Onion Update

Last year was my first time growing onions & it was so much fun.

Copra Onions - Mid-July 2015
The Camelot shallots, Copras & Red Wings are in bed #11.  I harvested all of the Camelot shallots & most of the Copra onions last week.  Unlike the tomatoes, the onions are much further advanced then they were at this point last year - perhaps all the heat we have been having put them in fast forward?  You can clearly see the year-to-year difference in the Copra photos above and below.

Copra Onions - Mid-July 2014
In 2014, none of the onions fell over until around mid-August.  This year, the Camelot shallots fell over in mid-July.  Only a few days later, the majority of Copras were also down, so it looks like we are about 3-4 weeks ahead of schedule.

Camelot shallots falling over in mid-July
The last variety in this bed, Red Wing, is still standing tall.

Bed # 6 holds Rossa di Milano, Ailsa Craig, perennial bunching onions, a few leeks and the potato onions.

I harvested the potato onions a couple of weeks ago & they were a bit of a flop.  Potato onions (not potatoes at all and it’s uncertain how they got that name) are onions that are grown much in the same way as shallots.  They are a multiplier type onion where you plant a bulb which then goes on to multiply into 3 or more onions.  These are harvested and then you save the best specimens for replanting.  Potato onions were actually quite common in home vegetable gardens until the early 20th century.

Although I’ve seen some sources indicate that potato onions are in fact a type of shallot, I’ve seen others dispute this.  All I know is that it’s an interesting idea & I had wanted to try potato onions ever since I first heard of them.

I was even more intrigued when I read Kelly Winterton’s paper on them.  I consider him to be THE potato onion expert.  I really wanted to try one of his varieties but, unfortunately, that wasn’t possible due to border restrictions, so instead of bulbs, he sent me some potato onion seeds.  The only thing with using seeds is that they do not grow true to type, so you never know what you will get.

So last year, I sowed the seeds and subsequently harvested a wide variety of sizes & colours:

Potato onions grown from seed last year
So back to my potato onion semi-failure.  I say semi-failure because, although most of the plants bolted, they did divide – a lot.  I had some onions that divided into over 12 segments.  However, the fact that most of them bolted sort of overshadowed this.

I planted the bulbs pictured above in the fall, the same way I plant golden shallots (which have never bolted), so this may have been a factor.  Initially I was planning on planting a few in the fall & the rest in the spring, just to see what the difference would be.  Unfortunately, all of the potato onions showed signs of leek moth* damage.  I was concerned that they wouldn’t keep long enough to plant in the spring & decided to go ahead and plant them all in the fall instead.  The good news is that not all of the plants bolted.  I'll try to hold those that didn't bolt over until next year and try again.  Hopefully they keep that long.

My leek moth* issues last year prompted me to cover the allium beds with netting this time round.  I used my standard hoops & netting and everything was doing just fine until the tops of all the plants started pushing against the netting.  Who knew that alliums grew that tall?

Shallot & Garlic bed
before I expanded the netting
I had to put in taller supports & netting on all of the allium beds.  Unfortunately I didn’t have enough netting to cover both onion beds as well as the garlic/shallot bed, so one of the onion beds went without until I had an opportunity to head to William Dam to get some more.  And I paid the price for waiting so long.

The last bed to get the expanded covering was the one with the potato onions, which were huge by that point & their foliage was pushing up the netting and flopping all over the other onions.

I forgot to take a photo of the bed before I took off the shorter netting, but the photo above shows the higher support so you can image how squished the onions were with supports that were about 12" shorter.  I really should have harvested the potato onions long before this, basically as soon as I saw them bolting, but obviously, I didn't get around to it.  I finally did harvest them after this photo was taken, but all of that congestion in the bed likely caused a lack of good air flow & some of the leaves on the remaining onions were turning brown and had dark patches on them.

Dark Patches on Browned Leaves

At first, I thought the dark spots may simply be dirt, but when I looked more closely, I saw this:

Bottom leaf is just starting to be affected;
the top leaf has completely died back and you can clearly see the fuzzy mold
After a bit of research, I’m thinking this is downy mildew.  The onions in the other onion bed that received the taller covering sooner are just fine – no sign of mildew.  I wasn’t sure how to deal with this, so I simply trimmed off all of the brown leaves before I covered the bed with the taller netting.

Onions before trimming

Onions after trimming
(I still had to do the right side of the bed at this point)
You'll notice that several of the Rossa di Milano onions had already started to fall over.  Those have since been harvested and about half of this variety remains in the bed.

When I started the onions back in February, I still had a lot of last years harvest hanging in my basement plus several bags of chopped onions in the freezer.  Since I had a few more months to go until this year’s harvest, I wasn’t certain whether the quantity I grew was just enough or too much (although I was fairly sure it wouldn’t be too little).  So I ended up sowing roughly the same number as I did last year.

