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Onions: smelly and sweet, old and new

Posted: Thursday, September 21, 2000

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. (AP) -- Onions, garlic and leeks smell so pungent it's hard to believe they belong to the same family as the fragrant lily. But many a plant family has its two-faced Januses and some onions, to be sure, manifest their sweetness not in smell but in taste.

Indeed, so-called sweet onions like Vidalias have become increasingly popular with gardeners and on produce shelves. Also, not to disparage smell completely, some people find onions, garlic and shallots give off a pleasant aroma as they cook.

Onions have been cultivated since prehistoric times, but breeders never stop seeking new and better varieties. A sweet onion named Super Star, for example, has just won a 2001 All America selection award. The winner is described as an improved white sweet onion recommended for all spring gardens in North America because it does not require either long days -- more than 12 hours of sunlight, as in the North -- or shorter, Southern days in order to bulb.

The announcement says that if Sweet Star seeds are sown and transplanted early, the onions can weigh one pound and more at maturity in about 100 days. And they are called exceptional when eaten raw in salads or sandwiches -- milder, sweeter and larger than White Sweet Spanish, the closest comparison.

In the All America program, an unpaid, independent panel of judges across the country makes yearly selections of vegetables and flowers. Scores of entries are evaluated before winners are chosen and the label given to them in seed and plant catalogs.

While onions may be started from seeds, the usual, time-saving route is to plant them as sets, as the method is known. These are small bulbs produced on big farms and marketed by seed houses and garden centers. The advantages are clear: no worries about germination and no need to thin.

To save even more time, you can buy plants that are already started and put these in. One well-known place to get these is the Piedmont Plant Company of Albany, Ga. (800-541-5185), which ships them out in bundles of 100 plants at $8.95 for one bundle and lower prices for more than one. The catalog shows a varied selection of sweet and other kinds.

In the North, sets are planted from early spring to June for fall harvests. In the South and on the Pacific Coast, the planting season is the fall for winter and spring harvests. The soil should be fertile and weed-free and, if you use fertilizer, a well-balanced 10-10-10 is recommended before planting and also as side-dressing when the plants are about six inches tall and the bulbs are starting to swell.

In planting, push each bulb into the soil, about five inches apart, leaving only the pointed end showing.

Doing it all from seed gives you a much wider selection of onion varieties, of course, but it's more work. However, you might like the gardening experience and challenge. Generally, about two months before the average last frost date, you sow seeds indoors under lights about one-fourth of an inch deep in flats that are at least four inches deep. You keep the tops trimmed to about three inches tall. After frost danger passes, you put the seedlings outdoors to harden for a few days before transplanting them.

When the plants are about six inches tall, you can start harvesting them as scallions, also known as green onions. In effect, they're young onions before the bulb has formed. When the plants do form bulbs, they're harvested as the tops fall over. Let the onions stay in the ground for a few days, then pull them up to dry in a well-aired place out of the sun before storing them for use. Sweet onions have a reputation of not storing well, so it's best to eat them soon.

Leeks require considerable fertilization and cultivation, but you can save work and time by ordering plants. The Piedmont Plant Company is offering an extra-early variety called Kilima, harvestable in July at $8.95 for a bundle of 100. What distinguishes leek growing is that you have to till soil around the stems to blanch them.

Garlic and shallots are planted from cloves which multiply as they mature. A close relative of onions and leeks, chives give you a more delicate flavor year after year with no work after the original planting. Actually chives hop around, appearing where you don't expect them. And they give you an ornamental bonus, lovely violet pompons at their tips.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy.

End advance for Thursday, Sept. 21



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