Learn how to grow I’itoi onions, and you will soon have enough to enjoy, plant again, and share with your friends and neighbors.
The ease of growing and the delicious flavor of I’itoi onions makes it easy to see why this once little-known and nearly extinct vegetable is enjoying a resurgence in popularity for home gardeners.
I’itoi onions (pronounced “EE-EE-toy”) have a long history in the Sonoran Desert. According to legend, I’itoi – the creator of the O’odham people – called his people together and presented them with onions to plant and share.
9 Tips for Growing I’itoi Onions
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1. Find bulbs to plant I’itoi Onions
In 2005 when I took the Master Gardener classes, they gave each student a couple of withered, sad-looking I’itoi onion bulbs. I was disappointed and thought, there’s no way these will grow.
I was wrong. That couple of I’itoi onions has multiplied into thousands of bulbs that have since been eaten, planted, and shared with countless others.
Some years, it is hard to know where to buy I’itoi onions. They can be challenging to come by. On other years it’s easy to find them at the farmer’s market or other local sellers. Check Native Seeds Search, Crooked Sky Farm, and Vilardi Gardens; they may have them available for purchase.
If you’re having a hard time finding I’itoi onion bulbs to plant, ask other gardeners, they may have some to share.
2. Understand how to grow I’itoi Onions
I’itoi onions are a multiplier onion (allium cepa var. Aggregatum). The onions are typically grown from bulbs planted in the ground. The planted bulb multiplies and is propagated by the division of bulbs. This easy-to-grow onion rarely sends up flower stalks and bolts.
I’itoi onions tolerate and even thrive in the Sonoran Desert’s difficult growing conditions. One bulb becomes 8 or 10 bulbs, which, when planted, become more bulbs. You will be amazed how quickly these bulbs multiply.
3. Plant I’itoi onions correctly
- In the low desert of Arizona, begin planting I’itoi onions with the monsoon moisture in July; continue planting through November.
- In cold winter areas plant I’itoi onions in the spring.
- Plant each bulb about an inch deep, 6-8 inches apart. For square foot gardening plant 4 bulbs per square.
- I’itoi onions tolerate native soil well and do not require additional feeding. However, richer soil produces larger bulbs and shoots.
- I’itoi onions also tolerate dry conditions and will respond to monsoons and other rains with growth. Just as with amendments to the soil, regular watering produces larger bulbs and shoots.
4. Plant I’itoi onions as companion plants
Plant one bulb near the plant, and the I’itoi onions will grow, divide, and provide companion planting benefits. For more information on preventing pests organically, read this post.
5. Use all parts of the I’itoi onion
As green shoots develop, they can be harvested by trimming them off the onion and used like chives in recipes. The greens have a mild flavor and work well in most recipes that call for chives.
You can also harvest individual bulbs as needed throughout the growing season. To use the bulb, wash well and peel the skin to remove it. The bulbs have a mild peppery flavor similar to shallots. They are delicious sautéed and in recipes that call for shallots or onions.
6. Harvest I’itoi onions at the right time
In the low desert of Arizona, harvest I’itoi onions for storing when the tops begin to die back, and the bulbs develop a papery skin. I’itoi onions are usually ready for harvest between May and July.
Pull up clumps of onions and allow them to cure for the most extended storage life. Onions may rot and mold if not cured and stored correctly.
7. Cure I’itoi onions before storing
How to cure I’itoi onions:
- Choose a shady location that is ideally around 75-80°F. Provide a slight breeze with a fan if possible if it is indoors.
- Lay the onions out in a single layer on a rack or floor
- Allow the onion stems to wither and the papery skins to tighten around the onions.
- Trim the stems to about 1″ when the necks are moisture free and completely tight and dry.
- Separate clumps into single onions if desired.
8. Store cured I’itoi Onions Correctly
Store cured I’itoi onions in a dry, cool place. A great way to store onions is in mesh net bags (I use these mesh bags from Amazon) hung up in a hall closet. The onions must have good airflow, or they will get moldy.
Check stored onions regularly and discard any soft or moldy onions.
9. Share I’itoi onions with others
Each time you harvest I’itoi onions, save some to plant and share some with others.