In the gardening orders, values are lopsided. It is culturally orthodox for ornamental gardens to be seen as being somehow elevated, indeed an art form, while vegetable gardens are lowly and utilitarian. Do we need to put up with this? When it comes to cooking and dining well - there is nothing lowly and utilitarian about those activities at all. I propose the order of the "potager," which is French for vegetable garden, since the French are known for their - what else? - savoir faire. A well known celebrity once quipped that the ultimate status symbol was a "camp'' (small unimproved domicile) on the Vineyard. Today many Island gardeners have come to the conclusion that produce from one's own garden is one of the ultimate luxuries - along with a camp, of course.
Onions for home gardens
Onions are a utilitarian crop. Some question the value of growing them, and other pantry staples, since they take up a lot of space in the amounts needed and are so readily available in stores. I think otherwise. Or maybe it is that a recession-era garden - potatoes, onions, turnips, cabbage - is going to feature a line-up different from one in easier times. Fewer herbs and frou-frou vegetables and more things one can actually eat.
This season I devoted at least a quarter of my garden area to onions, leeks, and garlic. I would have grown more if I had room for garden expansion. I have only one variety of onion, while some gardeners grow several - red, Vidalia, and differently shaped Italian heritage types. As useful and delicious as red onions are, if one variety is all there is room for, an onion that stores well is probably best. Through Homegrown, our Agricultural Society vegetable garden forum, I bought onion plants for hybrid "Copra," a standard yellow keeper.
As Shepard Ogden says in "Step By Step Organic Vegetable Gardening" (Harper Collins, 1992, 299 pp.), onions are one of the most frequently grown garden vegetables, yet most gardeners know little more about them "than how to push a handful of sets into the ground and wait for the tops to fall over." He describes how to grow the young plants that many gardeners assume they must buy:
Buy seed of a long-day or day-neutral onion variety and plant it indoors, as long as three months before the spring frost free date, using a 20-row tray. Sow the seed a quarter inch deep, water, and cover with a humidity dome. At 72 degrees on a heat mat, germination should take three or four days. The first leaf to show will be doubled over like a hairpin. Once it unfolds, thin the seedlings to a quarter inch apart in the rows; thinned plants may be potted up separately for extra large onions. Plants kept in the 20-row tray should be trimmed occasionally, to limit their height to three to four inches, but be careful not to cut the tip of the young leaf in the center of the plant, which is the growing point. (There is a lot more than this to growing onions. Acquire the book.)