Root and fruit, savory and sweet, enjoy apples and onions together in autumn recipes, and learn about growing onions from sets, how to overwinter onions, and all about caring for apple trees.
They’re both essential autumn crops that you can store in winter. One grows half-buried in the soil; the other hangs from one of Mother Nature’s most picturesque trees. And within their respective categories, apples and onions each hold a position of importance — no cook should ever be without them.
As shoppers, we know that varieties of onions come in several colors: red ones sweet and mild, white-skinned ones with a bit more bite, and tan ones super-flavorful. As a gardener, you learn other distinctions, too. In the South, where summer days are shorter, people grow “short-day” varieties of onions that can form bulbs as soon as there are 10 to 12 hours of daylight. Northerners grow “long-day” varieties of onions, suitable for a colder climate and 14- to 16-hour summer days. Vidalia, Georgia, gave a name to super-sweet onions, thanks to its low-sulfur soil; however, the short-day cultivar that many folks grow is ‘Yellow Granex.’ ‘Walla Walla Sweet’ is a cold-hardy long-day onion from Walla Walla, Washington, an intrinsically sweet cultivar bred for size, mildness, and juiciness.
Onions are also classified by timing and use, an important matter for the gardener-cook. With some planning, you can eat homegrown onions year-round, planting in spring for storage onions and in late summer for overwintered ones. The simplest way to plant onions is growing onions from sets; just pop them into fertile soil, 3 to 4 inches apart in a row. But growing onions from sets offers you little choice of cultivar, and these often aren’t in the best shape after sitting on garden-center shelves, so at our farm in Maine, we grow all our onions from seed, starting onion seeds ahead in compressed soil blocks, four seeds per block. We begin stating onions seeds in March for our main-season crop and in late August for the overwintering onions.
We transplant the blocks into the garden 12 inches apart each way, which is not only quicker, but makes weeding easier, too. Skinny onion plants won’t shade out weeds, and wider spacing will give you more room for hoeing and mulching. Onions are a thirsty crop, and mulch helps conserve moisture and suppress weeds. Our longest-keeping cultivar is a yellow onion called ‘Patterson’; for a red storage onion, try ‘Redwing.’
You can protect your overwintering onions under low tunnels made of translucent plastic film stretched over hoops of electrical conduit. ‘Walla Walla Sweet’ is great for this purpose, but for us, a cultivar called ‘Bridger’ does even better. We start using them as soon as lovely, succulent bulbs form in late spring, just as the stored ones have become unusable. The low-tunnel onions will keep until the main crop is ready in fall.
By early August, the main-season plants’ tops flop over, which means it’s time to pull them and lay them in the bed, foliage intact, to dry in the sun. After that, move them to a dry surface, under cover, to begin curing — a step that will extend their storage life. From there, store them in a cool, dark, dry room, not a moist cellar.
In the kitchen, a little raw onion goes a long way — in salad, in salsa, on a burger — but with cooked onions, the more the better. I add them to zucchini for personality, and to brassicas, such as kale, for sweetness. Even turnip greens taste great sautéed with onions. Few foods caramelize as deliciously as onions do, especially when butter is involved. Look what they do to hash browns! Consider the almost-meaty intensity of onion soup. In fact, what’s any soup or stew without onions? Even onions by themselves are great, sliced in half at the waist, topped with a pat of butter and pinch of thyme, and baked until tender. The only un-wonderful thing about onions is the stinging and weeping they inflict on your eyes when you handle them. Hold them under a faucet while peeling, and you’ll have won half the battle.
If I could grow just one tree, it would be an apple tree — two of them, actually, paired for surefire pollination. The right cultivars will give you a lifetime of use, and each part of the country has specific apple varieties that thrive there. For us, on the coast of Maine, the winners are ‘Golden Russet’ and ‘Northern Spy.’ Even in states that are warmer than classic apple country, you can choose apple varieties with a low chilling requirement. Consult your extension service or a local expert. See what your neighbors grow. Visit pick-your-own orchards, taste the apples, and talk with the owners.
Caring for apple trees is an art, but several simple actions can help them succeed. Protect young trees from mice, voles, and borers by encircling them in collars of aluminum screen, stapled together along one edge. Prune them yearly, preferably while dormant, by removing dead or damaged wood and by lopping off the unproductive “water sprouts” that grow straight upward from horizontal branches. Eliminate branches that cross or rub one another, as well as any that grow inward toward the trunk. The goal is to open up the center of the tree to sun and air. Sustain nectar-rich flowers, such as mint and asters, that support pollinating insects and natural predators. Avoid toxic sprays and dusts. Mulch the ground under the trees with hay or straw, and let it decompose there for extra fertility.
Early-bearing apple varieties, such as ‘Summer Rambo,’ are great for late summer pies. But the types I prize most are excellent keepers, such as my ‘Golden Russets,’ which provide homegrown fruits at a time when only imported ones are for sale. Turn them into pies, tarts, cakes, crisps, and cobblers — but apples aren’t just for dessert. My favorite savory uses for them include chicken soup with apples, curry with apples, salad with apples, and bread toasted under the broiler with apples and cheese on top. And over a lifetime partnership with my trees, I will no doubt come up with many more.
For delicious apples and onions recipes and ways to use your favorite varieties of onions and any apple varieties you can get your hands on, follow the links below:
Fall Salad with Apples and Cheese
Barbara Damrosch lives in Maine at her Four Season Farm and enjoys apples and onions throughout fall and winter. She’s the author of The Garden Primer and co-author of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.