Turkeysong

Experimental Homestead

POTATO ONIONS!

I would like to introduce you to a swell onion that makes its own starts, stores like a rock and tastes great!

(Related post:  Potato onion research.)

Years ago when sharing a garden with my mother, she ordered some small onion sets called potato onions.  From that small beginning we’ve been growing them ever since and have given away dozens of starter bulbs.  The potato onion somewhat resembles a shallot in growth habit.  They tend to be a little bit smaller than shallots and somewhat more rounded.  The bulbs are delicious caramelized, cooked whole in stews and roasts, grilled in their skins on the barbecue and about anywhere you would use a regular storage type onion.  I like potato onions.

I’m really into onions right now.  I’m starting to dream about growing more different varieties and I’m even filling the spring gap between the last leeks and the first scallions with a few store bought onion bulbs. For many years though I pretty well subsisted on only three types of onions from the garden- the leek, scallions and potato onions.  The leeks provide much of the winter fare in the onion department, the scallions are the first in the spring after the leeks have gone to seed and the potato onions keep through the winter and into the summer for use whenever a non-green onion is needed or when the leeks and scallions aren’t available.  Its been a pretty good system.  Regardless of what other Onions I might try growing, I don’t think that potato onions will ever be left out of my garden.

One of the great things about potato onions is that they are grown from bulbs so you never have to start them from seed.  The bulbs keep remarkably well, so there are always starter bulbs to plant as late as mid summer.  One bulb planted will produce usually 5 to 8 more bulbs, though sometimes more.  I’ve tried to grow shallots from bulbs before with limited success.  The shallots seem to bolt every time, but the potato onions rarely try to flower before they are ready to dry off and store away.  I have seen them flower, but its a rare occurrence here.

I plant the bulbs shallowly by pushing them about one half to two thirds of the way into the ground.  I don’t bury them or push them all the way down.  They like to grow mostly out of the ground.  They will start rooting very soon if the soil is moist.  I usually space them around 8 to 10 inches apart in every direction in a grid pattern.  Onions tend to like to be well fed and especially seem to thrive on nitrogen.  I give them a lot of nitrogen through the growing season in the form of diluted urine at about 1/3 urine to 2/3 water.  Onions like that.

The plants get onion thrips like any other onion and occasionally have some rust, but neither of those problems has ever been so bad as to warrant any intervention on my part and they seem otherwise unaffected by pests and diseases and .

When do you harvest potato onions?  At some point your plants will start to look rough and the tips of the leaves begin to die back.  This occurs before they are actually sized up all the way.  Once the plants seem to be really declining, lets say that half of the foliage is dead, stop watering the plants and let them harden off and finish on their own.  In another few weeks, they wilt most of the way down and can be pulled up.  I read somewhere or was told that one should allow onions to dry off most of the way on their own before pulling and though I’ve never tested or confirmed its validity, I’ve always used this approach with good results. Normally, the onions will have almost no live roots left when I pull them up.  If I need the bed I’ll pull them a little early, but I want the tops mostly dead at least.

I usually dry the onions under a tree in the shade with the greens still on.  Spread out in a layer one onion thick.  Once dry the remaining tops can be trimmed off to 3/4 of an inch or so, and the onions stored in a cool dry area through to the next summer.  They keep extremely well, although there are always a small percentage that go bad.

Trimming onions for storage

The tops can also be braided together by drying the tops first and them dipping them briefly in water and waiting a few minutes until they become flexible enough to work with.

Braided potato onions

I guess the only real drawback to potato onions is that they are some work to peel.  They are packed with flavor though and I find them easily worth the effort.  I like to throw some sliced into a pan in which I’ve just cooked some meat and pour in a little white wine or cider to lift the glaze.  Then cook them down repeatedly with a splash of cider each time they cook dry until they are good and caramelized.  Another favorite around here is throwing them on a charcoal grill whole with the skins still on.  When they’re well done they can be squished out of the skins as they are eaten.  Yum!  For stews with large pieces of meat and vegetables, or for roasts, I peel them, but leave them whole.

This year I’ve planted more potato onions than ever and I’m really looking forward to eating them in a few months.  Give potato onions a try and if you aren’t an over privileged, entitled brat that can’t stoop to taking an extra minute of inconvenience to peel a few small onions I think you’ll be glad you did!  Well, to be fair, I’m sure there have been many times when weary from the days activities I found peeling a pile of potato onions less than appealing, but like so many things once you reset your expectations and start to view your food in new lights, peeling a few small onions instead of one big one ain’t so bad after all.

