One of Tucson's best kept gardening secrets are the delightful I'itoi onions (Allium cepa).
A lovely bunching or multiplier onion, with tops you can use like chives, the bulbs can become large enough for use, with a taste much like shallots. These prolific onions were originally grown near Baboquivari mountain as a crop of the Tohono O'odham people. They are a wonderful addition to any garden, or even for use as a bunny-resistant plant in the landscape.
If you have never before had a vegetable garden, these oniony plants are a great way to start. They are, of all the garden vegetables, some of the most tolerant of abuse and most forgiving of mistakes. Plus these can be grown in pots filled with potting soil. Just add water, and you have an instant desert garden.
These are incredibly easy to plant. Separate bulbs, and plant in the fall (now!) one inch below surface and 12 inches apart. Bulbs will multiply into clumps and can be harvested throughout the cooler months. Tops will die back in the heat of summer and may return with monsoon rains; bulbs can remain in the ground or be harvested and stored in a cool, dry place for planting in the fall.
Soil is not as critical as it is with most vegetables. These are desert plants. For best overall health, flavor and final size of your crop, an improved garden soil is recommended. This means, ideally, mixing the desert soil half and half with compost to a depth of around a foot, and, where necessary, improving drainage by adding sand. Since we live in an imperfect world, try for at least eight inches deep and one third compost.
Water should be applied on a regular basis for nice fat bulbs and succulent leaves. In general, for young plants in the ground, this means daily until the cooler weather arrives, then tapering down to two or three times per week. In a hot, dry times, like this winter is predicted to be, you may need to water more often. But in reality, how often you water also depends on your soil. A soil that holds the water well, one with ample compost in it, will need less water than a sandy soil. If you are growing your crop in containers, you may need to water daily.
Fertilizer is not much needed by I'itoi onions, but they will reward you with lush foliage growth if you do fertilize. Use one for root crops, high in nitrogen and potassium. Avoid fertilizer for flowers, like a rose or tomato food. Flowering takes energy away from growing yummy bulbs and leaves.
Harvest green tops at any time, but harvest of bulbs is a test of patience. You need to wait until the tops have turned brown and are entirely dead, having sent all their flavor and moisture down into the bulb. Then dig up and use your I'itoi onions within two months for the best flavor. Don't forget to save some to plant next year.
Where to find these desert onions? If your enjoy farmers markets, head over to the Santa Cruz Farmers Market, (Thursdays 3-6 p.m.). Horticulturist Lorien Tersey grows them and offers them for sale there almost every week. She also has a number of other locally grown plants, both for the landscape and for the garden at very reasonable prices.
Two other places to find I'itoi onions are through Native Seeds/SEARCH or at Tohono Chul Park (Fall Plant Sale, this Saturday and Sunday.
As well as writing about plants, I make house calls. I work as a "garden coach" to help you move forward with your landscape or gardening plans. Give me a call at 292-0504. Please leave a voice message.
Goat cheese and I'itoi onion scones
(courtesy of Tohono Chul Park)
2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper
4 oz. chilled soft goat cheese
3 large I'itoi onions green tops (chopped)
1/3-cup chilled half & half or whole milk
1 large egg
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix together flour, baking soda, baking powder and sea salt. Add goat cheese and I'itoi onions and mix. Beat half and half and egg to in small bowl. Stir egg mixture into dry ingredients and mix gently until dough forms. Knead till firm. Divide dough in half. On lightly floured surface, flatten each piece into 3/4-inch thick round. Cut each round into six wedges. Bake scones until tops are golden, about 25 minutes.
Cool 10 minutes. Serve warm with butter or herb infused softened goat cheese spread.