The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Potato onion cultivation

Potato onion leavesPotato onions were one of our experimental vegetables this year, and I'd be hard-pressed to call them a success.  The total production from one garden bed was 60 bulbs, but most were too small to bother skinning for supper.  I figure that all together they'd add up to enough onion flesh to feed us for about two weeks.

On the other hand, potato onions do have a lot of potential.  These storage onions can be grown from multiplied bulbs, a bit like Egyptian onions, with no need to buy seed or sets every year.  If we tweak our growing technique a bit, I think we could turn potato onions into a dependable part of our annual harvest.

We began our experiment with an eight ounce starter package of Loretta Yellow Multiplier Onions from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  The company told us that we could choose to plant bulbs in the fall for a larger yield, but Potato onion bulbs beginning to splitalso a higher likelihood of losing onions to freezing, or could wait and plant in the spring.  We opted to toss them all in the ground at the beginning of November.

I'd like to say that we lost a third of the bulbs to winter cold, but instead I have to admit to mismanagement.  After planting, I mulched the bed heavily with autumn leaves since I knew from experience that garlic will push up through a heavy mulch with no problem.  Potato onions are made of weaker stuff, though, and the bulbs under the thickest mulch languished and died.

Potato onion flowersSpring came, and our remaining onions were doing well.  As the original bulb divided into multiple bulbs, the plant pushed the dirt aside and I was able to watch the onions grow.  I was pleased to see each individual plant turn into six to ten smaller plants, and then the bulbs began to swell.

I thought we were in for a bumper crop, but then over half of the potato onions threw up flower stalks.  An exhaustive search of the internet turns up little data about potato onion flowers, except that they're rare and channel energy away from the bulbs.  A few anecdotes suggest that potato onions are more likely to bloom when fall planted, so next year I'll stick to spring planting.  I was disappointed but not surprised to find that the blooming plants produced only small bulbs.

The few non-blooming onions, though, sparked my interest.  Each plant produced one to two big bulbs about two thirds the size of a Potato onion harveststorebought onion, along with several small bulbs for replanting.  I plan to eat the big bulbs and put all of the small ones in the ground early next spring.  If we can tweak our planting method to prevent blooming, I foresee doing away with fiddly seed onions and expensive and ephemeral onion sets and instead planting potato onions every year from our own offset bulbs.

Like perennial vegetables, our homemade chicken waterer is a time-saver.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Slightly off subject. My egyptian onions have bulbs on top, still green, and are themselves sending up shoots with little bulbs on them. When should I plant? I was waiting till the bulbs got dry but they're not.
Comment by Errol Sun Jun 20 09:18:38 2010
I'd go ahead and plant them now. I usually plant them as soon as the bulbs head up, and haven't had any problem with that. If you pick them off the plant, they will eventually dry up, but why wait until fall to plant if they can put in a summer of growth now?
Comment by anna Sun Jun 20 17:06:55 2010

I'm new to your site... new to growing what you eat.. but I'm really enjoying your site and wanted to let you know...


Comment by Annie Sun Jun 20 17:38:24 2010
Welcome, Annie! I hope you're enjoying the adventure.
Comment by anna Sun Jun 20 19:24:09 2010
cant you just pinch off the flower stock
Comment by Rein Sun Jun 20 21:37:45 2010
Unfortunately, I didn't do the research until the flowers had been on the plant for a month, sapping its strength. I probably could have tricked them if I'd snapped off the stalks right away --- live and learn!
Comment by anna Mon Jun 21 06:43:37 2010

Actual seeds (as opposed to small onions or "sets") for Potato Onions seem to be very hard to come by. If you've not yet snapped all your flowers off, perhaps you could let one or more run to seed for selling/swapping (or even giving away ;-)

I'm in Europe and there seems to be no source of potato onions over here. With the limitations of shipping plant material outside of it's country of source, there's little chance of obtaining a few sets for experimentation, but there doesn't seem to be such limitation on seed material, so if you do end up with some seed, I'd be very keen to mail you a few $$$, or arrange a PayPal payment, to aquire a small quantity.