Where to go with potato onions from here:  I’ve tried planting out the early planted crop again as soon as it is mature hoping for a second generation of onions in one growing season.  While I think there is adequate time to make this approach work, the onions have refused to wake up and grow without being stored for an undetermined amount of time.  Unless there is a way to quickly break their dormancy by chilling or other means, it looks like one generation a year will have to do.

One experiment I plan to carry out next year is to plant some very early, even in late winter maybe, and then plant successions.  The bulbs can be eaten when still young and green, so they might make early greens with the bulk allowed to mature in early summer for a supply of summer grilling onions.  The successions or late plantings can then supply the winter and spring storage onions.  No use growing them out early just to store them through much of the summer.

I have occasionally seen potato onions flower.  I think someone out there should start breeding these for more variety.  We could end up with other colored, other flavored, bigger sized or otherwise different potato onions than we have now.  From what I’ve been able to find, they seem to be the same species as regular bulbing onions and shallots so those varieties, of which there are so many, could be used as the other parents making for a multitude of possible outcomes.  If mine flower again I’ll be tempted and I may even try to trick them into flowering for that purpose.  (Since writing this, I’ve found someone who is breeding new potato onions, though not using the self fertile potato onions rather than crossing them out with anything else.  Kelly’s site has information about his experiments and results, check it out!

Kelly’s new breed of bigger potato onions showing the parents on the left and the new variety on the right.

This page at gardenorganic.org from the UK also has much information on potato onions.   They recommend planting deeper than I do and planting in Autumn for larger yields.  Also, they recommend digging carefully and storing without breaking the bulbs apart.  I plan to try all of these suggestions this next year.

Potato onions are hardly grown anymore and most people have never heard of them although they used to be quite popular.  By growing and giving away potato onions you can help save them from extinction.  Forward this article to a gardener you know and help revive our potato onion heritage!

Fedco/moose tubers carries potato onions and they are hands down my favorite seed company anyway, so check out the seed section as well.  http://www.fedcoseeds.com/moose.htm

Also check out:

http://www.southernexposure.com

https://www.mainepotatolady.com

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UPDATE, 12/7/2011

POTATO ONION TORTURE

Plants tend to bolt under stress, so I racked my brain for ways to stress potato onion plants to induce flowering.  I came up with the following list which was carried out on groups of 3 before planting yesterday including one control group.  I know it looks pretty rough, but its for the good of the species.  the potato onion race is run down and needs an infusion of new genes to regain its former glory!

scalding

I also planted some of the potato onions this past season too late… maybe sometime in July?  Those onions didn’t mature.  They are still green and the bulbs are small.  I’m leaving a few clumps of them in the ground in the hopes that they will bolt this spring.  I hope to encourage a few of them using light deprivation and whatever else I can think up.  I hope also to have a few other onions flowering at the same time so that I can make intentional crosses with varieties of single bulbing onions.  Stay tuned for results…

————————————————————————–

UPDATE MARCH 14 th 2012:

I just finished compiling, cleaning up and publishing some research on Potato Onions gleaned from old books and journals.  You can read it here—-> O.  Also, all but two of the tortured onions are growing now, but only one to three inches tall.

___________________________________________

UPDATE JUNE 4th 2012:

I was super stoked to see a flower emerge from one of my Potato Onion bolting induction experiments!  It was from the bulbs that were cut at the base.  Then another!  Then some flower stalks from the onions I planted too late last season and left in the ground all winter.  I think I was feeling a little smug in my success.  Then I saw flowers coming out of this years normally planted regular Potato Onion crop, which is unpreferable really.  No torture, no overwintering in the ground.  Coincidence?  I wonder.  Someone once told me that one should always snap the heads off of flowering onions because if you let onions flower, they “tell” the other onions which can cause them all to flower.  I have never confirmed that or heard it elsewhere, but it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint.  Maybe I did induce flowering and those onions did tell the other onions to flower.  Then again, maybe it’s just coincidence after all.  Whatever the case, I now have A LOT of potato onions going to flower.  I also have a couple other varieties of bulbing onions flowering for potential crossing.  Hopefully that means I’ll have a lot of seeds to grow out into new varieties of potato onions!

Just FFR the potato onions that bolted first were two of the ones which had cut bases.  That is a I cut a cross pattern into the bottom plate of the onion bulb.  The second to flower, shortly after were the overwintered bunches which are producing copious amounts of flowers.

