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grow onions from seed, with seed breeder don tipping of siskiyou seeds

Planting+in+the+GH-1SICK OF SPENDING BIG on onion and leek transplants? Master growing those edible Allium from seed, and also learn a bigger lesson: about the powerful thing that happens when a number of outstanding small organic family seed farms join forces to sell some of their seed together, under one catalog cover–also known as the Siskiyou Seeds collective.

I got both lessons from Don Tipping, a seed breeder and farmer who’s “been a samurai warrior for” some exceptional Allium varieties, along with a number of other crops with names like River Spirit Rainbow flour corn, and Alive Vates kale and ‘Mideast Peace’ cucumber. Don spearheads the Siskiyou Seeds effort from his home farm in southern Oregon (with help from the occasional sleepy assistant, above, working in the greenhouse).

Read along as you listen to the Jan. 19, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. Come away with a new reverence for the contents of every seed packet, and as promised: Learn to grow onions from seed like an expert. No, bigger bulbs are not always better as a goal, it turns out, and planting on the traditional grid, one seedling every 8 inches? You may find yourself rethinking that detail, too.

You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

map and catalog

my q&a with don tipping of siskiyou seeds

 

 

Q. The Siskiyou Seeds catalog [order a copy at this link] says you are in the “banana belt of southern Oregon.” Can you describe where you farm to help us picture it?
A. We’re right on the border between Oregon and California, and there’s an East-West running mountain chain and a river valley called the Rogue River Valley. We get the rainfall that the rest of Oregon gets, but we also get hot, sunny  Mediterranean-type weather during June, July, August and September, so we’re in a much more favorable location to grow hot-weather crops such as melons, corn, winter squash and fruits like peaches and figs. Up north you can’t grow those things as well.

Q. It’s a winter rainforest/summer desert place of contrasts, yes?

A. We generally get no rainfall all summer—it all comes fall, winter and spring.

Q. Zone 7 and elevated?

A. We’re at 2,000 feet elevation at our home farm.

Q. I think I counted 18 “Contributing Seed Grower” farms on the Siskiyou website, including some familiar names among organic seed farmers I love. Frank and Karen Morton of Wild Garden, High Mowing from Vermont, Irish Eyes, Nash Huber…

Your own farm, Seven Seeds Farm, is one member, and the “headquarters.” Tell us how it works, and how long it’s been operating.

A. We’ve been growing seed here on our farm at a wholesale level going on 20 years. In 2009 we started our own retail seed company, Siskiyou Seeds, with the very idealistic ideas that we’d grow all the seed ourselves. We quickly learned that was overly complicated—after juggling numerous isolation fields (because certain crops will cross-pollinated, so we have fields scattered around the valley).

We realized we’d be better off buying seed from colleagues who are doing an excellent job at what they did. As is stand now, we grow about half the seed offerings on our home farm and one leased field 2 miles away, and then choose the cream of the crop of what our colleagues grow.

So someone like Nash Huber, who’s up in Washington, near Seattle-Tacoma area, can grow excellent cabbage seed, spinach seed, carrot seed. Frank Morton specifically focuses on greens–and peppers has been a new one for him. So we support such farmers and what they do best, by giving them more outlets for their seed.

Q. And you really highlight that: The Siskiyou catalog lists the producer for every variety of seed included—so you really know who grew what. I wish every seed catalog did that.

In the introduction, I used the words of seed breeder John Navazio, former senior scientist at Organic Seed Alliance, who says that when you’re a seed breeder you’ve got to be a samurai warrior for the varieties you work with. What does that mean?

A. There’s the term being a Jack of all trades. I’ve learned through my study of permaculture that we really want to strive to be a Jack of all trades but a master of one.

Q. A master of one. Good.

A. We’ve grown as many as 200 different varieties of seeds, and there is no way I can give each one the attention that they really deserve to be of a level of excellence.

That’s something I’ve learned over time—how things excel, like the Chinese saying, that the best fertilizer is the gardener’s own shadow.

When I’m out there walking the fields with no other intention than to make observations. Then I am able to notice the subtleties within a variety that help me decide that I’m going to save these individuals and not those. I may rogue them—actually pull them out—and one thing I do a lot when I am doing plant improvement work is I’ll use surveying flagging and tie some on to the plants that have unique characteristics and might create a new variety, or represent an exemplary specimen of that variety.

