West rather than in New England. It is too soon to tell if New England is a harder climate for these than the Mountain West.

The I'itoi have turned out to be incredibly fragile. It appears that all of the I'itoi bulbs that wintered outside, including those in cold frames, failed to sprout in the spring. More surprising, the ones that were pulled last fall and kept inside under relatively low humidity (60% or so, low for New England), rolled in a paper towel, dried out so thoroughly that there was no bulb left, just layer after layer of dried paper skins. They were planted, but have not shown any signs of sprouting.

The only I'itoi to have survived and thrived here are those grown inside under lights all winter. One bulb became eight, and was getting ready to fork off a ninth at the time that outside temperatures warmed up enough to risk planting them out. Seven of these grown-inside I'itoi are now planted in raised beds outside and watered frequently (New England is under drought conditions), and the other two kept inside under lights as a safety measure.  It's too soon to tell how well the transplanted I'itoi will do outside.

Conclusions to date:

- Climate matters. Choose perennial onions that grow well in your climate!

- There is tremendous variation in the hardiness of onions with temperature.  It really matters whether the onions you choose are suited to your climate. This has nothing to do with the oft-quoted short-day/intermediate-day/long-day onion distinction, which affects how well onions bulb up, but is aimed at those growing them as annuals or biennials, not perennials.

- Spring-planting vs. fall-planting may not make much difference if the chosen variety is well-suited to your climate.

- Onion types that thrive in hot desert climates, such as I'itoi, may struggle in cooler climates even in cold frames, and may not store well even indoors.

- You can propagate almost any perennial onion successfully indoors under proper grow lights, even if it is totally unsuited to your climate.

 
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I don't know anything about I'itois, but many desert plants can withstand quite cold temperatures as long as they're dry. I keep trying to get my agaves established outside and am amazed at how dry they need to be to survive temperatures no where near their maximum hardiness. Maybe the mulch was detrimental to the onions.
 
Cathy James
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Jan White wrote:...many desert plants can withstand quite cold temperatures as long as they're dry. Maybe the mulch was detrimental to the onions.



Perhaps, but in that case I would have expected the I'itoi in the cold frames to survive. No mulch there. It's true that the lids of the frames trap some moisture, but air humidity is very low once winter freeze arrives.

And the problem with the I'itoi pulled and stored in the house was that they appeared to be too dry.  But maybe those will fool me and sprout anway. The root/base at the bottom was intact.
 
Cathy James
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Jan White wrote:I don't know anything about I'itois...



Almost no one appears to know anything about I'itois.  There is an amazing lack of information out there, considering that this plant has been cultivated continously for 400 years! I hope that my experiments can contribute to the knowledge base in some small way.
 
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I'm watching for walking/perennial onions locally (west Michigan).  I want some, but am not ready to order bulbs.  Anyone out there in my area that can help me?  
We raise "conventional" onions from sets, as well as green onions from seeds.  
Last winter we were unable to harvest all of our onions.  Left A LOT of them in the ground.  When we went to attempt to harvest them this spring, we found them to be a mushy mess.  But the greens were a nice addition to early spring salads (lamb's quarter, volunteer arugala, volunteer parsley, etc) so we did not work the section of the garden where the onions were.  Now they have become the nicest green onions you could imagine.  Each bulb that died made between 2 and 6 shoots that are nice little green onions.  They are trying to put out flowers now, not sure how long the "green onion" window is, but we are enjoying them as an early harvest from the garden.  
 
Thomas Dean
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I just ordered perennial onions.  Spoke to my wife about it... We didn't come to a decision, but I just decided to go ahead.  We'll find room for them in the garden or somewhere.
I ordered the sampler from Southern Exposure Seeds.
" 1 oz red or white top-setting onion, ¼ lb white shallot, ¼ lb red/ brown shallot, and ¼ lb yellow potato onion."

I am most interested in the Egyptian walking and potato onions, but what the hey, why not try to sampler?
 
Thomas Dean
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I am also following up with a friend to get what might be some type of perennial onion... she has "green onions" in a patch that keeps coming back.  She got the start from her mother-in-law (Vietnamese?) who has kept a patch for more than a decade.  I'm wondering if they are some type of shallot?
 
Cathy James
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From that description, it sounds like they are Japanese bunching onions, Allium fistulosum.

They have hollow, tube-like leaves, but lack a well-developed bulb. They will overwinter even in cold climates like the US Northeast.
 
Cathy James
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Those four in the sampler are all worth trying. Shallots and potatoes onions are closely related and will likely have similar performance. Egyptian walking onions are very different, having much wider diameter stalks, setting bulbils on top of the stalks but multiplying their bulbs underground in the same way that shallots and potato onions do.

There is some evidence that yellow potato onions store well and will keep over the winter for spring planting, while white or red potato onions do not store well and may need to be fall planted even in cold climates.

My potato onions can easily be fall planted in zone 4 and winter over with no more protection than a layer of leaf mulch and the natural snowfall.
 
Thomas Dean
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Cathy, thanks for the info.

ALso, to anyone following, the "standard" onions we had that we were eating like green onions... now they are bolting and getting tough.  Oh well, they were great while they lasted and still OK.
 
Cathy James
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More updates on the ongoing onion experiments:

The Syboes continue to grow, but they are not as fast-growing or fast spreading as I hoped. I lost about half of them over the winter. I've had to be cautious about harvesting too much of the green stalks of small and limited number of plants. Maybe next year they will be established and I will be able to harvest more.