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June 16, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , ,

28 Comments »

  1. I got a few from you, or maybe Mark, at the NSSLF last year and planted them in the fall. Didn’t have a really good spot for them so growth is a little sparse, but they are multiplying and I’ll probably re-plant most of what I get. Hopefully in a better-prepared bed this time.

    I’m also fond of walking onions, which are delicious – fiery hot when uncooked, but very sweet, they mellow quickly when cooked and caramelize rapidly. But they don’t store worth a damn – worse even than shallots. Extremely prolific though and excellent pickled!

    Storage onions are tricky here, the long spring with repeated warm/cold cycles tends to throw them into bolting when the weather finally settles down and warms the soil. I need to experiment with a bunch of different varieties to see if there are some that handle this climate better than others.

    Comment by Tim | June 16, 2011 | Reply

  2. I have planted the potato onions in the fall and winter, but usually I wait until may or june anymore. That way they aren’t ready for winter storage too soon. The winter weather doesn’t seem to do them any good and they mature up fairly rapidly. I’ve tried to get two crops in a year by planting early too, but the new just harvested onions didn’t want to grow. Maybe they need a storage period or something… apparently. Anyway, it didn’t work. Haven’t tried walking onions, but heard about them. It would be cool to breed the potato onions with some other onion types and see what one could come up with. I imagine it would still be the rare seedling that would behave the same and have any improved traits, but if it was easy it’d be boring.

    Comment by turkeysong | June 16, 2011 | Reply

  3. Hey Steven – I got potato onions ordered this year, they told me they are shipped in the fall. I got mine from Terretorial Seeds. I am really excited to add another perenial onion to the gardens, right now I have Walking onions (I also really like these), chives, and a perenial bunching onion. Once I get the potato onions planted, I probably will not eat them for the first year or two, but replant them to build up their numbers. When it comes to harvesting and drying them, they sound a lot like garlic. Yum.

    Comment by autonomyacres | June 17, 2011 | Reply

  4. Interesting that they ship in the fall. I wouldn’t think they would appreciate overwintering up where you live, but I’m interested to hear your experience. I just haven’t seen the advantage of early planting here. I used to think I should plant them in winter to get an early start or something, but I think I eventually just realized that they were ready too early anyway. I figure they will store better if they finish out in fall instead of the middle of summer. They seem to grow and mature pretty rapidly. Maybe I’ll experiment next year with planting at different times and pay more attention. I would like them available more of the year and two crops a year would be awesome. In the meantime, I’m looking for onion variety recommendations. I’m mostly interested in excellent keepers that have excellent flavor. I like richness in flavor and high sugar more than sharp onion intensity.

    You can usually count on an average of at least 5 bulbs per each planted. So if you had 6 or more bulbs you’ll have a really good seed crop at the end of the year. I’m growing more than ever this year not only because I eat a lot, but so I can give more starts away locally. I’m always trying to talk people into growing them. I tend to plant them in blocks, but they are also good fillers for small open spaces in beds. I’ve grown them in tree mulch beds and nursery rows and stuff like that. The leaf clumps are about 10 or 12 inches around. They are so easy to plant you can just walk around with a basket of them tucking them in here and there.

    Comment by turkeysong | June 17, 2011 | Reply

  5. I just found this guy ( http://sites.google.com/site/kellysgarden/potato-onions ) while surfing for potato onion stuff. Kelly has been breeding potato onions, just as I recently suggested someone do in a recent editing of this blog post. Yay, go Kelly! It appears that he has had great success and I hope his success emboldens more of us to follow in his footsteps to make a rainbow of potato onion varieties. I’m reminded of the Andean potato farmers who plant dozens of varieties of potatoes of all different shapes and colors together. Since potato onions don’t cross, one could keep a large collection without even keeping them separate and labeled. I have a feeling potato onions are experiencing or maybe about to experience, a renaissance.

    Comment by turkeysong | August 27, 2011 | Reply

  6. Hi turkeysong and others: I am Kelly, mentioned above. I’m glad to see my efforts being noticed. I think Potato Onions should be grown in more home gardens because of the faltering economy and peoples’ desire to be for self-sufficient. This year I have a great bed of trial potato onions, and now have yellow (golden) ones, red (deep reddish-brown) ones, a purple one, and pure white ones. As I develop and stabilize these, I will be able to share these new colors (resurrected colors of old extinct varieties) with others, hoping to reintroduce the old-fashioned varieties of the 1850s.

