Scallion Strategies

UncleJohn(z4 NH)September 25, 2005

My scallion bed has never lived up to expectations. I started it with an heirloom from a friend four years back, then added another from seed (I forget which) three years ago, and then added Evergreen from seed this year. None of them has ever produced anything like scallions one purchases in stores (which I love); in fact my better successes with green/bunching onions/scallions is with harvesting my bulbing onions very early over a period of 2-3 weeks. Copra, Varsity, Gunnison, Redwing, and Mars all produced decent but not perfect  scallions.

Martin has graciously sent me two varieties of topsetting onions which I will try and integrate into my scallion bed (perhaps even encourage them to take it over).

I am interested in forum strategies to starting and maintaining a green onion bed with an eye towards producing traditional market-style scallions for as long a harvest period as possible, including which varieties I should try.

Thanks...

-John

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jayreynolds(zone 6/7)

John, I have had good success with plain old catawissa topsetters. I sell these at market. I begin by selecting the largest topsets, 3/8-1/2" in summer, and reserve these for planting out in early August for a fall crop which I began harvesting about 1 week ago.

I planted the sets about two inches deep, two inches apart in the row and with two rows per 3o inch wide raised-bed. I mulch the sides of the bed with hay and then the top of the bed with well decomposed wood chips 2" deep. The scallions push through the chip mulch easily and practically no weeds.

This years scallions are coming up with 2-5 scallions per set, and as I harvest for bunching I am trying to leave a clump of 2 plants each six inches(more on the reason for that later). Since the scallions are coming up as a group of 2-5 from each set, you have to pull them out as a unit connected together at the remains of the original set.

I bunch them dirty with roots on, as I get an approximate left handful between my middle finger and thumb, I'll have a 2" bunch with around ten scallions. I have previously wrapped as many rubber bands as bunches I plan to harvest around my right wrist. With my left hand I remove a band from the right wrist and then stretch a rubber band twice over the bunch around the white part and lay it on the ground, moving on till I finish the harvest.

I then gather the bunches in long shallow plastic trays and carry them to a water hose with a jet sprayer nozzle, which I use to wash away the dirt by directing the spray against the white shank and do my best to remove the sometimes persistent remains of the set which surround each group of scallions. When finished I lay the bunches back into the washed tray which will be used for transport and display at market. The tarys I use are translucent poly underbed bins about 18x24x6", and have lids which allows stacking. I usually harvest near sunset and just leave them exposed to cool during the night.

The scallions left in the ground are now spaced with a clump of 2-3 per 6" in the bed. These will remain to overwinter and supply both the topsets for next years crop and bottom bulbs for sale by midsummer. This summer's bottom bulb crop had at least 75% bulbs of 1" or better size, which I harvested when all leaf growth had dried and only the topset stalks remained. At that time, about the same period when I harvested all my garlic, shallots, etc, it was obvious that the bottom bulbs had swollen and were pushing dirt around them.

I began to notice that the topset clumps were starting to fall over and so I stuck 1/2" stakes 2 ft high each 10 ft into the sides of the beds and strung baling twine along thes stakes. This prevented the topset stalks from falling over making harvest easier and saving space.

I was satisfied with the harvest, which I did by first removing the topsets, then cutting off the topset stalks, and lastly forking up the bulbs slightly. After a good shaking, the bulbs were separated and spread on a shady porch to dry.

I believe that I left too many plants in place to overwinter last year, however. I didn't thin them so far apart and left too many plants in place, which resulted in more but smaller bulbs. I say this because I had a few catawissas growing elsewhere which had unlimited room and these were able to attain over 2" diameter. Having larger and fewer bulbs would be an advantage to me as they appear less tedious for the customer as well as being less units for me to handle in harvest and final preparation for sale.

At market, I sold these bulbs as "shallots" because even though they aren't true shallots that is the closest way I could describe them to someone unfamiliar, and very few of my customers had any idea what a shallot was anyways.