Sometimes one thing we do when we’re really trying to improve something—and this is where you get into the samurai-warrior thing, because it takes a lot of time and practice; you don’t get to be a master by chance.

We’ll walk through a kale population, and we’ll mark out favorite 100 plants of say 1,000, and what we’re looking for plants with yellowing leaves—those won’t make the cut—or plants that are too low to the ground and get splattered with mud from rain or sprinklers, that’s not desirable. We’ll look at other characteristics, like leaf shape and spacing or arrangement. Then instead of saving from that whole population, we’ll save seed from each of those 100 individual plants, in a separate bag.

The next year we’ll grow out 100 little plots.

kale plots and don tippingQ. Oh my goodness, the math—the math!

A. So we know those represent 100 mothers—this is called ”half siblings,” because we don’t know who the fathers are, because pollination happened through bees and so on. The reality is that the kale plant, and many flowering plants, can have many fathers.

So when we grow out let’s say 100 plants of each of those 100 mothers—10,000 plants. Then we really are able to see what’s happening with the genetics. I think that’s the best way to understand genetics, because you’re basically in realtime doing that Mendelian punnett square—Big A, little a thing we all learned when we were in school.

Then we’ll destroy, or harvest and eat, the plants that don’t make the grade. So what we’re doing is erasing the deleterious genetic male traits (and any mothers that don’t look good). But since we saved seed from the best mothers in the first place, chances are that they’ll look good in the next generation.

Having a retail seed company, it allows us to pass along the extra costs of doing that work to the customer, who hopefully through education will realize that it’s a superior product, and that we’re actually breeding for things like disease resistance, pest resistance, flavor, color—the things I hope most people care about.

Q. And as you said at the start of that answer: It’s because you weren’t rushing across the field with 17 other chores in mind and three other pieces of equipment in your hands. Because you were there for the sole purpose, every step of the way, of observing—of being intimate with everything that was going on out there.

A. Precisely.

Q. Big difference from sowing it all and harvesting it all.

I’m marking many things in the catalog that I want to know more about, but let’s start with onions and their cousins, the leeks. You’ve done a lot of work with some really good varieties. Tell us about some you are proudest of.

A. We’ve worked with onions for maybe 15, 16 years. It’s one of the crops where I believe that open-pollinated varieties can be just as excellent as hybrid ones. Currently within many catalogs and what farmers plant is a hybrid onion, though.

It’s a crop that what I’ve just described, doing a half-sibling or progeny rows, can be applied to.

Because onions are a biennial you grow the bulbs and can look at them—they haven’t crossed yet, because they haven’t flowered—so if you only replant the nice-looking ones.

You grow them up, cure them, look at them all, sort them, eat the ones that are not great or sell them—we have a CSA—and then replant the excellent ones. I’m about to do it next month for our storage onions—put them back in the ground, with whole onions you just wiggle them in back in the ground.

curing onions at seed libraryQ. They’re alive, sleeping in the cellar. [Above, onions curing for replanting the following spring.]

A. They’re just like a daffodil.

After replantig the bulbs, then we’ll allow them to go to seed. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that certain vegetable-seed crops perform better in certain regions of the country. For instance, most of the world’s spinach seed is produced in the Skagit Valley of Washington, because they have the ideal climate for it. We’re probably in one of the top five areas of the world for growing onion seeds, and in many other areas, they have grown them so long that now there are diseases,

For instance, with the disease called aster yellows: If you go on Google Earth you can actually see onion fields that looks like a blight that takes them over and can destroy three-quarters of a field. When I learned that, I realized we should really be growing onions, because other areas due to mono-cropping, are ruining their chances because it’s a soil-borne disease and remains in the soil. And not only should we be growing them, but we should be breeding them, so what we have will be superior.

newburg and siskiyou sweetQ. So that’s how ‘Siskiyou Sweet’ and your strain of ‘Newberg’ onion [photo at left, right to left, respectively] came to be?

A. ‘Siskiyou Sweet’ is really just a selection of ‘Walla Walla,’ but the county of Walla Walla, Washington, has trademarked that name, so you can’t call it that.

Q. Oh, I know.

A. We were growing and selecting it long enough that we thought our strain was distinct, and we’re not getting rich off it so I don’t fell conflicted about it, anyhow.

