Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Saving Onion, Shallot & Leek Seed - Part II - Fun With Onions

In Part I of Saving Onion, Shallot & Leek Seed, I assumed you had the traditional goals of seed-saving in mind; that is, to maintain a specific cultivar or variety in healthy genetic condition and true-to-type in perpetuity. This is important work, and someone needs to do it. In most cases, though, it doesn't have to be you. Unless you have a very rare variety, you will only be saving seed for your own personal benefit, and can augment it or replace it in the future, barring unexpected disappearances from the seed catalogues.

In that case, you can play much more fast and loose with the rules, and have some fun, including working on creating an onion cultivar particularly suited for your garden soil, climate and work style. That's one of the things that Mr. Ferdzy and I are working on right now.

On the plate, there are 2 each of 3 different varieties of onions. From left to right, they are Mako (Makoi) which is an heirloom Hungarian cultivar, our own hybrid made from crossing Early Yellow Globe and Rossa di Milano, and Early Yellow Globe which is an northeastern U.S. heirloom. This is a large turkey platter, and the Early Yellow Globe are perfectly respectable sized onions - it's just that the others are even larger. The Mako in general are about the same size as the Early Yellow Globe; the real giants are our homemade hybrid.

The Mako onions are one we cannot easily get seed for again, so we are working to keep them as a pure line. We grew them out for seed this past summer and now have a plentiful supply. We'll grow them as onions this summer, and save the best for seed production again in the summer of 2015. Meanwhile, the onions on the plate will be re-planted in the spring and grown out for seed in 2014. They will be allowed to cross each other ad-lib, grown for onions in 2015, and then the best of them as well as some other onions we may wish to add to our line will be planted for seed in the summer of 2016. So, to recap, we are keeping two kinds of onions going - one pure heirloom variety, to which all the principles in the first post on onion seed saving apply, and a second group, which is an ever-evolving group of onions allowed to cross-breed and be selected to our own criteria. If we keep this up long enough, we may eventually have our own distinct variety.

In the meantime, I don't worry about growing large numbers of onions for seed in my homemade hybrid. I only have about 24 set aside for seed this year, but because I will continue to add new genetic material each time I grow them out, I am not worried about inbreeding depression.

This years homemade hybrid onions are on the whole very impressive. They are in general twice the size of any of the other onions (although there were a good few that were very small as well - those ones are not going into the gene pool). They were from two lines of long-storing cooking onions, and so far they are keeping beautifully as well. The flavour is very good. If I have one complaint about them, it's that the tops are prone to being rather flat and hard to slice off, but that's something I figure we can quite easily select against as we proceed and add more onions to the pool. ADDED: These are an F1 hybrid, so I expect to see much more variation in them next grow-out, even if I don't add new onions to the mix. Right now they vary only slightly in size and colour.

The shallots, seen on the table below the platter, are even more interesting to me. These are the result of letting two sets of seed-grown shallots cross. A number of years ago, I planted red shallots from Costco in the garden. They did not split or otherwise act like traditional shallots; they flowered. However, they produced no seed. I dug most of them out except for a few in the perennial herb garden and kind of forgot about them, although I did some research and found out about the new modern hybrid shallots from seed. While I was in this process of discovery, I found some organic eschallions on sale at Zehrs for 99 cents a package, and popped a few of them in the garden to see what would  happen. The answer was that they were only slightly better at splitting, and they too all went to flower. The difference was that they formed seed - and so did the other shallots still left in the herb garden.

I kept both sets of seed and planted them out the next spring, carefully keeping them separate. The results of both sets of seed were pretty much identical, however. That is to say, both beds contained small shallotty onions ranging from white fleshed with yellow skins to purple fleshed with red skins, in a range of sizes, and with no tendency for splitting to having split at least partially to completely into 4 to 6 bulbs. We pulled the best "splitters" out of both beds, and I have been cooking one section of them, and if I like the flavour, putting the other sections back into a basket for replanting in the spring. My goal is to achieve a line of shallot-flavoured onions that can be grown from seed OR split, although I realize the situation is more complicated than that suggests.

I also have some seed that was sent to me in an exchange, for something called Green Mountain Potato onion. This is seed from an heirloom white potato onion, which never produced seed, that anyone knew of. One year it did flower and set seed profusely in Kelly Winterton's garden in Utah. He recognized what an unusual event this was, and saved the seed and shared it around.

One thing that seems to have emerged from the gardeners who have subsequently grown this seed, is that the longer an allium is reproduced solely vegetatively, the less able it becomes to reproduce via seed. The figure that has been suggested is that alliums should be allowed to go to seed at least within 10  years, or they may lose the ability to do so altogether. Garlic is in even sadder straights - a few people have induced it to set seed in recent years, but it requires enormous effort to get it to do so, and widespread success has yet to be achieved. (Although I rather think we may be seeing some results in within as few as 5 years on that front).

As for my shallots, after going through most of them I have concluded I usually like the red skinned ones the best. The one at the front of the pile of red shallots (right side), would have been just about perfect - except it's sprouting! So out of the seed stock it goes and back into the cooking basket. That's my very first selection criterion: must make it to spring without sprouting.  I'm hoping I can find an isolated spot for these to go to seed this spring. A neighbour offered us some garden space a couple of years back, and I will try to take him up on that. Otherwise, I will take them to a clearing on the other side of our property (through the woods) and plant them there - at least the deer are unlikely to eat them. I'm debating whether to add any to our onion hybrid or not. I think not though; I don't want our onions to be small and split-prone, like the shallots.

So there you go - keeping pure selections of onion may not be that easy, but very good results can come from saving your own seed anyway. Decide what onions you want to combine - I personally would do all sweet, or all storage, and not mix those two kinds, but really it's up to you. Make sure you keep any male sterile onions out of the mix. If you decide to share any of your resulting seed, do let them know that it is a cross. And that's it! Fun with onions.


Templeton said...

Hi Ferdzy,
Dipping back into your blog again. I wish I was as clear and organised as you. Good luck with those onions - if you have time report back to us over at Homegrown Goodness. I'm doing some mass crossing of leeks this year, mostly to just see what turns up, and have had some very interesting results com out of my Green Mountain F1 spud onions. I'll either do a blog post on it, or report in at HG.
cheers, Templeton

Ferdzy said...

Thanks Templeton! I will definitely do that. I'll be growing a few different kinds of leeks this year for seed next year too, and I will watch the Green Mountain with interest.