We grow our onion from seed and save and produce the seed ourselves, like most of the small growers in the area used to do. We started growing onions about 5 years ago, and the first seed we used came from our neighbour Mari Jose. Her family are keen vegetable growers and have been keeping and producing the seed for this onion for as long as they can remember (well over 50 years.) What’s interesting is this seed always produces two different types of onion, a red onion and a yellow onion. The red onion is used mostly in salads and the yellow onion in cooking. This local onion variety producing two different coloured onions is very typical of the area.
Onion bulbs in flower, grown by us to produce seed
To produce the seed we save some of the biggest and best onions and then plant a few bulbs each of the yellow onion and red onion next to each other in late autumn. The onions start flowering late spring and the seed is collected in late summer. To produce the onion crop itself, the onion seed is sown in a seed bed in late autumn (which has to be kept weed free) and the plants are planted out in March. If all goes well the onions will be ready for harvesting late summer.
Detail of onion seed on the flower head, almost ready for collecting
Having worked for 5 years for Dutch plant breeding companies, in the beginning I considered selecting only the best most uniform red onions for seed (rather than follow the tradition of planting the two different onion types along side each other) so as to produce a special pure uniform strain. However I soon realised that his would be good for large growers who want to produce a uniform crop for the supermarkets where uniformity is so important. But for small growers who are producing for their own needs and saving their own seed year after year, this isn’t so good. For them a little variation coming from the seed is good, having a few different types’ means you are better prepared for different or changing conditions.
So were the local farmers who kept this “mixed” onion seed aware of the importance of a little genetic variation, or was it just a way of producing two different coloured onions from one seed sowing!
Isn’t it good we are not all the same?