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Potato onions- the easy-to-grow “perennial” crop

 
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Tristan Vitali wrote:
... The big thing to watch for with them is the neck thickness - use any with thick necks as they'll be least likely to make it to spring.



That's interesting. I was wondering what other factors contribute to storage. Thanks for sharing.

I was also wondering  about long day versus short day.  Do you think that how far north you are is contributing to the small size?  Or your shorter seasons?

I found a good writeup on potato onions on Cultivariable that I don't know if I posted above:

Cultivariable - Potato Onions

Lots of interesting info in there.  Supposedly there are more long day than short day potato onions.  I suspected this...it's a part of my reason for getting them going from seed in the past couple years.  I'm down in the short-day latitudes.
 
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So Tom, do you see any storage differences among your wildcrosses?



Yes.  

The original yellow potato onion (YPO) stock keeps better than the YPO stock being grown out from pure strain true seed.  I did not expect this and I think this will reverse over time.  The original YPO stock I received from a neighbor who had been growing them out and replanting them faithfully every year since the 1950s.  I have been growing the original stock every year since they were gifted to me.  Perhaps the original strain still being reproduced vegetatively is now locally adapted and this has something to do with this circumstance.  The original YPO strain reproduced vegetatively regularly keeps for up to 1 1/2 years though at a high loss rate towards the end.  I consider such a long storage rate a trait worthy of selecting for because it gets the remaining stock to spring planting time of the second growing season since harvest, which acts as an insurance policy against a failed season/crop.  But this kind of timeframe is expecting a lot.  At this point many of the bulbs of the original YPO grown out from pure strain true seed keep as long but there is a much higher loss rate.

My shallot strains regularly keep well in storage through my long winter months until spring planting time, then decline rapidly by around the one year mark since harvest.  That is all I expect of them is to make it to springtime and maybe the next fall for fall planting.  (In fall I plant a lot of old stock as well as new stock.)

My crossed up PO stock is highly variable and keeping qualities are generally not as good as the original YPO strain.  This is a young project and time will tell but I think things will work out to my satisfaction.

Failure in storage/poor keeping qualities to me is my number one means of selecting against undesirable/feeble strains.  This has meant that shallot strains are consistently maintaining a lower percentage of the crop being planted every spring and fall.  I am fine with this.  

Poor keeping qualities and early sprouting in storage was the primary reason I abandoned all my Kelly Winterton PO stock...

It should be noted that my crop is harvested second half of July/early August and spring planting time for me is second half of April.  That is a very long time to be storing anything.  (I also fall plant.)

I feel how I harvest is a major factor on keeping quality.  I try to let bulbs dry down completely in the ground and then harvest cured bulbs just before the next rain.  Plants finish off at a variable rate so this harvest process is repeated over a couple of weeks but always before the next rain event.  POs have a short dormancy period and mature bulbs ready for harvest for storage getting wet is just not a good thing.

I left them in the greenhouse with temps reaching about 110F in the day and down in the 50s at night.  After about a month, I sorted them out - first removing any that rotted or softened dramatically. Then I sorted them by size. So what was left were potato onions that could really last in bad conditions.



I like the way you think, yours is radical selection.  I cure my crop in the ground then harvest, clean, and trim.  I store my stock at a constant 50 degrees in total darkness.  I inspect stored stock monthly and cull out any sprouting or rotting bulbs.  Rot begets more rot, causing faster decline of remaining inventory.

...they never used a whole onion and so half would often go to waste.  So a small onion was a plus!  I would never have guessed that benefit because when I cook even for only myself, I use at LEAST one onion.  Lots of onions in my diet.  So the small size is a tad annoying to me, but I still like potato onions for how easily they multiply and grow, and how well they store.



I am the same way, much preferring the smaller onions as I can use what I need and have no leftovers in the fridge.  To me prepping the smaller size bulbs is no different than prepping garlic cloves.
 
Kim Goodwin
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Tom Knippel wrote:

It should be noted that my crop is harvested second half of July/early August and spring planting time for me is second half of April.  That is a very long time to be storing anything.  (I also fall plant.)



