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Groundwork: The dirt on onions

The entrance to the vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia. The new deer netting has transformed the life of the gardener. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The new deer netting has made life a lot easier in the vegetable garden. In the absence of deer and rabbits, the focus is on weeding, watering and attending to the blessed insect pests. But lots of veggies are looking great: The peas are podding and the onions, once grasslike wisps in late winter, are now robust. The bunching onions, which don't bulb, are ready for the table now.

There is a lot of hand-wringing about how to grow onions, most of it needless. Onions are an easy, willing and diverse group of vegetables that reward the gardener and cook with a wonderful blend of freshness and punch. Gardeners get hung up on whether to grow long-day, short-day or day-neutral varieties, bred to grow in relation to the amount of daylight they get as they mature. This, in turn, is linked to the latitude of their garden beds.

Recipe Included

What matters is that in the mid-Atlantic region you can grow pretty much any onion variety you want, even long-day (i.e., northern) varieties of onions. You won't get them to the size they grow in places such as Vermont or Brittany, but they will get large enough in the Washington garden, and that's all that matters.

The easiest way to grow onions is to buy sets, often sold at hardware stores and at big-box merchandizers, typically bearing no varietal name except red, white or yellow. This isn't the sophisticate's approach, but it works. Sets are usually found in early- to mid-spring; you may find the last of them now for producing fresh summer onions. Don't expect great orbs from these. Treat them, rather, as beefy spring onions.

The main onion bed, a rich mix of types and varieties. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The serious gardener will select by variety, and start from seed indoors in January or February and set out the transplants in early April. They will be ready to harvest by the end of July. Properly cured, high-sulfur yellow onions will last for months.

Another option is to start seed in flats in July and set them out in September. They then grow through the fall and winter. Bunching onions can be harvested from November on, the large bulbing varieties such as Walla Walla are allowed to develop for harvesting the following summer.

Onions like light, enriched soil in a sunny location, and they benefit from a thin layer of mulch (chopped leaves are great) and the absence of weeds. Make sure that weeds do not get a foothold in your onion beds. I like to pull them by hand to avoid any risk of damaging onion bulbs or stems with a hoe. Bunching or spring onions can be grown two inches apart, the larger ones four to five inches.

Well into the season, the onions at Green Spring Gardens are bulbing well. As spring onions, the bunchers and scallions can be taken at any time to enliven a salad of the now maturing lettuces and radishes.

Onions have always been a mainstay at the demonstration vegetable garden here, and the varieties are, well, varied, and coping through an uneven spring through the care of the gardeners. (Mulching, weeding, watering, a little feeding; fish emulsion works great).

Mars is a red onion with white flesh that tastes delicious, pungent and fresh. Super Star, which bulbs beautifully, is a bone-white and a favorite of Cindy Brown's. Granex is the type that got sweet onions going in Vidalia, Ga., and is beginning to bulk up. Barletta and Borettano are Italian varieties, and should be grown on that basis alone. The former is a white pearl onion, the latter a flat cipollini onion.

Greek salad onions, ready soon as scallions. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

In short, it is the season of the spring onion, and a time to look forward to the main harvest in early summer. I have always waited for the top growth to shrivel as a signal to take my onions. Cindy says take action before that, as the stem just above the onion narrows but is still green. Then fold the top growth in half (some people tie it with a rubber band). This puts a final burst of energy into the onion bulb. For curing, just pull them and let them sit on their sides in their beds for a couple of days, turning them to let them bake in the sun. See this gardener handling onions in Louisiana, a variety named Candy.

About 20 years ago, I wrote about the world's largest onion. It was a variety named Ailsa Craig raised in the north of England and weighed in excess of 10 pounds, as I recall. This feat has since been bettered, but its presence will be felt eternally in this gardener's heart. I remember seeing the onion as its press agent brought it on a tour of the United States. I should have asked it: "If you were a television celebrity interviewer, what sort of celebrity interviewer would you be?" Alas we shall never know. And you will never see a 10-pound onion in a Washington garden, but what our onions lack in girth, they make up for in flavor. Give them a go.

-- Adrian Higgins (Follow me on Twitter.)

Shrimp and Scallion Wonton Soup
6 servings

Shrimp and Scallion Wonton Soup. (Cynthia A. Brown)

This is a lovely, light soup exploding with flavor. Hand-chopping the ingredients takes some time; for quicker results use a mini food processor and pulse sparingly to create a coarse chop -- not a puree.

From Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director of Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

1 pound cooked, peeled and deveined shrimp, finely chopped
3 whole scallions (trimmed), finely chopped
3 or 4 medium cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
1/2- to 3/4-inch piece peeled ginger root, minced (1/2 tablespoon), plus 3 coin-size slices
1 tablespoon minced cilantro leaves, plus 1/4 cup whole leaves for garnish
1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
About 36 wonton wrappers (available in the grocery store produce section)
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
3 1/2 ounces (1 package) shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps cut into thin slices
2 small jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded and cut crosswise into thin slices

Combine the shrimp, scallions, garlic, minced ginger, minced cilantro and soy sauce in a large bowl; mix well.

Place a wonton wrapper on a nonstick surface. Drop a rounded teaspoon of the shrimp-scallion mixture in the center. Dampen a fingertip with water and run it around the edge of the wrapper. Diagonally fold the wrapper in half, pressing the dampened edges to seal. Form an envelope by drawing the 2 opposite points together, then fold the top point over the overlapping points. Repeat to use all the wrappers and filling.

Combine the broth, mushrooms, ginger coins and 1 pepper's worth of the jalapeño slices in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once bubbles start to form around the edges of the pan, use a Chinese skimmer or wide slotted spoon to gently add the wontons to the broth. Cook for about 3 minutes, or until they have warmed through.

Divide the wontons among individual soup bowls, then fill the bowls with equal amounts of broth (discarding the ginger coins). Garnish with cilantro leaves and the remaining pepper's worth of jalapeño slices.

Per serving: 280 calories, 28 g protein, 34 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 150 mg cholesterol, 570 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  May 24, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, onions, recipes  
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