Dateline: 23 April 2016
(click for information about multiplier onions)
One of the great things about writing this blog is that when I share some of the things I know, or believe, or have experienced, I hear from readers who know, or believe, or have experienced something different. Such feedback is often instructive or edifying, and that is the case with multiplier onions (a.k.a., potato onions).
After reading my previous post about my failure at growing onion sets from seed, I received an e-mail from Jim, a fellow upstate NY gardener who introduced me to multiplier onions.
The great attraction with multiplier onions is that they are a sustainable onion variety. By that I mean you plant the onion sort of like you plant a garlic clove, and from that one onion you get an average of 6 more onion bulbs each growing season. You then eat some of the crop and use some of the crop to replant each year. There is no need to buy sets each year, or buy seeds to raise your own sets.
The problem with potato onions is that they are often disappointingly small. However, there is speculation that this smallness may be due to a multi-generational buildup of viruses in the clonal planting stock. A similar virus buildup is what causes potatoes to "run out" after a few years of replanting. Which is to say, your potato yield drops each succeeding year, as the virus builds up in the potatoes. Certified virus-free seed potatoes have been tissue-cultured and carefully raised to eliminate the virus, and potatoes raised using virus-free seed stock will be much larger.
In the case of the potato onion, the virus buildup is eliminated by planting true seed (from pollinated onion flowers) instead of the onion bulbs. And when this is done, the resulting potato onions are much larger. That's the condensed story of potato onions.
If you are interested in learning more about potato onions, I'm reprinting the two e-mails I received from Jim. I have put a hot link in the text to Kelly Winterton's web page. Mr. Winterton appears to be the potato onion authority, and is at the forefront of an effort to restore this old variety to it's former satisfying largeness.
I enjoy your blog and am a Whizbang plucker builder/user. Sorry for the email, but I don't really like posting on a blog.
I wanted to throw out some thoughts as to the onion post. Have you read any of the relatively recent online discussions/information by Kelly Winterton and multiplier onions (not Egyptian walking onions)? These propagate vegetatively like garlic. Unfortunately, most heirloom strains produce very small onions. It appears that this is because of long-time virus accumulation, but now there appears to be an answer to that.
If you google Winterton and multiplier or potato onions, you should find lots of info. [Kelly Winterton's Potato Onion Page]
I live northwest of Albany, NY. Winterton lives in VT. He talks about how he had a bloom event several years ago when his multiplier onions ("MOs") set copious seed, and he started planting the seed. It appears that by going back to true seed, he has cleansed accumulated viruses and [this] allows for renewed genetic potential. He notes how planting true seed will allow for production of one single really large bulb the first year (uncommon for a biennial onion), but that if the large bulb is replanted, it will nest out with multiple smaller but good sized bulbs the second year.
I bought about a half dozen of his Green Mountain onions and planted them last spring and got about 4 onions on average for each bulb, which I harvested in August. Most of these also sent up flower stalks and produced seed as well. I collected seed from these and kept all of the bulbs for replanting this spring. I actually planted half my stock in the fall, like garlic, to see if that worked better.
My fall planted bulbs are now well along this spring, just like the garlic. I planted the bulbs brought indoors a couple of weeks ago, and those are still dormant.
But I planted lots of true seed a month and a half ago and now have over 300 new little sets to plant out. All of these have new genetic potential, but according to Winterton will generally produce rather large bulbs in this first year.
If this is true, then these onions can really be a problem solver in that one can produce lots of big bulbs for eating in one year but still easily plants lots of fall bulbs for rapid production in the spring. And, with the true seed onion sets, you are increasing genetic diversity and creating new strains that nobody has ever seen before, some of which may turn out to be fantastic for maintaining vegetatively as clones.
If you are interested in this, Winterton sells bulbs and seeds to get started. Eventually, I will gladly share myself, but I'm just trying to ramp up to full production for our family first. If I get lots of new seed set this year, I would gladly share a lot of that, depending on how well this experimentation goes.
Winterton believes that after a dozen to two dozen vegetative propagations, viruses start to accumulate, reducing vigor and size of the clones and also reducing the plant's ability to predictably send up new seed. Thus, it makes sense to always keep some true seeds going as well, recognizing that any good clone strain has a limited life expectancy before it becomes too small to be desirable. That's what I plan to do along with selectively saving and replanting bulbs that seem to have good qualities (like keepability in storage over the winter).
There appears to be a big debate as to whether it is best to plant MO in the fall or bring them inside and store like potatoes. I plant my onions and garlic in a bed with lots of wood chip mulch. Those fall planted onions did just fine. Granted, we didn't have a very cold winter in NY this year, but there also was basically no snow for us, and with no snow pack, the ground can actually get even colder. So, all I can say is that these fall planted onions seem to have worked just fine, just like garlic, and that solves completely the storage issue for replanting.
I hope that info helps. Thanks again for a great blog and other info/ideas that you put out.
I forgot to add that similar progress is being made with garlic and potatoes. Have you read any of the work being done by Tom Wagner and his true potato seed work? Potatoes are even more interesting in many regards because of their extra chromosomes and the extreme genetic diversity when achieved with going back to true seed.
The garlic examples can be seen here:
One common effect with all of these is to cleanse off virus accumulation from decades of cloning.
Everything I am doing is technically organic, but I want to go beyond organic and remineralize the soils. I have been experimenting with the same soil amendment mineral balancing that you described in your gardening book. I've also been using Michael Astera's work in doing this.
As much as I think that will help, I think that bringing back genetic diversity can also help greatly in achieving the health of our plants in organic farming so as to be resistant to bad bugs, viruses, bacteria, fungi, etc. This is a fundamental shift to how most of our farming and gardening has emphasized genetic selectivity. I'm trying to build more genetic information back into plants with true seed, thus hoping for better strength, vigor, and plant self defense mechanisms.
I've also just started experimenting with my own true potato seeds, some of which I got from Tom Wagner.
So, you may get some feedback on the blog about people thinking that multiplier onions are too small to be of use or to waste effort on it, but the reason that is so is apparently because of the long-time virus accumulation (and probably a God-created design that never intended for vegetative reproduction to be the primary driver in passing on genetics).
As we move beyond pure vegetative cloning and recapture a more natural seed system, we can recover that original Creator inspired genetic potential, and then put vegetative cloning into its proper perspective with those plants that utilize it. It's there. It can be utilized, but it is a mistake to elevate cloning above seed reproduction.
I happen to believe that we small farmers/gardeners have the keys necessary to sustain true food security in a world where the state/corporate elite are trying to control everything, including our food.
Some people growing new seed-derived multiplier onions are getting first year onion bulbs as big as softballs in some cases with good fertile soil, and that's pretty amazing for a biennial onion.
I'll let you know how my first seed attempts do this year as those seedlings mature.