Comment by Chris Eve Fri Jul 16 12:13:56 2010
I left all the flowers on for a similar reason --- I figured the sets were so expensive, it'd be faster to expand my onion growing from seed. I need to go poke at them again, but the last time I looked, it seemed like the flowers didn't properly set, and mostly just dried up after blooming. :-/
Comment by anna Fri Jul 16 12:56:51 2010
I'm just learning about the Potatoe onions that I have had for years in my garden. I have to disagree with your comment about them not being made from tough stuff. My onions were given to me by my father before his passing & he never told me what to do with them. I brought the plants home, dropped them in the dirt & left it at that. Over the years, they have multiplied and multiplied into a beautiful amount. I never realized they would do this. I live in upstate NY- very cold climate for a majority of the year. To add to that, I live in a river basin area & most of my soil is clay and hard pan. We have a tough time growing a lot of things, but not these hearty little guys.
Comment by Liz Sun Jul 31 02:52:47 2011
There seem to be a lot of different varieties in circulation, and I have high hopes that I'll find one that produces bulbs more than an inch in diameter. This year's harvest was copious, but it takes me an hour to peel enough tiny onions to put in a soup! Gotta keep experimenting....
Comment by anna Sun Jul 31 08:48:03 2011
I'm a big fan of potato onions and I think that once you figure it out they'll have a permanent place in your garden. Yeah, they are small, but Kelly Witherton ( ) is breeding new bigger varieties from seed. If yours go to seed again, consider it an opportunity. The seeds Kelly has grown have turned out bigger than the parents! I'll be trying all sorts of tricks to get mine to go to seed this year. Even the small ones are great once you get good at peeling them its just not that big of a deal to peel enough for a meal and they are better tasting than most onions in my opinion. They are also really good grilled thoroughly in the skins over charcoal. Here is a link to my potato onion page.
Comment by Stevene Mon Sep 26 11:06:54 2011
Thanks for the links! I think I'm going to use some of that information in a post, so I won't go into depth here. But I do have to say --- I think some potato onion varieties are a lot larger than others to begin with. The ones I grew for the last two years were mostly less than an inch in diameter, and it took me about an hour to peel enough to make one of my two gallon pots of soup. I don't mind spending a bit of extra time working with non-grocery-store-style produce, but that was just too much in the peak of the summer. When your onions are smaller than your garlic cloves, you know you need to change something.... :-)
Comment by anna Mon Sep 26 16:10:10 2011
Growing potato onions is a two year affair. The small bulbs harvested this year will make a large single stock onion next year. Usually about four inches in diameter or a shade less. Then when you plant those large ones the following season you get the multiple sets. The seed stock I planted this year came from The Potato Lady (in Maine) and were not of great quality (I don't recommend them). This is the first time I have experienced an excessive number of plants going to seed. I am going to plant the seed and see what I get.
Comment by JDC Sun Jun 10 13:57:38 2012
JDC --- I read that too, and that's why I tried out our potato onions for multiple seasons before deeming our first variety a failure. Luckily, the second variety we tried did better.
Comment by anna Sun Jun 10 14:33:51 2012

I planted my Potatoe Onions the 20th of this Aug and they are already 12 inches tall and I also have a second bed of them, just planted them. I also have two beds prep for some Egyptian Onions. Now those should be interesting. I live in Graham Washington.

I dug down about 8 inches and mixed in peat, some cow stuff and soil sweetner.

I love your site.

Comment by Ed Tieman Fri Sep 21 19:13:11 2012

Ed --- I'm wondering if it wouldn't have been smart to plant potato onions early like that here too. The books say to wait and plant them with the garlic (which I just did last week), but several had rotted in the bag.

Smart to throw in Egyptian onions since they're nearly impossible to ruin. :-)

Comment by anna Sat Sep 22 10:28:49 2012

This might be a dup.

I never thought of planting Garlic with them, that is a good idea. It has been a long time since I have planted Garlic. Where I live in Graham Washington I have 4 acres of woods and along with the woods we have deer. I have tried to grow a garden a couple of times, but it is to much work in trying to keep them out. We have 5 does and there is always one of them that has twins.

On the Egyption Onions I plan on staking a couple of them. From what I have read they can grow up to well over 2 feet tall. They are a most interesting growing plant. I was even thinking about potting one to grow in the house.

Where do you plant the Garlic in relation to your Onions?

Thanks for your reply.


Comment by Anonymous Sat Sep 22 10:57:22 2012

Ed --- We don't mix the garlic and potato onions together, just plant them at the same time. Garlic is one of my favorite crops --- I highly recommend it for easiness (and winter beauty), but the deer will eat it.

We try to keep plants in the same family out of a given location for three years. So, if I planted garlic in a bed this year, I'd wait until 2015 before planting onions or garlic there again. In practice, planting sweet potatoes or a second or third planting of bush beans, sweet corn, cucumbers, or summer squash after garlic works well since I pull the garlic in early summer.

Comment by anna Sat Sep 22 17:55:48 2012

Right now I am preping couple of areas for my Potato and Egyption Onions. The Potato Onions I planted last summer atre already drying up. Right now from what I have seen both of my Potato and Egyption are putting on top sets. Of all the Potato Onion sites I have yet to see with top sets though I have read where some did have top sets.

If any one would like some photos of them send me an email.

Comment by Ed Tieman Sat Jun 15 23:04:21 2013

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