Growing Great Leeks and Onions the British Way: Guest Post by John Miller of the Old School House Plantery

May 20th, 2010 § 4 comments § permalink

Triple Planted Lincoln Leeks and Savoy Cabbage,(with Garden Fork for Scale)

Triple Planted Onions

It’s the middle of May in New England and winter seems to be finally releasing its grip on the climate! Late last week I was planting onions and leeks and I invited Michaela to stop by as I knew what a leek aficionado she is and I knew she wanted some leek seedlings for her potager. I asked her if she knew about the hill or station planting method of planting leeks. She didn’t, so I promised an explaination. Here it is.

Traditionally, onions were ‘direct’ (sowing where they are to grow, in contrast to seed bed grown and transplanted) sown early in the gardening year, mid-March if possible. The grower then had to patiently wait for the onions to emerge to see what sort of crop he could expect. Patience was necessary as onions can take up to six weeks to germinate in open fields and in that time they were subject to the vagaries of the U.K. weather.  Despite its moist reputation, maintaining constantly damp soil for six weeks in the U.K. can be a problem!

Coincidental with me being in college, plug production, basically plants already growing in small pots such as those sold in six packs, for field crops was just being introduced. Using plugs a farmer could eliminate the wait time between sowing and emergence and start cultivating the crop as soon as the weeds emerged.

Multi-Sown Onion Plugs

Onions, and their cousins leeks, have very poor root systems so that a single seedling couldn’t hold together a plug very well. To overcome this onions, initially, but quickly followed by leeks, were multi-seeded into plugs and then the whole plug was planted out into the field. Initially 1 inch plug cubes were used and sown with five seeds so that the plug wouldn’t disintegrate during handling. I have slightly modified this system to suit my conditions. I use 1 inch round plugs, each 2 inches deep, sown with three seeds and then I plant the whole plug as a hill. The suggested planting density for onions is one plant every 4 inches so I put each hill out 12 inches apart in rows 16 inches apart. I just make a small hole in the soil and drop in a plug. This saves me time, fewer holes to make, and causes far fewer broken fingernails! This system also works really well if you are growing through mulch as you don’t have to tease the mulch apart quite as often.

Growing onions like this doesn’t give you as many big onions (how big is big? Last winter I did have Farmers Market customers asking me for smaller onions as some were too big for their needs) as you can get when they are grown individually. What will surprise most people though is that this system actually increases total yields compared to planting onions individually. Also, you won’t end up with misshapen onions, due to their being grown so close together, as the swelling bulbs push each other apart as they grow whilst still maintaining their shape.

Leek roots are adventitious – poorly branched

Single Leek Seedling Roots

Poorly Branched Onion Seedling Roots

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John Miller and his wife Diane Miller own and operate The Old School House Plantery in Brattleboro Vermont

Visit the Miller’s Etsy shop, Eclecticasia, for a selection of rare and beautiful plants.

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Article and photographs this post, © 2009/2010 John Miller

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

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Tears of Joy: In praise of the Onion…. and my favorite French Onion Soup!

September 1st, 2009 § 7 comments § permalink

Spanish Sweet and Stockton Red onions at Harvest

If the end of summer is bittersweet, then I will credit the humble onion for some of the sugar. On a chilly autumn day, I am a complete pushover for a bowl of French Onion soup topped with a thick layer of gooey, delicious Gruyere cheese, (see my favorite recipe below). I love cooking with onions, and I plant many varieties. Onions are tireless kitchen workhorses, adding sweet flavor to homemade pizzas, stews, tarts, dips, salsas and virtually every savory dish I love.

Onions are easy to grow, but they are a slow crop requiring months from seed germination to maturity. So in cool climates with short summers like mine, the seeds need an early start indoors. I usually buy my onion starts from local, organic Walker Farm. But if you live in a warmer climate, you can sow onion seed directly into the ground. Although onions do prefer a slightly sandy loam rich in organic matter, they are otherwise easy to please. In fact, over-fertilizing bulbs will result in lots of green but little onion, so be modest in applying fish emulsion, (once a month is more than enough in well prepared garden soil). Keep onions well weeded, and be very carefully when using tools, you don’t want to damage bulbs growing close to the surface. In late summer, you can tell when mature onions are ready to harvest by watching for the ‘flop’. When most of the tops have bent over, your onions are ready to pull. Of course, like most root vegetables, onions may also be harvested before maturity. Sometimes early-harvest onions are called ‘scallions’, but this is technically incorrect. Scallions, (or bunching onions), have a milder flavor, and are distinguished by their mature bulb-size. A true scallion produces a bulb no larger than the base of its leaves. Shallots, also a member of the onion family, have a mild flavor and are very useful in creating delicate sauces.

