Choosing Vegetable Varieties: Onions and Leeks

With onions being staples of the kitchen, and leeks being a reliable winter vegetable for us here in Powell River, lots of people grow them. With all the different varieties out there, how do you choose?

Onions

First let’s get the long-day / short-day thing out of the way. Areas in the southern US need onions which bulb when days are short, and you’ll come across these if you’re using a US seed catalog which sells to these areas (like Park Seeds). Here, we need “long day onions”, and if you are using a Canadian seed catalog, you’ll get this kind without worrying about it. You’ll also see onions described as “day neutral” which means they don’t care about day length – those are fine to use here, as well.

There are a number of different things to consider when picking varieties. The most important two are flavor (sweet, strong, mild, etc) and storage life. What you pick depends on your own preferences for flavour, and the purpose you have in mind for storage life. The two things almost always run together so that stronger-flavoured onions have a longer storage life, and sweeter onions don’t store as long.

Long-storage, strong flavoured onions are seeded in the spring and mature in the fall. if we get a wet fall, it’s hard to get them to mature properly and that affects their storage life, so the earlier in spring they are started, the better. Varieties I use include

  • Copra F1 – reliable and consistent in size, but you can’t save seed
  • Sturon OP – grows nice onions, don’t know about storage length since we eat thme before they have a chance to demonstrate it!
  • Calibra OP – new for me this year, similar to Copra but OP so you can save seed.

Red storage onions are also available, though they tend not to store quite as well as the yellow ones. I haven’t grown these, but West Coast Seeds has an OP called “Rossa di Milano” as well as some F1s.

Sweet, mild-flavoured onions are often overwintering types that are seeded in July or August and harvested the following year. They don’t store well but are great while you have them. The classic variety is Walla Walla. There are also huge sweet onions which are grown like storage onions but don’t store well, like Ailsa Craig.

What about sets? They seem easier to grow than seeded onions, but in my experience you don’t get the consistency (many go to seed the first year, or split into several bulbs) and often the actual variety isn’t stated so you don’t really know what you’re getting apart from a broad category. If you miss the planting window for seeds, and can’t get seedlings, they will give you a chance at a crop, though.

Leeks

liz-leekLeeks are split into two broad categories, summer and winter. Summer leeks are fast growing and will give you a decent sized (though not huge) leek by fall, before the winter weather sets in. They are often not very frost hardy so can’t be left in the garden over winter. Winter leeks grow more slowly but are much hardier, and will continue to grow through the winter during mild spells to large sizes – sometimes huge. You can harvest them right through to April if you don’t eat them all first!

My current summer leek is Varna, which is a really fast grower, useful in my cool garden. For winter leeks I currently use Bandit and Siegfried Frost, and in the past I’ve had good results with Durabel, which is not so easy to find now. All those leek varieties are OP: you can find F1 leeks but they haven’t yet overrun the catalogs.

If you have trouble growing or storing storage onions, leeks are a very good alternative in our area. I’ve never had ours eaten by deer, even in winter.

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