Although onions, garlic and leeks have been around for a long time, it is not really known where they originated. Archaeologists have found evidence that they have been used as a food source through cultivation for at least 7,000 years. No doubt, the early hunter-gatherers foraged for them in the wild along with anything else growing wild that could be eaten. The earliest evidence of domestication and cultivation has been found in China, Asia and Persia.
The first European settlers to the Americas brought seeds with them. However, they found that the Native Americans were already using them as a food source. They probably cooked or ate them raw with the vegetables they were already cultivating such as corn, beans, squash, tomatoes and potatoes.
For the home gardener, there are many varieties of onions available for cultivation in their garden plot. Onions come in three basic colors: white, red and yellow or brown. They can readily be cultivated from seeds, transplanted using “sets” or from small bulbs that are grown for the specific purpose of gardening.
If you are going to start onions from seeds, now is the time to plant them for a spring garden they will overwinter just fine. They will get an early start towards forming bulbs. Onions need to be planted in a fertile and well-drained area with as much full sunshine as possible. Rather than starting onions from seeds, most home gardeners buy small plants or sets that come in bundles of fifty to one hundred individual sets. Since there are many varieties available, choose several different ones to diversify your garden and tastes. White and yellow varieties seem to do the best in our area. As the sets take root and begin to grow, a few can be eaten as “green” onions or scallions. As the days grow longer, the onion sets will begin to form bulbs and immature bulbs can be some of the best eating. Onions are ready to harvest when the green tops begin to fall over. They should be harvested and stored in a cool and dry area. Some varieties keep better than others.
Garlic and Leeks should be planted in October for harvest in mid-June. Garlic can be purchased from any major seed and garden supplier. Garlic comes in bulbs made up of from 9 to twenty cloves. Carefully separate the cloves from the bulbs and plant these individual cloves about 4-6 inches apart. They should be planted with the root end down and the sharp end up. Like onions, garlic is ready to harvest when the tops begin to turn yellow and topple over.
The worldwide production of onions is about 100 million tons with China producing about 25% of the total and India not far behind. By comparison, U.S. production is about 3 million tons. If my arithmetic is right, that is about 20 pounds of onions per year for every man, woman and child in the U.S. The Chinese eat about 33 pounds per person. Can one suppose that the demand for breath fresheners will grow at the same rate as the consumption of onions and garlic?
Written by: Byron Chitwood, Hunt County Master Gardener