So that is a sweet, Spanish-style onion. Sometimes onions separate into cloves, like garlic, and that’s not a really desirable trait, so we’ve been selecting against that by not replanting any bulbs that do that. Likewise we look for disease resistance in the field and general uniformity and ease of growing.

We have about 12 years into that one.

Q. And ‘Newburg’ came from Alan Kapuler of Peace Seeds, originally, one of my heroes in the seed world for many years.

A lot of gardeners think growing onions and leeks from seed takes too long or is hard. We buy seedlings at like $15 conventional or $20 organic for 50 or so transplants–crazy costly, since a packet of 450 organic seeds is $3.50ish. And buying plants limits variety choice.  Help us with some how-to advice.

A. I feel like we have a pretty simple thing, with our technique. Usually here around February 1 we begin seeding onions or leeks in the greenhouse. We use an open flat of soil. I build wooden boxes of 10 inches by 20 inches—shallow wood boxes—or you can use plastic seedling trays.

Q. No cellpacks, though.

A. No individual cells, just an open tray. We fill it full of our potting soil—8 parts compost to 1 part sand, plus some eggshells and a little kelp powder for trace minerals. We use our finger or a piece of wood to make little rows in that tray, like a microgarden.

Q. A tiny furrow…

A. …a Zen rock garden. [Laughter.] And then we sow seed in those furrows, but not too thickly, or they’ll never be able to size up. We’re aiming for 8-10 seed per inch In a 10-by-20 trays we can get four or five rows, and they can get up to about the size of a pencil. When you buy them as plants, if you find pencil-diameter ones you’d be pretty happy.

Q. Usually only a few in each bundle of 50 are that big.

A. When it comes time to plant we take these out in the garden that has been prepared, and we go in with our hand and sort of scoop them up into bunches, and plant those.

In that 10-by-20 tray you can easily have 200 or 300 plants, and it only takes you a half hour to transplant them all. One packet of seed would plant one or two flats.

Greenhouse at Siskiyou SeedsQ. How many weeks in the greenhouse [Siskiyou greenhouse, above] or under lights if we have no greenhouse? And tell me more about the planting in bunches.

A. About eight weeks in our greenhouse.

We’ve taken a tip from Eliot Coleman of Maine about planting onions in little clusters. Instead of planting them out in a grid, one onion every 8 inches in a grid on a bed, we plant them two or three seedlings right in the same hole, with the holes a foot apart.

As they’re growing, they push each other apart, and the beauty is it leaves more room for weeding—and it’s a lot faster to plant them.

With the sweet onions in particular, they can get up to 1 or 2 pounds if you give them lots of room, and that’s problematic. And nobody wants to eat a 2-pound onion, or even a 1-pound onion. There’s lots of research that says that half onion you cut open then leave in your fridge or on your counter—it’s a real bacterial sponge, so we’re really aiming for a half-pound onion. Growing them in these little clusters gives us that.

Q. Bigger is not better. And it makes it pretty easy, as you say. So how deep?

A. We plant them a little bit on the deeper side. There’s that point where they change from white at the bottom, by the roots, to green. We want that submerged, so the root has an inch of soil above where the root starts.

Q. So to the point of that white-to-green transition or so.

A. Compaction from rain and just gravity squishes your soil down, and can push your seedling out. People may have seen that: They transplant onions, and later they come out and see all these exposed roots, especially after a rain. We want them in there firmly, so that won’t happen. [Browse all the onions at Siskiyou Seeds.]

Ester-cook-leek-seed-heads-1Q. I see you have some leeks that sounds good. What about leeks—any differences in culture? [Leek seedheads drying, above.]

A. They do grow a little slower than onions in my experience. They take more like 10 weeks in the greenhouse.

quan yin mideast peace 2

Q. How about some things other than onions that you want to spotlight from the 2015 list.

Perhaps your ‘Mideast Peace’ cucumber, or what about ‘Quan Yin’ lettuce—is it really that bolt-resistant? (Of course if you say so in the catalog, it must be!)

A. It’s a French crisphead crossed with a butterhead lettuce, so it makes a really delicious head. Most people know the crispheads as just ‘Iceberg,’ but there’s a lot more diversity to it than ‘Iceberg.’ Generally they don’t go through the winter well, but they hold very well in the heat. Not only do they resist bolting, but they remain sweet in the heat, because they have a lot of sugars in the midribs.