For sheer productivity from almost nothing, walking onions cannot be beaten, at least in my zone 4 climate. I planted bulbils from a single plant, and that has produced many large plants that are all forming their own bulbils. This is despite constantly clipping the large stalks to use as green onions. I'm looking forward to tasting the actual bulbs and replanting the bulbils.

Potato onions have also been very productive. I've chosen not to harvest any stalks for green onions to maximize their productivity of bulbs. I did pull one plant completely and ate the bulbs and greens. (Very tasty!) The bulbs of the fall-planted potato onions appear to be larger than the spring-planted ones. The bleach soaking did no harm, and appears to have allowed the bulbs to get somewhat larger than last year's unsoaked crop. However, they are still not as large as commercial bulbing onions grown under ideal conditions. I'll know more when they are harvested in late summer.

The I'itoi have had mixed results. Two of them survived in the cold frame over the winter, out of about five planted there. One of those is getting by, but not multiplying. The other is growing very strongly, has multiplied into several plants, and has formed what appears to be a seed head on top of the tallest one. I will definitely be saving those seeds and attempting to grow them under lights indoors this winter.

Last winter, one I'itoi grown indoors multiplied into eight, seven of which were planted out in the garden. They are growing, but not multiplying.m, and are staying pretty small. Maybe the garlic in their bed is having a negative effect on their growth.

Two of the I'itoi were kept in a pot as a safety measure. Once the indoor lights were turned off for the season, I started putting the pot outside in the sun every day and bringing it back in at night. They are growing well and have split off a third, which is also in the pot.

Conclusions:

For sheer productivity in a cool, moist climate with almost zero effort, you can't beat walking onions.

Potato onions are also great, if slightly less productive of green shoots than walking onions. Soaking in 9:1 water/bleach solution and fall planting may increase size.

Spring onions (Syboes) will grow here, but won't produce much in year one, and may need more time to become established.

I'itoi can grown in New England as an experiment, but probably not as a practical food crop. They require a great deal of hand-holding. It is unlikely that they can be established as a self-propagating crop here.

Choose onion varieties that are well suited to your climate.
 
Jan White
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Thomas Dean wrote:I am also following up with a friend to get what might be some type of perennial onion... she has "green onions" in a patch that keeps coming back.  She got the start from her mother-in-law (Vietnamese?) who has kept a patch for more than a decade.  I'm wondering if they are some type of shallot?



I have perennial green onions. Same plant has been coming back for five years now. The seeds were kincho scallions, Japanese like Cathy said. I see they're sold as A. cepa, not fistulosum, though. Possibly one of those errors that gets copy pasted around...?
 
Thomas Dean
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So my friend with the perennial green onions sent me some in the mail, out of the blue.  They are absolutely walking onions.  She sent me some bulbs that she had cut most of the green off, as well as some bulbils - that was the clencher as to them being walking onions.  
As she sent them during a heat wave, I got them into the ground and watered them ASAP.  In retrospect, I probably should have broken the bulbils up, but I was just thinking "get these in the ground before they suffer more"
I planted most in our herb/flower bed, as that is our best location for perennials, and a few in a large flower pot that has been empty for some time (rescued from neighbor's garbage... full of potting soil, but in the trash... what a waste)
I'm sort of kicking myself for ordering the onions sets that I did... before looking harder for a local source... but I guess that will give me more things to try.
 
Cathy James
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Thomas Dean wrote:I'm sort of kicking myself for ordering the onions sets that I did... before looking harder for a local source... but I guess that will give me more things to try.



Unfortunately it can be hard to find plant starts locally. It's hit or miss. There is no easy local equivalent of "search on the Internet for a source." We've all gotten spoiled at how easy it is to find online vendors selling whatever we want, but much of the permies culture revolves around individual sharing.

Also, it's not too late to dig up your bulbils, break them apart, and replant farther apart. Trust me, each one of those little bulbils will turn into a huge plant.
 
Thomas Dean
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Cathy James wrote:
Also, it's not too late to dig up your bulbils, break them apart, and replant farther apart. Trust me, each one of those little bulbils will turn into a huge plant.


Thank you for the advice... it's hot, they are stressed, I don't know at this point where I'd plant them all, so I think I will leave them alone for now.  

Also, Re: local sources: I found a few people who remembered others having walking onions in the distant past, but no one could help me track down any current growers.  I just happened to remember a conversation with a friend where she told me about her green onions, and I remember being surprised that she didn't replant them every year (like we do)... the conversation just hit me out of the blue after ordering the plant starts... and an email inquiry led to a surprise gift in the mail.
 
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I live in zone 3 and have been planting my potato onions in the fall ever since I noticed one spring that I had forgotten to pick some the previous year and they were growing.

We were given some mystery bunching onions last fall and thought they were potato onions so we planted them in late fall just before the ground froze. They also came up great and turned out to be Egyptian walking onions.

Will fall planting of our garlic and onions, we plant them and then wait until the first ground freeze before piling on about a foot of mulch. This prevents critters from making a home in the mulch and eating the bulbs over winter.

In the spring, we pulled back at least half of the mulch over the onions because we weren't sure if they could punch through the thick layer like the hard neck garlic does. I think this year we will leave the deep mulch over some of the Egyptian walking onions and see how they go.
 
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