when the tops flop It’s time to harvest when the tops flop

When most of the tops have fallen over, carefully pull the onions from the soil and give them a good shake to remove some of the soil. When storing onions, it is important to carefully dry-cure them in a well-ventilated, low-humidity space. If the weather looks clear for a week, I will harvest mature varieties and spread them out on newspaper in a corner of the hot, sunny terrace. There I allow them to ‘cure’ for a week, rotating, shaking, and brushing them clean throughout the drying process. Walla Walla and some of the other poor-candidates for long-term storage will be braided and hung in my kitchen, while the shallots, as well as the firm red and yellow onions will be placed in nets and suspended from the ceiling in my cool, dry cellar.

onion harvest straight from the potager to the newspaper on terraceOnions are dug fresh from the garden, then spread out on the terrace to dry

herb shallots,(allium cepa aggregatum group)Shallots, (Allium cepa aggregatum group)

I use onions throughout the winter, so I grow a wide variety of easy-to-store types, as well as some for immediate use. I cook with shallots on an almost daily basis, (especially in egg dishes), and this year I have quite a large harvest of this favorite culinary herb. I am also a big fan of sweet onions. Walla Wallas have been popular for over a century; their mild, sweet flavor adding complexity to everything from soups to casseroles to steamed and grilled dishes. Spanish yellow onions and sweet Alyssas are also delicious. But the Cipollini Italian button onion (aka Cippolino) is my current favorite of the Allium cepa cultivars. Cipollinis are slightly sweet and wonderfully mild yet pungent. I love them roasted and grilled and used in panini. Cipollinis are beautiful onions, and I like looking at their flat tops displayed in braided bunches, hanging from my kitchen beams.

walla wallaClassic, sweet Walla Walla onions are one of my all-time favorites

cipollino button onionsThe deliciously sweet, mild Cipollini button onion – a gourmet favorite

spanish sweet onionsSpanish sweet yellow and white onions are both flavorful and mild

And now, for the best part of this post…

My  Favorite  French  Onion  Soup


Ingredients: (six small or four large servings)

6 good size yellow onions, peeled and sliced in half lengthwise, then into 1/4″ chunks

3 tbsp butter

1 1/2 cups dry white wine or sherry

6 cups homemade or high quality store-bought chicken broth (or high quality vegetarian substitute )

2 1/2 cups grated gruyere cheese

1 baguette cut into 1/2 inch slices

A half dozen sprigs of fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

Fresh ground black pepper to taste

salt to taste

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place the onions in a covered large roasting pan or good sized Dutch oven. Coat onions generously with butter, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast 2 hours or more, turning occasionally, and scraping the bottom of the pan until onions are golden brown, tender and soft. Test with a fork.

Remove from oven. Move pot to burner and bring heat to medium high. Cook onions, stirring constantly with a flat edged wooden spoon, scraping the pot as you go. After onions are nicely brown and crisp on top, (15-20 minutes), raise the heat slightly more and add wine, (or sherry), 1/2 cup at a time. Continue adding wine as the liquid evaporates, scraping the pot to deglaze as you stir. Reduce heat and add chicken stock, herbs, salt and pepper to taste. Bring the mixture back to a boil for one minute, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes or more.

Meanwhile, spread the French bread slices on a cookie sheet and brown in the oven, (set to 400 degrees), for a few minutes. Watch carefully. Rotate the bread to brown both sides.

When ready to serve the soup, ladle portions into oven-safe ceramic bowls. Float the bread on top and sprinkle with the Gruyere cheese. Place beneath an oven broiler until the cheese is melted, but watch carefully. Add more grated cheese if necessary. Cool the soup for about 5 minutes before serving.

Serve hot


* NOTE: You may also save the broth for several days in a refrigerator to use for hot soup later. I actually find this enhances the flavor, and I often double the broth recipe to enjoy the soup all week.

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Recipe adapted from many wonderful sources including Grandma and Cooks Illustrated Magazine


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basket of yellow, walla walla, spanish and small yellow onions


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Article and photographs ⓒ 2010 Michaela at TGE

All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used or reproduced without prior written consent. Inspired by something you see here? Great! Please give credit where credit is due. It’s a small world and link-love makes for fond friendships. Stealing makes for bad dreams…

Do you enjoy visiting The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through our affiliate links. A small percentage of any sale originating from The Gardener’s Eden site will go toward web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you for your support!

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