grow onions from seed, with seed breeder don tipping of siskiyou seeds
SICK 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, below, working alongside him in the greenhouse).
Read along as you listen to an encore of 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.
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.
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.
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.
A. They’re just like a daffodil.
After replanting 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.
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 tray 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.
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.]
Q. 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.
Q. How about some things other than onions that you want to spotlight from the 2015 list.
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
THE 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.
- Order a print catalog now by using the Siskiyou contact form, or download the pdf version from the button halfway down the homepage.
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 10th year in March 2019. 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 January 19, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).