What zone are you in, Tom?  Where I am in the desert, zone 8a, near the US/Mexico border, I can also plant them in the ground in late fall and let them grow all winter.  Also, in Oregon I could fall plant as long as the ground they were planted in wasn't going to flood. The difference here in the desert is that they do need supplemental water in the winter.  Oregon was a little simpler that way.  But I like having living and growing plant roots in garden all times of year, and onions of all types are a great plant for that in my climate.

I really like how you are aiming for long storage times, and flexibility on planting time.  That strikes me as keeping the original versatility of the potato onion.  I think this is why the onion has been a cultivated crop for millennia now - it's incredibly versatile.  It comes with a protective storage wrapper (can't say that for potatoes or carrots...),  it can be carried over long distances then plopped in the ground in a totally new region (wet or dry, hot or cold) and still grow and produce food even if the timing/season isn't optimal.  That's a fantastic plant!

It's fascinating that even with the day/night length sensitivity it's still become a primary crop.  I suspect the day/night length characteristic might also have benefits we haven't figured out yet.  I have often found in my life that hurdles have advantages that we haven't yet perceived.

When I share with new people about potato onions, I try to explain how they came to be through that vision of nomadic peoples, or trade routes, or just the settlers across the Americas. This is the sort of plant you could tuck in a leather satchel, carry long distances, and start your garden with...fast.  

Those genetics are not just an interesting part of history; they are something we may all benefit from in the future.  Food security in the face of shortages or distribution issues is one hot topic today, but even if that doesn't happen on a major scale - what if commercial onions develop some very successful pest or disease that wipes out a lot of the crop or varieties, or even damages the storing ability?  Long storing potato onions could hold the key to salvaging the monocultured genetics that dominate the food system right now.  

I don't think I've pointed this out well enough in this thread.  Today it occurred to me that maybe it's not an obvious thing to everyone reading this thread, rather than those of us participating in the development of these new varieties.  Sometimes it seems to "obvious" to me why I'm doing something and I forget how inexplicable it looks to others!  Until I get those quizzical looks - they help remind me.

Now I'm curious as to what other people's friends and neighbors think of these potato onion experiments and how one communicates the purpose.

Tom Knippel wrote:
I feel how I harvest is a major factor on keeping quality.  I try to let bulbs dry down completely in the ground and then harvest cured bulbs just before the next rain.  Plants finish off at a variable rate so this harvest process is repeated over a couple of weeks but always before the next rain event.  POs have a short dormancy period and mature bulbs ready for harvest for storage getting wet is just not a good thing.

... I cure my crop in the ground then harvest, clean, and trim.  I store my stock at a constant 50 degrees in total darkness.  I inspect stored stock monthly and cull out any sprouting or rotting bulbs.  Rot begets more rot, causing faster decline of remaining inventory.



These are great tips on storage.  

Yes, I was doing radical selection with the greenhouse treatment - part because I didn't want to have to store them and the other factor being that I didn't have enough room to grow out the whole crop.  But I still wanted to have some information about which ones may have stored well.  

And then it occurred to me that if I shared them with others in our local seed/plant share group, I would get free labor.  (To any of my neighbors reading this, please know I'm joking...sort of.)  They will grow them out, we will see which are successful, and most importantly who likes them.  I don't know if they all realize they were enlisted in a worldwide potato onion breeding project.   I think this counts as "infecting minds [and gardens] with permaculture".

 
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Kim Goodwin wrote:

Tristan Vitali wrote:
... The big thing to watch for with them is the neck thickness - use any with thick necks as they'll be least likely to make it to spring.



That's interesting. I was wondering what other factors contribute to storage. Thanks for sharing.

I was also wondering  about long day versus short day.  Do you think that how far north you are is contributing to the small size?  Or your shorter seasons?

I found a good writeup on potato onions on Cultivariable that I don't know if I posted above:

Cultivariable - Potato Onions

Lots of interesting info in there.  Supposedly there are more long day than short day potato onions.  I suspected this...it's a part of my reason for getting them going from seed in the past couple years.  I'm down in the short-day latitudes.



