Photographer comes to the rescue of heirloom potato onion

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Three years ago photographer Kenneth Klotz was asked by Country Magazine to do a picture essay on country stores. It was an assignment that produced many fine pictures and at the same time helped rescue an heirloom vegetable from extinction. In the many fascinating stores he visited, photographer Klotz came across something that fascinated him -- a basket of onions that multiplied by bulb division much like that French favorite, the shallot. But unlike the shallot and others in the family of multipliers, these were a hefty size -- a good 3 inches across. They were potato or hill onions, he was told, grown by a local gardener who occasionally sold a few that were in excess of his family's needs.

Mr. Klotz, an avid gardener who believed that onions belonged somewhere on the dinner menu most nights of the week, found that these onions had a full-bodied yet mild flavor (the mature onion is suitable more for cooking than as a raw ingredient in salads, he says). A little research turned up the fact that these were among the most popular commercial onion varieties grown until Bermudas and other more recently developed kinds replaced them early in the century.

The ``Henry W. Wood's Descriptive Fall Catalog'' of 1885 described the potato onion as ``early, very productive, mild flavor, and the most profitable variety grown for market.'' The 1900 edition of the catalog said that it was ``well adapted to be sold green as a bunch onion or as fully matured large onions.'' It also stores well through winter. The W. Atlee Burpee catalog also featured the potato onion a century ago, and it was commonplace in Europe where it originated. (The English, who grew the onion

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in mounded rows, like hilled potatoes, gave it the name potato or hill onion.)

With all that the onion had going for it, Mr. Klotz felt it was far too risky to trust its continued existence to a few isolated gardeners here and possibly in Europe. So he founded Kalmia Farm in Charlottesville, Va., expressly for commercial bulb production of the potato onion.

In the United States the potato onion grows well everywhere except in the more southern regions of Florida. Unlike conventional seed onions, it does not appear to be radically affected by day length, but, if anything, the more northern regions produce slightly larger bulbs.

Potato onions grow this way: If you plant a small bulb or set in the late fall or early spring, it will mature by the middle of summer into a large single onion. Plant a large onion and it will mature into as many as 15 small bulbs that will produce the following year's large bulbs, and so on. Put another way, once you have potato onions it is relatively simple to grow your own bulbs for the following season ad infinitum.

Like other onions, the potato variety grows best in an organically enriched soil to which some 5-10-10 fertilizer is added in the spring if rich compost is in short supply. Keep generously moist (not wet) throughout the growing season.

Mr. Klotz recommends planting fall onions about 1 inch deep (up to Thanksgiving in his Virginia region, earlier in more northerly states). Come cold weather, mound at least 6 inches of soil over the onions or mulch heavily with straw until early spring. The idea is to prevent the freeze-thaw cycle common in soil not covered by snow. In the spring this winter covering must be removed.

Spring-planted onions can be pushed just below the surface of the soil as soon as all frost has left the ground.

Mr. Klotz recommends digging the onions as soon as a majority of the tops have turned brown and fallen over, around the middle of July in his area.

If you grow your own garlic, fall is also the recommended planting period. Generally speaking, fall-planted garlic will outproduce spring-planted garlic, all other factors being equal. Like tulip bulbs, the fall-planted garlic cloves send out strong roots before the real winter cold arrives. Then in spring it is able to send up new leaves very early and produce a sturdy plant by the time day length triggers the bulb formation.

In the North, garlic should be planted 2 inches deep and then covered with a mulch; in areas with moderate winters, simply pushing the clove below the soil surface is adequate.

For details on the potato onion write to Kalmia Farm, PO Box 3881, Charlottesville, Va. 22903.

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