    Watch the link that turkeysong gave above for me, because sometime in October 2011 (when I get some time!) I will be updating with some new theories about Potato Onions that express some of my research and experience during the last year.

    Comment by Kelly Winterton | August 27, 2011 | Reply

  7. here’s a link to my 30-page booklet I wrote about my experiences with Potato Onions:

    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1jnqst7-9YfWFovhqjARtcZZVJC0TPzKsow_5mdAwnyA/edit?hl=en_US

    Comment by Kelly Winterton | January 27, 2012 | Reply

  8. I’m growing lots of potato onions, and other alliums. Planted some bulbs that top-set on a large red onion growing by my potato onions and egyptian top-set dividing onions. Still early here in central texas but getting some interesting results. At least one of the red onions is already dividing into it looks like 3 or 4 onions. If it top-sets to and forms large onions I will be very happy. Would like to share some of what I have for what you have.

    Mark Albers

    Comment by Mark Albers | January 28, 2012 | Reply

    • That is interesting I have both and both have top sets. I have read where the Potato at times will top set. I let the Potato stock almost dry to the top set then planted it in a container, they are doing well. Next season will tell. I got the Potato’s from my brother when I was visiting him August of last summer so I do know they are them. The Egyptian I got from a grower in Eastern Washington. I must say they both are very interesting growers. Though I might have planted my potato’s to deep. Next Spring will be exciting.

      Comment by Ed Tieman | July 18, 2013 | Reply

  9. [...] from widely varying geographies that they authors are referring to.  See also my previous detailed blog post on Potato Onions. for more details about the onions and their culture, which is probably a better place to start [...]

    Pingback by Turkeysong | March 14, 2012 | Reply

  10. Loved all the info on potato onion. Am looking forward to getting some. I garden in michigan. Read about them in “Perennial vegetables” by eric toensmeier. THANK YOU

    Comment by Mary Ehmen | March 17, 2012 | Reply

  11. [...] reluctance to produce flowers and learn to induce flowering when we want it.  As I said in edits to my previous post about Potato Onions, I was trying to get mine to seed this year.  How much of them going to seed had to do with my [...]

    Pingback by Mr. Wintertons Remarkable Potato Onion! « Turkeysong | August 23, 2012 | Reply

  12. A few weeks ago I planted my first Onions and they are already 8 inches tall and I am preparing another bed for my next bunch from my brother. I live in Graham Wa. and it will be interesting to see how they grow here.

    Comment by Ed Tieman | September 14, 2012 | Reply

  13. Today is the day I totaly read your site about the Potatoe Onion. Comparing your site to others yours is the most informative. An update on the 23 August planting most of them are right at 12 inches tall and new shoots are showing. A few weeks ago I planted my second bunch where they will be in in half shade during the summer. Because of our rain condition I am having to water every other day.

    This Spring after the last frost I am going to plant some right on top of the ground.

    Comment by Ed Tieman | October 4, 2012 | Reply

  14. [...] POSTS:  Mr Winterton’s Remarkable Potato Onions, POTATO ONIONS!, The Historic Potato Onion Like this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

    Pingback by Where to Buy Potato Onion Starts « Turkeysong | October 6, 2012 | Reply

  15. I’m in Australia and just came across potato onions in a gardening catalogue I receive from Diggers Club. They’re selling potato onions (presumably small white as they look small and they’re white) and hence I’ve been hitting Dr Google all afternoon to find out more information. Temperatures here reach lows of -4C (about 25F) so I’m thinking that even with the frosts we get they might well be ok to overwinter here. I’m going to get some and whack em in. I’ve seen references to people planting them along with garlic and I plonked my garlic in yesterday so it’s well worth a try I reckon.
    Anyway, just wanted to let you know that there are others out there (Diggers Club I mean) doing their bit to keep the heritage breeds alive. The time will come soon along with the peak oil crisis when people will be profoundly grateful for the productivity and resiliance of vegetables like this. :) This it the link FYI. http://www.diggers.com.au/shop/product/BPOO/POTATO%20ONIONS.aspx

    Comment by rabidlittlehippy | May 14, 2013 | Reply

    • Those aren’t white potato onions. The skin would be white, not just the flesh. They actually look different than our yellow potato onions too both in shape and the flesh color, but it’s difficult to tell from a picture. I’d give them a shot for sure. You should have zero issues with the climate being too cold there. I planted mine on the winter solstice on this side of the equator and they did just Ok. frost heave pushed a lot of them out of the ground, so some were not able to root. I’ve also noticed a few seed heads for the second year in a row, which is quite unusual. I suspect it has to do with early planting. You might plant some around the solstice and then save a few for later to see what difference there is. I don’t even have most of mine in yet as of mid may, but I’ll bet they’ll grow just fine and produce a late good keeping crop as long as I get them in before the first of june. Good luck with those, they look interesting!