The biggest difference between thes and shallots, to me is that each bulb has a flowering stalk connected to it's basal plate, with both the bulb and the stalk surrounded by 6-8 layers of wrapper. To prepare them for market I had to peel back the wrapper exposing the whole length of the stalk and remove the stalk. With practice I found the best way was to let the bulbs dry a couple of weeks until the wrapper dried a little, then clipping the upper end of the bulbs with secateurs. Doing this helped me to identify the innermost wrapper by looking at the top of the fresh-cut bulb. I would peel the wrapper leaves downward along the flower stalk leaving the bulb intact. Most of the bulbs then had an extremely attactive appearance just like a peeled onion, and a slight purple blush to the skin. A careful downward tug on the flower stalk would usually snap it off along with most of the wrapper and remaining roots, but sometimes i had to use the secateurs to trim off the roots.

All this seems a bit tedious, and I suppose it was, but I have developed a reputation with my customers for having "clean and neat" produce. I use mulch on everything so very little soil splashing or cosmetic damage is present in my goods, I don't throw my crops when I harvest so they aren't scurfed up, and get plenty of comments about my displays which are neatly lined up in the bins. I am convinced that taking these measures improves my sales.
In a side-by side sale, most customers chose the "peeled" topset bulbs over true shallots with dried skins, even though I brought most of the shallots to market before I brought topset bulbs. I sold them at our market, which isn't known for high prices, for $2/QT, but I'd bet more upscale markets could yield $4/qt.

This season I have thinned to greater spacing and less plants/ft. in hopes of larger bulbs thus lessening the number of post-harvest units I have to prepare yet maintaining overall productivity in weight/foot of row.
As the number of topsets I produced was far greater than my needs, I also plan to remove about 1/2 of the stalks this coming season in the same way as you would garlic scapes, hopefully giving preference to bulb size at the expense of topset production. I may also thin topset numbers at the point at which they form in hopes of getting larger sets.

For the first time this season I held over a portion of the smaller topsets for a spring planting. This went in rather late due to a wet winter and soggy soil till late April. I planted this spring crop in 3 rows/30" raised-bed rather densely in the row because many of the sets didn't appear viable, dried out. Still, they came up and were sold through till early summer upon which time they began to bulb without making any topsets. This bulbing was later than the fall-planted crop as well. As they bulbed, the green tops dried off and the scallions became unmarketable.

BTW, when this spring crop was 1/2 grown and frost-free conditions came along, I planted sweet basil in between the scallions on a 1 foot triangular spacing intercrop. The basil competed well and it's first harvest was taken as the scallions wound down.

So, John, in my experience, these topsets can be a good producer of scallions. I hope someone else can use my rather lengthy discussion as I am very happy with what I have done. I suppose more trials of different topsetters might show some to have different flavor or other characteristics I don't know about. there is always room for more learning.
Jay

    Bookmark   September 25, 2005 at 11:58AM
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heidi41(z5 Mass)

Jay: Thank you for that wonderful explanation. You answered alot of my questions about growing top setters as scallions before I even had a chance to ask. I am planning on printing your info out to add to my other planting notes if you don't mind. Thanks again, HEIDI

    Bookmark   October 10, 2005 at 3:07PM
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faithling(z4 VT)

We love a constant supply of scallions too. In the spring when bulk onion sets go on sale at the local stores, I fill a big bag, selecting the largest bulbs and plant a few dozen every couple weeks in 2-4" deep trenches until they're gone -- usually sometime in July.

For the rest of the season, I broadcast scallion seeds thickly but shallowly in little patches, wherever there's room in the garden and then transplant the seedlings into trenches when they are about 2-3" tall.

The best scallions I've grown are from seeds purchased in Japan and grown for harvest in the fall. You might try some of the Asian seed companies to replicate those results. Evergeen Seeds carries a nice selection.

    Bookmark   October 10, 2005 at 10:14PM
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