Perfectly Paired Apples and Onions: Recipes and Growing Tips

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.

  • Apples and onions bring the sweet and savory to fall.
    Photo by Barbara Damrosch
  • Mulch around young apple trees with hay or straw, and let it decompose to add fertility.
    Photo by Barbara Damrosch
  • Start onions inside, four seeds per soil block, and then transplant them outside in clusters.
    Photo by Barbara Damrosch
  • After their tops flop over, pull and lay onions out in the garden bed to dry in the sun.
    Photo by Barbara Damrosch

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.

Growing Onions from Sets and Starting Onion Seeds

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.

Apples and Onions, from Field to Kitchen

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.

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