It's the Year of the Onion, according to the National Garden Bureau, an organization that honors certain plants. This is good news indeed. Last year was an onion disaster, at least in my garden, where onions had thrived for 20 years.
My O's went on strike last summer, refusing to honor their contract to grow big and fat in rich, loose soil. I gave those plants all the riches of the earth, and how did they repay me? With a dismal crop, barely bigger than the small, dormant bulbs (called "sets") from which they sprouted.
I remember my disbelief in digging up those onions. Was it my imagination, or had some of them actually shrunk since planting? Brushing back tears, I carried the meager harvest inside. A poor onion crop can make a grown man cry.
Of course, I blamed myself for the lousy yield. Onions are among the easiest vegetables to grow. Given good loamy soil and lots of water, they normally produce plump, juicy bulbs with enough bite to jazz up any burger.
Raising onions from sets, as I do, is even easier than growing them from seed. Onion sets are already half-grown; someone else has nurtured them through adolescence. All the gardener ++ need do is drop them in the dirt.
Well, it's not quite that simple. The bulbs do need to be covered with one-half inch of soil. And there's a trick to planting them correctly. But it doesn't take a brain surgeon to know what's meant by "pointy-end up."
I follow all the rules. That's why I'm perplexed by last year's harvest. Onions grow best in cool weather, so I plant them in March, as soon as the soil can be worked. I crank up the rototiller, which sputters and hisses at being awakened so rudely. Then man and machine chug along through the onion bed, mixing several loads of compost and rotted barn manure into the dark, deep loam.
Turning the soil for the first time each year is a gardener's delight. Here are the sights and smells of hope, of spring. Breaking ground unlocks the aroma of new-plowed earth; is there a more decent odor around? The tiller purrs through the garden, exposing sluggish earthworms, nature's own little rototillers, who writhe to the surface, ready to churn up some ground of their own. A flock of crows lands in my wake, helping themselves to the squiggly brown feast.
Is it any wonder that the onion, one the first veggies planted each year, ranks among America's favorite home-grown crops? A vote for the onion is a vote for spring. I'd raise any plant as an excuse to dig early in the cool, clean soil. Except brussels sprouts, of course.
Onions have been cultivated for more than 5,000 years. The bulbs were favored by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, who stuffed their Olympic athletes with raw onions, ostensibly for medicinal purposes. No doubt the diet improved the athletes' speed. No one wanted to run a race behind Onion Breath.
Onions were a mainstay in early-American gardens; what bulbs the Colonists didn't eat, they hung over their doorways to ward off disease. (The odor alone discouraged most visitors.)
Those pioneers were on the right track. According to some scientific studies, eating onions helps lower one's cholesterol and may help to prevent heart attacks -- though I nearly swooned when I saw last year's harvest.
Where did I err? It's a mystery to me. I choose my onion sets carefully, from a reputable nursery. No prepackaged sets for this gardener; I select the bulbs individually from a large bucket, taking care to examine each one for discoloration and disease.
It's also important to pick proper-sized sets -- small ones are best. Once I chose only the largest bulbs, believing they would produce the biggest onions. What I got was a row of plants with flowering stalks. The big bulbs had "bolted," or gone to seed, rendering the edible portion useless.
Now, when I go to the bucket, I shoot for the little guys. I learned that lesson years ago, with other caveats of onion-growing. I thought I'd conquered this humble vegetable until it brought me to my knees.
Come March, I'll be kneeling again -- to plant more onions. Gardeners are a stubborn lot; I'm convinced that one bad harvest won't lead to another. Not in the Year of the Onion, anyway.