How About Them O's?


March 01, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

It won't be long now. When the ground thaws and the birds sing, a gardener's thoughts turn to just one thing.

The O's.

Yep, it's nearly time to plant the onions.

Perhaps you've heard of the O's. They've been known to make grown men cry. The O's usually finish the season in the cellar, with good reason. It's the the best room in which to store onions for winter.

Did you hear the O's are moving this year? Mine are going from one end of the garden to the other this month. Like most vegetables, onions respond well to crop rotation.

The most popular O's are potbellied old-timers with names like Stuttgarter and Ebenezer. Consistency is their game; these onions rarely disappoint.

If you plant them, they will grow.

I can't wait to get out there and start rooting them on.

When rookie gardeners ask what to plant, I make a pitch for the onion. Grown from "sets," or bulbs, onions are the most $l dependable crop around. You pop them into the ground in early spring, cover the tips with a pinch of soil and watch them grow.

Including onions in the garden is like having Cal Ripken Jr. as a leadoff hitter.

The O's seldom strike out. Not that I haven't given them plenty of chances.

I've raised onions for 26 years, ever since high school when I was inspired by the lyrics of a quirky pop tune entitled "I Love Onions." The words were:

"I don't like shoes that pinch your toes, or people that squirt you with a garden hose but, oooooooohh, I love onions. I don't like snails or toads or frogs, or strange things living under logs but, oooooooohh, I love onions."

Well, that song sold me. I walked down to Muir's Hardware Store in Catonsville and bought a bag of white and yellow onion sets. Though disappointed in the size of the scrawny, little bulbs, less than 1/2 inch in diameter, I planted them anyway. But I vowed to buy the sets earlier the next year, before the biggest ones were taken.

I watered and fertilized the little onion bed, hoping for a miracle. Nearly two weeks later, a row of slim green shoots poked through the soil. The onions grew to magnificent size. And I was hooked on gardening forever.

L That was in 1966, a pretty good year for the O's all around.

The following spring, flushed with success, I planted the largest onion sets I could find -- big, fat bulbs more than twice the size of the first ones. Big mistake. Because of their size, most of the onions went to seed before the crop matured. Atop their stalks, each onion formed a seed pod that looked not unlike the dome of a Russian Orthodox church. I was devastated. My onions were ruined and the back yard resembled a miniature Moscow. I don't think the CIA ever noticed, though.

Ever since, I plant only the smallest bulbs. Stuttgarter is my favorite; cured properly, the harvested onions keep all winter.

Plant onion sets 2 inches apart in well-drained, loamy soil in early spring. Cover the tips with just enough soil to protect them from foraging birds and squirrels, either of which can decimate a crop overnight.

Cabbage and lettuce make good neighbors for onions. Peas and beans do not.

The onion's shallow roots make it ideal for planters and window ** boxes. Water the plants regularly and cultivate frequently by hand; given the chance, onions surrender easily to weeds.

Scallions, or green onions, may be harvested when the tops reach 6 inches. Onions are near maturity when their tops yellow in late summer. This is the gardener's cue to stop watering. Unfortunately, some of us mistake the yellowing for drought, drown the poor plants in water and wreck the crop's storage quality.

Harvest onions when the tops collapse. Dry the bulbs in a shady spot for a week, trim all but 1 inch of the tops and store in a cool, dry room. Use thick-necked onions first: They are most susceptible to rot.

Onions have affected the course of world history. They fed the slaves who built the pyramids and saved countless lives during the Civil War, when doctors used onion juice to cleanse wounds.

Onions were also discovered in the ruins of Pompeii. The O's were mighty hot that year.

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