      Comment by Stevene | May 14, 2013 | Reply

      • Well there you go, another variety to add to the diversity bank. :) I don’t think I’ve ever seen frost heave and I doubt we’d get it here so they are on the trial list. :)
        Thanks for replying too and I’m so glad I’ve found your blog.

        Comment by rabidlittlehippy | May 14, 2013

      • A friend just sent me a link to another place to purchase them with both brown and white. Learning all the time. http://yelwekfarmoca.com/buy-potato-onions-now/

        Comment by rabidlittlehippy | May 14, 2013

      • The Potato Onions I have are brown skinned. This is the first time I have ever tried growing them along with the Egyption Onions. It will be interesting to see when they are ready to harvest. On the Potato Onions they were about inch and half in dia when I got them planting them in August and I live in Graham Washington.
        Thank you for the reply.

        They are a most interesting growing plant.
        Ed Tieman

        Comment by Ed Tieman | May 14, 2013

      • I forgot to tell you they are about 2 1/2 feet tall. Is there some way I can send you photos?

        Comment by Ed Tieman | May 14, 2013

      • I’ve seen plenty of photos from googling but thank you. :)

        Comment by rabidlittlehippy | May 14, 2013

  16. From what I have read about Potato Onions they multiply in the ground, but I have some that are putting out buds at the top. When do I pick the buds for planting? Right now I have one that put on a bulb at the top and another stem (single) grew from that one and that one has also put on a bulb. At the first bulb it was 30 inches tall now it is at 38 inches tall, and yes I have it staked. I want to see how tall it will grow.

    Comment by Ed Tieman | May 30, 2013 | Reply

    • They should multiply at ground level because they grow best when planted at the soil surface rather than buried. What you have is probably a flower bud. If you let it open and go to seed, you’ll have seeds to try planting. They may not grow the same as the original, but you could come up with your own variety. If it really is a bulb, maybe you egyptian topsetting onions. I don’t believe potato onions ever make bulbs on stalks like that.

      Comment by Stevene | May 30, 2013 | Reply

  17. I just harvested my potato onions and I cannot relate just how impressed I am. One of my bulbs multiplied into 19 bulbs! Yep, 19!!! :O I now praise potato onions to whomever is listening and have several friends all going to give them a go. THANK YOU for this post on them, without which I never would have a) found your blog and b) given potato onions a try. Oh, and my potato onions did tremendously with little help aside from the occasional water from me. I am hoping to buy some more and try planting them late summer for a crop in winter then panting some of the crop I’ve ust harvested for next Summer’s crop. It may not work but well worth a try I reckon. :)

    Comment by rabidlittlehippy | January 8, 2014 | Reply

    • Usually when they produce that many, the bulbs are smaller, but good for planting the next year to get big eating bulbs. The only time of year I can’t plant them is in the summer. If you get them in too late, they won’t go dormant and they’ll just grow through to the next summer. It might be a good way to get them to flower and they will produce a crap ton of little sets for planting, so it’s not a total loss necessarily. Otherwise, anytime fall to late spring, or even early June can work as long as they don’t freeze super duper hard. They are pretty hardy. I winter plant them and they get frost heaved right out of the ground frozen solid all the time. I just stick ‘em back in. I’m planting more of them at different timings this year to see what they do. So far, the promise of early ripening from early planting has not been evident, so I’m almost inclined to just wait for spring, but still testing the idea.

      Comment by Stevene | January 8, 2014 | Reply

      • They’re pretty incredible aye. 19 and yes, some were fairly small but we’ll work our way through them. I had to harvest them a little earlier so I was heartened to see you’ve done the same too. They’re just finishing off their drying out now and I can’t wait to braid them up and then try and find them somewhere to hang.
        I eagerly await your updates on how your different planting times, as well as onion/potato onion crossing goes.

        Comment by rabidlittlehippy | January 8, 2014

      • You’re in australia right? What kind did you end up with? They may be different than mine. I have a feeling that if looked into deeply, the nomenclature would be confusing and the line between potato onions and shallots blurry at best. That’s the problem with common names and why we have species names in botany.

        Comment by Stevene | January 8, 2014


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