‘Quan Yin’ was in a trial at Chico State University last summer, where it regularly gets to 100 degrees, and it was the second most bolt-resistant variety in that trial.

Q. Impressive. And what about Alive Vates kale?

A. Most of the kale sold in the organic grocers around the country is a variety called ‘Winterbor,’ a hybrid bred by a Dutch company. I like to have an open-pollinated alternative.

The hybrids aren’t inherently bad, but the proprietary breeding makes it so you can’t save the seeds. So I crossed ‘Winterbor’ with all the other Vates kales that looked like that—the other green, curly kales. All told I cross about eight varieties, so now it’s a very diverse population.

Mainly I’ve been selecting for one that perform well—not for leaf shape or height or specific things yet. What I have with Alive Vates is a grex—a population with sufficient genetics that you can plant it anywhere in the country, and it will thrive—not every single plant, of course, but enough.

get a print catalog, or shop online

10818410_910290205657137_1383064852750836600_oTHE SISKIYOU SEEDS catalog includes many goodies, including Austrian Styrian Hulless pumpkins (above), “for gardeners who would like to grow their own snack food rich in Omega fatty acids,” says Don.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Jan. 19, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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  1. Sarah says:

    Thank you so much for this! How inspiring. I’m especially excited to hear that open pollenated onions can be just as good as hybrids. I’m switching over to all open pollenated veggies this year with the intent to ultimately save all my own seeds. It’s hard giving up hybrid favorites, but I’m excited to try some new onion varieties this year!

  2. Kevin says:

    I live in a rented two family house in a inner city (Muskegon) zone 6a. I have access to a basement room with shelves. What is the requirements to turn it into a cellar ect. For storage like onions in this post? Temp. humidity ect?

      1. margaret says:

        Agree, Megan. I store Copra and other good keepers in my barn upstairs loft, which is well-insulated and has a tiny amount of heat (like 40ish degrees max).

  3. What a timely post! It’s inspiring to read about the work that goes into being a seed breeder. I’ve just been thinking about trying to grow onions from seed for the first time this year, as I have a new little greenhouse that I think would be helpful. I have a question – some folks say to trim the onion seedlings as they are growing to make them stockier, but others say to never do this. I’d love to know Don’s or your opinion on this- trim or not?

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t trim them, Katie, and Don didn’t suggest it, but many people do it. If you plan to, limit your trimming to the top inch or thereabouts–remember, a bulb-to-be needs all the foliage it can muster to photosynthesize and help it grow.

  4. masongreene says:

    I never knew cut onions stored in the fridge could be bacteria sponges. I’ve always done that without a problem but will seriously reconsider that practice.

  5. Dianne says:

    Margaret, thank you so much for turning us onto all these wonderful seed growers, their great gardening info, and their wonderful catalogues. You are educating so many gardeners who don’t have a clue about so many things….myself being the chief among them! And yet valuable insights for seasoned gardeners. Thanks again.

  6. Brett Apelgren says:

    Thanks for the information. I ordered some seeds from Siskiyou. Their prices were inline with other big box catalogs and I got the benefit of open pollinated and organic to boot.

  7. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    One year ago I grew my onions from seed for the first time. It was VERY successful, saving me the high catalog price as well as shipping fees for onion plants. I used a styrofoam APS tray with 3-4 seeds in each cell and placed the tray closely under grow lights in my warm boiler room. I trimmed the long greens to about 5″ maybe three times before I was able to plant them out in April. I lost several during the growth cycle inside and just a few smaller scraggly ones after transplanting. I placed seedlings 4″-on-center in a full sun bed, then just watched my investment of time and energy come to fruition. Eighty five red onions ! Beautiful and delicious.
    I plan to seed another tray this week. Thanks for your timely article!

  8. Mark says:

    I quit growing my onions from seed because I was using plug trays and it was taking up so much space I wanted for other things. Now that I know I can sow them tighter I may try it again. If it doesn’t work I can just buy plants again.

  9. I grow a lot of onions in my own garden, mostly for storage. It’s seems to be one of the crops that people have the most trouble with around here in WI. I think that’s partly because they buy sets. It’s very difficult to find storage varieties in set form, especially at local nurseries. So, I try to encourage folks to grow their own. It’s pretty easy and lots of fun! My favorite varieties are Redwing and Ruby Ring. I generally have them stored in my basement until April.