I can now say that it was too much - I will be changing things up in the allium beds next year and growing fewer storage onions and more garlic, green onions and leeks (if they work out this year!).

As it turns out, the onions have kept unbelievably well.  I haven't even touched the 4 large zip lock bags of frozen, chopped onions in the freezer (although I did use the ones that I caramelized and froze into dish sized portions - those came in super handy) and there are still onions hanging in the basement.

Balance of last years harvest
(in addition to the frozen onions)
I froze a portion of last years harvest (about 1/3 of it) because, just like with the potato onions, I had leek moth damage and I wasn’t sure the storage onions would keep well in the basement.  I don't have an actual amount for the number of onions I froze vs. hung up, but based on my 2/3 dry storage estimate, I would say that I hung around 175 onions in total.  Ailsa Craig onions are not included in these numbers as I don't consider them a storage onion & they were the first to be used up...all of them were gone within a couple of months of harvest.

I kept track of those that sprouted or spoiled in storage and this is the tally:

Copra - Total of 8 sprouted/spoiled - One sprouted in March, April and May and then there were 5 in June & 1 this month.  You can see I still have several that are ok in the photo above, although they are drying out a bit.

Rossa di Milano - Total of 15 sprouted/spoiled - 1 sprouted in January but the next wasn't until mid-March.  The last to sprout was at the end of June & I still have a few left (the small, red bunch on the left).

Camelot - Total of 4 sprouted/spoiled - The first to sprout was at the end of March, then a couple in mid-July & another a few days ago.  Since regular (golden) shallots last so long, I have actually been holding of on using these much, just to see how well they did in storage.  They did quite well, although the Copras have them beat when it comes to the number that spoiled as a percentage of the total.  I would say that these keep more like normal onions vs. the Golden shallots which normally have zero spoilage for over 1 year.

So it looks as if onions will be joining garlic on the list of veg that I no longer need to purchase from the grocery store - hurray!

Till next time...

*I originally thought that the alliums were being attacked by onion maggots but have subsequently realized that, in fact, I was dealing with leek moths so have adjusted this post accordingly.


  1. Interesting read about when the different varieties sprout in storage. I"ve always grown Copra because that was always touted as being the longest keeper. I've always had excellent luck with it, but was curious if there were other exceptional keepers.
    I always count on 2 onions per week if large, or 3 medium sized per week. It's served me well, until those blasted times when I get on a kick for deep fried!! Blows that count all to pieces. And my diet.

    1. Copras were definitely the top keeper in terms of % of the total that have sprouted, but Rossa di Milano are a close second. I do like growing different varieties although, quite frankly, I don't think there is much difference between them, either in terms of taste or the tear factor...both varieties were pretty strong!

      Since I still have a few onions left from last season, next year I think I'll try growing 175 storage type onions in total, which is basically the same as your numbers at just over 3 per week, & see where that gets me. And is there any veg that doesn't taste good when deep fried? Nope. :)

  2. Last year was my first year growing onions also. I had better luck last year with fewer onions bolting. This year the weather did me in with unusually warm winter temps and an unusually cold month of May. I'm pretty sure that's what made so many of my various alliums bolt. I still have to buy onions in the winter since I've not yet grown a storage onion. So next year I'll be searching for onions that won't bolt in my backwards climate and at least one that will keep in storage.

    The potato onions sound interesting. One of the varieties that I grew tried to act like that, most of the Tonda Musona onions I grew from seed split into two or three separate onions. I lost patience with them and pulled them all. I wonder if the bulbs would have gotten bigger if I had let them stay in the garden longer. Their tops hadn't flopped yet when I pulled them.

    1. I'm quite sad that I wasn't able to hold on to some of the potato onions so that I could plant them in the spring. I'm thinking the same thing you are - that our weather, with it's -40F/C extremes this past winter, may have had something to do with so many of them bolting. Now I'll never know...sigh.

      There seem to be so many onion varieties now that I'm sure there must be a few that will do well in your garden...I suppose the trick is finding them. Oh, maybe the Tonda Musona is a potato onion in disguise! I really hope you try to grow them again, just to see if they did multiply & grow into larger onions - I really love vegetable oddities.

  3. I get mold in my onions all the time. In my chives sometimes too. We are just too humid and I swear the soil here has every disease known to man. Mine don't keep well either because of it. But they usually are ok through January then I have to start buying them from the store.

    1. So far I've been blessed with two or more new diseases each year, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. And now I'm seeing something new on the beans that I've never seen before & it looks like some sort of blight...ugh.

  4. I was trying to find Ailsa Craig onion seeds for this year but couldn't find any. Ended up with the generic kind again (onion sets bought at local store). Despite your struggles, your onions really look amazing and might inspire to keep trying (every year I say I'm going to stop growing them due to lack of success).

    1. I got the Ailsa Craigs at Pinetree this year & Baker Creek last year. I know how disheartening it can be when you keep getting poor results from a veg - it's my 4th year trying squash and they are still pitiful.


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