I don't know for sure that the variety I'm growing is a long day, but I do suspect it is. I ordered these from territorial seed, which no longer carries them evidently, so not sure how to check on that. They always attempt to flower and we use those for salads (or just eat them straight in the garden!). Spring planting might keep them from attempting to run to seed, but would cut deeply into their growing season as they often are up and growing before the ground has fully thawed (they emerge about as early as the daffodils and garlic). They are definitely hardy enough for the far north which leads me to think they're a northern variety, at least

I really can't point to anything other than soil - we're working our way up from dense, heavy clay with nearly no organic matter, so the soil conditions are always a huge factor for them here. Freshly turned soil full of nitrogen rich organic matter like clover produces more per cluster, and generally larger with sweeter flavor while beds that haven't been turned in a year or two with little organic matter tend to produce smaller, fewer and much stronger tasting. Sort of obvious on that end. The smaller and stronger onions have always been our best keepers up to this point which I put down to the concentration of sulfur compounds and amount of water content. Could be wrong on that.

We also do nearly no irrigation having a fairly consistent 3 to 4 inch rainfall per month through the growing season. Some years, though, aren't that easy. We've had a few droughty years with less than 1 inch per month for a month or two as well as other years with upwards of 6 inches per month for a month or two. Last year we got both in the same season! Every year is different here in northern new england

Breaking things out a bit, though, and sussing out what I can about their behavior with different conditions, it seems that nitrogen and water seem to be the biggest factors for size, while water and organic matter seem to be the biggest factors for flavor and number per cluster. It's hard to say that all three aren't inextricably linked in my soil, however as organic matter = nitrogen = steadier soil moisture levels. Nitrogen fertilization alone seems to increase size somewhat, but doesn't seem to lead to more per cluster.

And good news for mid winter: the higher nitrogen content of the partially composted chicken manure on last year's beds hasn't affected storage any. I was expecting a lot of soft onions by about now. With still another 4 months to go before the green onion / scallion is ready to take over for them, it's still a question in my mind, but so far we've had comparable to maybe better storage than previous years.

 
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I came across this post while looking up more info on potato onions, after learning of their existence by stumbling across Full Sky Farm while searching for a seller of Egyptian Walking Onions! I actually just ordered some Green Mountain bulbs from them, so they must have just had a dry spell or something, since they're currently selling them!

Cathy James wrote:"FullSkyFarm on Etsy sells bulbs and seeds from three varieties, including Green Mountain."

I have checked their offering periodically over a period of many months without ever seeing Green Mountain bulbs offered, only seeds. I would like to get some Green Mountain bulbs, which will be easy to start and breed true, rather than seeds, which are a pain to start and will be an F2 generation that doesn't breed true.

Have they stopped offering bulbs, or did they just have a year when supply didn't meet demand?

Does anyone know where I could get Green Mountain multiplier *bulbs*?  Or perhaps Dakota Red, or Dakota Gold?  I have been unable to find bulbs for sale for any of the varieties that Kelly Winterton created, despite a lot of looking online.

 
Kim Goodwin
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Welcome to Permies, Kathryn!

I'm glad you found this post.  It was created as an attempt to catalog most of the core sources of information found on the net, as well as sources for seed and bulbs of potato onions.  

Potato onions are only seasonally available, and so it is good that you've found some.  Let us know how they do for you!  

I love this thread, and how I continue to be educated by people writing into this thread with new information.  Glad you found it and thanks for sharing.
 
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That's correct. Potato onions are only seasonally available, as I eventually learned. Plan to order in late summer or fall, and don't expect to find any in spring.

I did get some Green Mountain Multiplier potato onions, but many died the first year. I'm unsure if I will have any at the end of the second season here. They don't seem to do as well here as the common yellow-brown small potato onions.
 
Tristan Vitali
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Cathy James wrote:I did get some Green Mountain Multiplier potato onions, but many died the first year. I'm unsure if I will have any at the end of the second season here. They don't seem to do as well here as the common yellow-brown small potato onions.



Good to know - was thinking about trying these myself at some point. My seed-saving trials from whatever variety / selection of potato onion I have produced no plants at all a couple times already. The hope was to breed for improvement in size and quality, hence looking elsewhere when the saved-seeds proved sterile, but at least what I've got is hardy enough to handle the tundra
 
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