  10. MomsintheGarden says:

    Great story and pictures! One thing I would like to see in Siskiyou’s catalog are the latitudes for which their onion varieties are adapted. Many of us live on or near the border of the latitudes that work for long day/intermediate day/short day varieties, and that information is crucial for us. If you don’t know for sure, at least state the latitudes at which the seeds are grown.

  11. Jo says:

    I’m puzzled by the math. Am I doing it right?

    A 10 (inch?) by 20 (inch?) seed tray with 4 or 5 rows in it, at 8-10 seeds per inch, requires 640-800 seeds for four rows, or 800-1000 seeds for five rows. But it says he gets 200-300 plants from that tray, using 1-2 packets of seed.

    Is that due to thinning or seed failure? And he must have very large seed packets.

    I have had a lot of failure with my onion-from-seed efforts at all stages. Under my growlights, many of the early sprouts just wither away. And maybe I’m just too rough, but I’ve also lost many transplanting my seedlings. I don’t feel too bad about it anymore having read in various places online about how much difficulty others have had.

    But the math is what perplexes me most of all here.

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know which size packet Don is using, Jo. I think I’d go with the specific directions about spacing and how many furrows in the flat, and forget the how many seed packets part.

      1. Jo says:

        Part of my question is about why he is only getting 200-300 plants from many hundreds of seeds — eg is that amount of failure normal when growing onions, and to be planned for. Thanks, Margaret.

  12. Tracy says:

    A question regarding the storage of onions and potatoes: Do you ever experience damage from mice or ::::shudder:::: rats or other critters? If not, how do you prevent this?

  13. Paul says:

    I’d like to try direct seeding NY Early variety onion seed this year in Zone 5B (Pittsfield Mass). Would anyone have any knowledge of how soon in April this could be attempted and still get decent germination rates?

    1. margaret says:

      I highly recommend a headstart because we are in a short-season area. Here is what Johnny’s Seeds (in Maine) says for that one. Note that they focus on indoor headstart in short-season areas. They say: “TRANSPLANTING: In short-season areas, sow seeds indoors in flats in late February to mid-March. Broadcast 1/2″ apart and cover 1/4″. Tops may be clipped to 5″ tall. Transplant to the garden 4″ apart, or sow 5 seeds in each cell of 1–1 1/2″ diameter plug trays, thinning to 3 per cell. Transplant each cell 6″ apart.” High Mowing says it isn’t really an option for Northern growers, either, on this page. We couldn’t direct-seed here till April or May, so you’d have a seed trying to get started in April the same time that you would have transplanted a seedling that was already 10 or so weeks old — as you can imagine, a big difference. I am in the same zone as you and have never direct-seeded onions.

      1. Paul says:

        I had been in touch with the folks at Hudson Valley Seed Co. who in turn consulted with Jay Armour of the Four Winds Farm – he is attributed with the development of this variety and direct seed method in NY. I decided to experiment with a small quantity along with my usual bed of Redwing plants. I direct seeded the NY Early’s on 4/12. It has been a very cool rainy start here so far – after almost 2 full weeks with cooler than average soil temps they emerged (pile of snow still melting in the driveway). Will be interesting to see how they turn out.

  14. Carole says:

    I’d like to sow Bandit variety leeks in zone 7 in a standard sized flat to transplant out later into the garden. I’ve read that these are very cold tolerant and I’d like to overwinter them outside in the garden or perhaps transplant to an unheated greenhouse to overwinter. What date would you recommend sowing? Will they germinate in an unheated greenhouse or should I start them inside and transfer to the greenhouse?

  15. Brian says:

    I love starting my onions from seed. I live in Milwaukee, WI and have been starting them in my house for the past 4 years. My problem is after they look like they are growing well, they start to wither away, I end up loosing over half my seeds, so I start more. I am not sure if I am over or underwatering. I have tried several different soils to start the seed in. Do you have any suggestions?

    Any assistance is greatly appreciated, Brian

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t water till the soil feels dry; overwatering will definitely cause issues. Are you using a soilless mix labeled for germination of seedlings (not a heavier medium with actual garden soil in it that can stay soggy)? Could be so many things and I am not there to see your setup, sorry.

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