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Perennial vegetables: Scott Nearing’s onions

I never met Scott Nearing, though Helen used to stop by my first place of employment, Hatch’s, with boxes of books for sale. Hatch’s was one of the very first natural foods stores in the US, founded in the 1950s in St. Johnsbury VT, of all places. Hatch’s is a novel-length story in itself, and yes, we’re talking about the “Living the Good Life” Nearings.

bed of egyptian onions

Nearing’s Egyptian Onions, first of June

These perennial Egyptian onions came to me in the 80s, second-hand from Scott via Claire Van Vliet of Newark VT. They’re great plants with a great provenance. They are totally winter hardy without cover here and are right out there with green garlic, pushing out green shoots through the retreating snow in the spring.

egyptian onion bulbils

I snap individual green onions off the cluster at the base for very nice scallions through mid June. At that point the stalks get tough as they form top-sets, and start "walking," hence the other name this type of onion is known by – walking onions. Bulbils form at the top of the stalk and their weight pulls them down to the ground a couple of feet away from the parent plant. The bulbils even form bulbils, which in turn take another step away. The sprouting bulbils are fine mini scallions, so we can actually get green onions from these nearly any time of the year. The greens stand up well to freezing and thawing outside.


Are you ready bulbs? Start walking!

Egyptian Onions are the same species (allium cepa) as the common onion, and further classified in the group proliferum (multiplier or topset). The flowers are few and inconspicuous, and I’ve never seen them form seed, just bulbils. The bulbs at the base divide rather than bulking up to form a bulb of any culinary interest. They are all about green onions, and they do that very well. They survive harsh winters here with no protection, and even years of gardener neglect.

I have read about drying the bulbils to take indoors and force for scallions during the winter. The little in-ground bulbs don’t keep well if dug up, but supposedly the bulbils do. I’ve not done this yet, but it sounds like a good idea and I’ll try a few this year. I’ve found it difficult to catch the bulbil clusters before they start sprouting/walking. These guys are fast out of the gate! Sprinting onions?

downy mildew strikes

A couple of years ago, the patch was being strangled by witch grass. I very thoroughly cleaned out and fortified the bed with some sand for better drainage, and the usual laying on of well finished compost. They responded very well, and were looking and tasting gorgeous in June 2008. Then, seemingly, disaster struck. At the beginning of July 2008 the stalks started to mold, downy mildew to be exact. I decided not to panic and did nothing. The mildew seems to mainly attack the scapes, and it does really wipe them out – not a pretty sight; but, the scapes are at the end of their life cycle anyway, which is probably why they are so susceptible. The new bulbils aren’t as much affected. Even though the tops of the older plants died to the ground last year, they divided and sent up healthy new scallions for the fall and winter.

Downly mildew thrives in cold and wet conditions. Summer 2008 was ridiculously cold and wet here, and so far summer 2009 has been about the same, with a reprise of the fungus attack.

downy mildew strikes

I could dust with sulfur, or try to trim off affected foliage, but this would be a large task. I have an ongoing onion trial/breeding project and there are about 12 different varieties out in the gardens right now. None are as severely affected as the Egyptians, but the fungus is present everywhere. I guess this is a good opportunity to observe and cull the experimental onions for fungus resistance. Anyway, I won’t give up Scott Nearing’s onions, even if they may be fungus vectors for the others. They really are an excellent source of green onions for home gardeners. We’ll just call my project “the Extreme Gardener Onion Torture Test.”

8 Responses to “Perennial vegetables: Scott Nearing’s onions”

  1. randi says:

    I really enjoy your posts. This was a great one and especially topical for me as this is only year two for me growing any edible allium at all so the learning curve for me is a steep one. And, to get info specific to Vt. is an extra bonus. Thanks!

  2. AnnaMarie says:

    I left behind in Idaho a very nice patch of these onions that I got from a friend. She is going to send me some more hopefully as I really, really miss them! Her patch was about 20 feet by 8 feet and I was able to pick all I wanted every year before I got my own patch. These onions make the best onion soup!

  3. Norma says:

    I did not know that onions were susceptible to downy mildew. I get it all over my squashes and lots of other things. And this is a BAD year. So great: now I have another thing to look forward to! Ugh.

  4. Mike says:

    I just planted a few Egyptian onions a friend sent me this spring, for the first time. We are really excited to get a nice patch of them going over the next few years. Pretty neat to have an onion directly related to Scott Nearing, wow..

  5. gayle says:

    I’ve been overwintering bunching onions, but they haven’t been seeding themselves as well the last year or two. I’ve been looking for those Egyptian onions, wanting to try them.

    As wet as it’s been the last two summers, I think *I*’m even starting to downy mildew…

  6. Julie Carda says:

    I was given some of these bulbs and wondered about their behavior.Do I need to allocate a large area? Will they become invasive?I do urban gardening and like to introduce unusual items to the neighborhood garden community. Thanks for the pictures and details.

  7. the extreme gardener says:

    Hi Julie!

    I think they would be great for an urban garden, depending upon how they behave in your climate. You don’t have to accommodate their walking habit with extra space. It’s pretty easy to “catch” the bulbils, and replant them exactly where you want them or use them for scallions, forced or fresh. They’re opportunistic, but not invasive – they can survive weedy competition, but they don’t thrive in such situations because they’re not garden bullies.

  8. Ottawa Gardener says:

    Do your bulblits have tan or red skins? I have some that are ‘red bulbed’ walking onions but then I wasn’t sure if that was more or less the norm.

    Perennial onions are a fav. of mine especially as my potato onions are harvested before leek moth devastes the rest of the alliums.

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