In 2015 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 many others.
I’itoi onions tolerate and thrive in the Sonoran Desert’s difficult growing conditions. 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. Learn how to grow I’itoi onions with these tips.
9 Tips for How to Grow I’itoi Onions
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1. Find bulbs to plant I’itoi onions
Some years, it is hard to know where to buy I’itoi onions. They can be challenging to come by. In other years, it’s easy to find them at the farmer’s market or other local sellers. Check Native Seeds Search or Crooked Sky Farm, as 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.
Occasionally, I have them available in my shop. You can check here to see if I have them in stock.
2. Understand how I’itoi onions grow
I’itoi onions are a multiplier onion (allium cepa var. Aggregatum). The planted onion multiplies and is propagated by the division of bulbs.
From just a single bulb, the magic of nature unfolds. Plant it once, and it multiplies into 8 or 10 (or even more) bulbs. Once harvested, each of those bulbs can be divided and planted, resulting in another extraordinary multiplication. Behold the astonishment as 1-2 onions, within a span of only a couple of seasons, transform into a bountiful harvest of hundreds.
3. Plant and care for I’itoi onions correctly
When to plant I’itoi onions
In cold winter areas, plant I’itoi onions in the spring.
In the low desert of Arizona, I’itoi onions are normally planted with the monsoon moisture in August; continue planting through November. However, this tough, easy-to-grow onion can probably be planted successfully most times of the year.
How to plant I’itoi onions
I keep the clump of bulbs together until I’m ready to plant, just like garlic. Once I’m prepared to plant, I carefully separate each bulb and plant them individually.
To ensure optimal growth, plant each bulb approximately 1 inch (2.54 cm) deep, spacing them 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) apart. For square-foot gardening, place four bulbs within each square.
Where to plant I’itoi onions
I’itoi onions will grow in native soil, requiring no additional feeding. Nevertheless, richer soil yields a more abundant harvest of larger bulbs and shoots. I grow my I’itoi onions in raised beds with the Raised Bed Mix from Arizona Worm Farm. The rich soil produces large bulbs and plentiful greens.
I’itoi onions grow well in containers and can be tucked in almost anywhere in your garden.
Choose an area with plenty of sunlight if possible. They tolerate shady conditions, but the bulbs will be smaller. I’itoi onions can be grown in full sun. They normally die back and are dormant if left in the ground during the hottest parts of summer.
How to care for I’itoi onions
I’itoi onions 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.
Once these onions are planted, they thrive effortlessly and require minimal care. Pest and disease problems are uncommon, allowing for a worry-free growing experience.
Occasionally, I’itoi onions will bolt and flower. The bolted onions will not store as well and should be used right away. While I’itoi onions are typically cultivated from bulbs, if seeds are allowed to develop on the flowers, they can be used for planting. My experience with growing I’itoi onions from seeds has yielded varying degrees of success.
4. Plant I’itoi onions as companion plants
By planting a single bulb in close proximity to the plant, the I’itoi onions will flourish, multiply, and offer valuable companion planting advantages. For more information on preventing pests organically, read this post.
5. Use all parts of the I’itoi onion as needed throughout the season
As green shoots develop, harvest as needed by trimming them off the onion. The greens have a mild flavor and work well in most recipes that call for chives or green onions. The onion will regrow new shoots.
Harvest individual bulbs as needed throughout the growing season. To harvest individual bulbs off of the clump, carefully dig down until you see the base of the onion. Pull off as many onions as needed, and then push the soil back around the remaining onions.
To use the bulb, wash and peel. 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
The best time to harvest I’itoi onions depends on what you are using them for.
For fresh eating, harvest the greens or bulbs anytime throughout the growing season.
Onions that are harvested when the stalks are still green can still be cured, but it takes longer, and the bulbs will be smaller.
If desired, you can leave the bulbs in the ground after the greens die back. They will go somewhat dormant over the summer and then begin growing again in early fall.
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.
Although you can leave them in the ground, I prefer to harvest, cure, divide, and replant the onions with the monsoon moisture. The onions will multiply much more if harvested and replanted separately rather than staying in one large clump.
7. Cure I’itoi onions before storing
How to cure I’itoi onions:
- Choose a shady location around 75-80°F (24-27°C). Provide a slight breeze with a fan if possible if it is indoors.
- Lay the onions out on a rack or floor.
- Cure until the onion stems wither and the papery skins tighten around the onions. The dried stems will slip easily from the onion when they are done curing.
I cure my I’itoi onions in racks inside this repurposed dresser-turned-potting table.
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 cool closet. The onions must have good airflow, or they will get moldy.
Check stored onions regularly, and discard (or plant right away) soft or moldy onions.
9. Enjoy, save, and share I’itoi onions
Whenever you harvest I’itoi onions, make sure to enjoy a portion, set aside some for planting, and generously share the rest with fellow onion enthusiasts. Let the goodness grow and spread!