THAT FIRST warm spell in March works like a magnet on my family, irresistibly pulling us all outdoors. My husband drags out the hammock, asking quickly if I need anything roto-tilled before assuming supine position. The cat chases newly-transformed butterflies or stalks earth-bound insects like some proud Indian tiger after its prey. The dog is content to roll in any available mud. Only my son and I succumb to that primordial urge to dig. a
Five-year-old Ned drags out every last truck and tractor in his sizeable convoy, but I begin more tentatively. First, I must test the moisture in the soil, squeezing balls of earth until at last one crumbles easily to the touch. Then I dig up all the compost that's ready and scatter it lightly over the garden. Soon the soil's sweet fragrance and the sheer exuberance of the day dissolve all hesitation. Like a character in a jumpy silent movie, I shovel, fertilize and rake myself into exhaustion. But before the sun's warmth begins to fade, I always manage to dig at least one furrow and plant some onion sets. By the time my body has grown accustomed to this labor, there will be one crop ready for picking.
I read once that the only sure way to destroy an onion is with a hammer. Certainly it is the one crop that always come up in our garden. Allium, as the onion family is formerly known, makes the perfect crop for a lazy gardener, since any of its varieties will wait patiently in the earth until you are ready to harvest it, without over ripening or growing to inedible gigantism as most other vegetables do.
Onions have been around for as long as people have been cultivating land. They sustained the slaves who built the pyramids, served ancient Greeks and Romans for everything from aphrodisiacs to cold remedies, and kept Ulysses S. Grant's army moving.
No cook could manage long without onions, chopped, sauteed or simmered. There are numerous allium to choose for the Washington garden. Garlic heads, purchased at any supermarket, can be peeled and divided for planting in a window box or space next to the kitchen door. Similarly, you can grow more costly, hard-to-find shallots. Leeks are expensive to buy but grow easily from seeds planted in the spring. Of all allium, they need the most careful cleaning -- trim the root end so as not to disturb the stalk layers.
The most popular allium grown are tiny-bulbed chives and the onion itself. Gardners can start onions three different ways. Sets, which look like tiny onions, are the easiest to raise but have the shortest storage life, once havested. Onion plants can be ordered from many seed companies and are the best way to grow giant Bermudas, or crisp red hamburger onions. For the onions you want to string and hang for the winter use, seeds produce the best crop.
Any member of the allium family does well in a firm, buy not too heavy, soil and will repay light fertilizing (for as long as the green stalks are growing) with abundant yields. Handweeding is best until the soil has warmed up well, then mulch with dried grass clippings or leaves. Onions grown from seeds will need periodic thinnings -- tweezers are useful for pulling out tiny plants. I like to pull scallion-sized onions from rows of sets for eating all spring, leaving a few to fatten for the summer. Once the green shoots die back, onions put all their growth into bulbs underground. Harvest whenever you need them and dry several days in the sun if you plan to store them.
I prefer to scatter a crop, like onions, throughout the garden rather than planting in one large bed. Old-time gardeners say certain vegetables benefit from each other (cabbage, tomatoes and beets like onions nearby) and organic converts believe onions will drive pests away from other crops. You can blend garlic with hot peppers and water for non-toxic insect spray, or simply munch on some freshly pulled scallions (your breath is guaranteed to drive away pests, be they gnats or too-talkative neighbors). MATTIE BALL FLETCHER'S CHIVE SPREAD (Makes 1/2 cup) 1/4 cup butter, softened to room temperature 1/4 cup mayonnaise 1 tablespoon lemon juice 2 tablespoons or more chopped chives
Mix well and spread on thin white bread for tea sandwiches or hors d'oevures. GARLIC SOUP (3 to 4 servings) 8 to 14 garlic cloves (amount depends upon size and taste) 1 to 2 tablespoons good quality olive oil 6 cups good stock 1 egg white
Peel garlic cloves and slice if large. Gently heat for several minutes in olive oil (do not brown garlic), tossing frequently. Add stock and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Puree in blender or food processor.Return to pan and bring to boil. Quickly beat in egg white, egg drop style, and serve piping hot. CONNIE McELHINNEY'S ONION AND CHEESE PIE 30 saltines, crushed 1/2 cup butter, melted 2 1/2 cups onions, thinly sliced 2 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 cups milk, scalded 3 eggs slightly beaten 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon pepper 1/2 pound sharp cheese, shredded
Blend crumbs and melted butter thoroughly. Press into a deep buttered 9-inch pie pan. Saute onions in butter until golden Brown. Put onions in bottom of pie; cover with shredded cheese. Add scalded milk slowly to beaten eggs, stirring constantly, and add salt and pepper. Pour mixture over cheese. Bake at 325 degrees about 45 minutes or until custard is set. Serve hot or cold -- excellent for picnics because the crust leaves the pan easily.