One of the Southwest’s best kept gardening secrets are the delightful I’itoi onions (Allium cepa). A lovely bunching or multiplier onion, with tops you can use like chives, the bulbs can become large enough for use, with a taste much like shallots. These prolific onions were originally grown near Baboquivari mountain as a crop of the Tohono O’odham people. They are a wonderful addition to any garden, or even for use as a bunny-resistant plant in the landscape.
If you have never before had a vegetable garden, these oniony plants are a great way to start. They are, of all the garden vegetables, some of the most tolerant of abuse and most forgiving of mistakes. Plus – these onions can be grown in pots filled with potting soil. Just add soil, water, and the onions and you have an instant desert garden.
I’itoi onions are incredibly easy to plant. Separate a clump of bulbs, and plant in the fall (now!) Plant the uppermost tip one inch below surface. Place the bulbs about 12 inches apart. Bulbs will multiply into clumps and can be harvested throughout the cooler months. Tops will die back in the heat of summer and will return with fall rains.
I’itoi onions rarely flowers and set seeds, meaning if you want more you can’t eat your entire crop! You will need to save some bulbs and replant them.
Some vegetables are picky about soil – these onions are not! Over the last three centuries of living here, they have become wonderful (almost) desert plants! For best overall health, flavor and final size of your crop, an improved garden soil is recommended. This means, ideally, mixing the desert soil half and half with compost to a depth of around a foot, and, where necessary, improving drainage by adding sand.
For nice fat bulbs and succulent leaves, water at least once a week. In general, for young bulbs you just plant right now while it is still warm, water at least every other day until they have time to spread out some roots. As it gets cooler, taper down to two or three times per week. In a hot, dry times, like this winter is predicted to be, you may need to water more often. But in reality, how often you water also depends on your soil. A soil that holds the water well, one with ample compost in it, will need less water than a sandy soil.
Onion family members do not need lots of fertilizer (as compared to corn or citrus). I’itoi onions, having been grown since the 1700’s in desert soil don’t need much fertilizer at all. That said, they will reward you with lush foliage growth if you do fertilize, which is fine because you can cook with the tops. For plumper “shallot” bulbs, use a fertilizer for root crops, high in potassium. Avoid using a fertilizer for flowers, like a rose or tomato food. Flowering takes energy away from growing yummy bulbs and leaves. More about fertilizer here.
You can harvest green I’itoi onion tops at any time, but harvest of the bulbs is a test of patience. You need to wait until the tops have turned brown and are entirely dead, having sent all their flavor and moisture down into the bulbs. Then dig up and use your I’itoi onions within two months for the best flavor.
Don’t forget to save some bulbs to plant next year (in a cool dry place)! Or just pop some back in the ground as you harvest. Bulbs can remain in the ground right through the summer.
Prepare the Harvest
A tasty recipe using the I’itoi onion tops will be covered tomorrow on our cooking site: SavortheSW.com. Watch our Savor Facebook page for the link. Or better yet, go to the site now and sign up for the newsletter!
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my free lectures that I mention on Gardening With Soule Facebook page. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including “Father Kino’s Herbs – Growing & Using Them Today” (Tierra del Sol Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there I will get a few pennies.
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