Maximixing onions, controlling voles challenge Island gardeners

Voles are busy creatures. They eat their weight every day, and they produce up to a dozen litters every year. — Photo courtesy of

At last week’s Homegrown, we discussed curing and storage of onions because, starting about now, stored vegetables are likely to start sprouting. The past growing season yielded magnificent onions, Island-wide. The downside is that large onions store less well than little ones. The resulting adage: use the large, thick-necked ones first; the littlest keep the longest.

Going through my own stored onions has revealed some on the verge of sprouting. The remedy is an onion marmalade-making session in order to utilize, not lose, them.

Primrose Vining, my husband’s cousin, is the senior member of a mid-Atlantic region network that has a long history of interests in good food, farming, and hospitality. Now in her late 80s, she set me straight on making onion marmalade. I formerly made it, in small batches, on top of the stove, where it required tending to achieve perfection, and there was never enough.

Too much hoo-hah for Primmy — she makes hers in the slow cooker, which yields a batch big enough to form the basis for onion soup, tarts, and more:

Primmy’s Onion Marmalade

3 lbs. of yellow onions, sliced
3/4 stick of butter
salt, black pepper

Peel and slice the onions, preferably yellow or white storage onions. Avoid tears by using a food processor. Load the slow cooker with the sliced onions; salt and pepper generously and place the butter on top. Leave the lid ajar just a freckle and turn to low. Stir the onions after a couple of hours and replace the lid, closed this time. Allow the onions to cook the rest of the day, or overnight as the case may be. A transformation occurs: they become fragrant, brown and caramelized, with concentrated sweetness and flavor. Let the onion marmalade cool, then jar up in containers, which have a long refrigerator shelf life.

If your onions did not keep, they may not have been dried well enough after harvest. That is the most common reason, according to “Keeping the Harvest,” (Chioffi & Mead, Storey Publishing LLC, 2002, 201 ppg.). Onions should be cured for several weeks in a warm, dry, and well-ventilated place. Turn frequently. They are ready for storage when the skins rustle. Then, the best storage is a cool place kept barely above freezing.

Nutritionists and medical practitioners recommend onions as a healthy addition to the diet. They are good sources of sulphur, woefully depleted in soils and therefore missing in the diet, and of quercetin, an anti-oxidant flavonoid. According to the American Heart Association, onions help prevent thrombosis and alleviate hypertension. The juice of one yellow or white onion a day can raise HDL cholesterol by 30 percent over time, according to Internet sources for the Tufts University Vascular Laboratory at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston.

Sulphur is required for plant synthesis of sulphur-containing amino acids. Mineral sources of sulphur include gypsum and epsomite. Organic matter in soil is also a substantial reservoir of sulphur. Maintaining organic matter levels is therefore important to maintaining the sulphur-supplying power of soils.

Rodent Dept: Voles

According to Homegrown members, the Vineyard is experiencing outbreak levels in the vole population. Voles, known as meadow mice, are not mice but in the same Rodentia sub-family, the Arvicolinae, as lemmings and muskrats. They are distinguished from regular mice by their slightly larger and bulkier bodies, and shortened tails. As with their lemming cousins, known in cartoons for rushing off cliffs en masse when populations reach an obscure tipping point, voles are likely subject to similar cycles. Let’s hope their downswing comes soon.

According to “Island Life,” the invaluable reference by Keith & Spongberg, Martha’s Vineyard hosts one, possibly two Microtus species — the meadow vole and the pine vole. Numerous reports of problems such as girdling of trees and shrubs, gnawing off roots beneath crowns of perennials, and tunneling in lawns and vegetable gardens and eating the potatoes, etc. substantiate their presence.

Go to for useful information. Based on my observation, stonework and hardscape provide attractive habitat for voles’ burrow systems. Once ensconced, vole reproduction begins, with litters of three to six young appearing five to ten times per year. At one time I advised laying mothballs in perennial beds of gardens that had been gnawed, but now rescind that advice. Lynne Irons purchased Juicy Fruit® gum by the case to plug those little vole tummies, to no avail.

Owls, hawks, crows, or other large omnivores are our best natural control, plus domestic cats that prefer rodents to birds. Trapping, using mousetraps, baiting with multiple-feeding anti-coagulants, and exclusion, with fine mesh fencing above and below the soil line of garden fencing, provide some control.

Home Ec

As Robert Burns’s birthday approaches, all things Scots are celebrated, including Thrift. It’s relative: to our children we are known as being thrifty (i.e., cheap), although we wouldn’t seem so to our parents or grandparents. Lost or dropping incomes are a terrifying subject. It doesn’t happen only “on the mainland;” it happens here, and often a great deal less anonymously. It would be good if we could, as an Island community, quit using the flow of money as the chief measure of our well-being. I suggest that cultivating one’s own garden is an antidote to many sorrows. A full pantry or freezer — even if it is all beans and potatoes — does make a difference when the outlook is not rosy.

Household cleaning products are expensive, contributing to water and indoor-air quality problems; substituting vinegar and bicarbonate of soda eliminates many. Below is a recipe for homemade dishwasher powder that works as well as the green foil box and is ecologically inoffensive. Mix and store in a glass mason jar:

1 c. borax

1 c. washing soda

1/2 c. citric acid (from health food store)

1/2 c. kosher salt

(Use 1 T. in each section of the soap dispenser and fill rinse agent dispenser with distilled white vinegar.)