Vegetarian meatballs in a swedish-style sauce shot from over the table, with serving spoons on a wooden background

The Special Problem of Onions.

And…the frustrated invention of Bulbless-Onion Bulgur Balls.


Jump to Recipe

When I first started this blog back in March, I was just looking for a way to get my mind off the ‘Rona. Now it’s August, and I no longer take my temperature twice a day. I have stopped reading about the Spanish Flu of 1918. And 6 months into this blog I realize I have grown to love writing and researching about plants. Maybe I should have become a plant doctor instead of a human doctor. Plus, plants don’t cough all over you.

I have especially enjoyed getting to share what I’ve learned over the years about gardening indoors. Because it is kind of a weird field of study. A bit of a niche. Maybe one day I will formalize my knowledge into a book and become a pillar in the field of bathroom gardening.

Gardening supplies, notes, bamboo plant tags stating "Burpee Bunching Onion 1/29" and seedling trays on a black background.

I appreciate every success

You know that scene in Castaway, when Tom Hanks says, “I have made fire!!”? Well, I kind of feel like that every time a plant grows in my artificial environment. I don’t beat my chest like he did, that would be excessive. But I do get pretty excited. When those plants actually form vegetables, and those vegetables actually taste like what they’re supposed to, I can’t help but feel like this is something extraordinary. And then I wonder why everyone isn’t growing peas and cucumbers in their bathrooms! I’m just waiting for it to catch on…

Take this beet, for example, that grew from seed to harvest completely indoors.

A gallery of three beet images. Top left, beets growing in an indoor garden container,  top right, a close up of beets growing inside. Bottom, a large full grown beet on a cutting board, leaves intact.

It survived the seedling stage. Win! It grew foliage. Fantastic! And then for some reason, it decided to form an actual beet at the base! Huzzah!! The color was deep red and the taste was full of flavor. It made an elegant, summery, roasted beet salad. We even used some of the tops for greens. I mean, how cool is that?

A close up of a beet salad, with lots of red beets and leaves.

And learn from every failure…

Onions, on the other hand, have been a frustrating challenge.

Why don’t they do what the beet does and make a nice little bulb at the bottom? Green onions, chives and leeks seem to do well in my little indoor garden. I even grew pretty purple alliums back when I was growing just flowers. It’s the bulb of the onion that’s the problem. At my best attempt, I got this:

A large onion that failed to make a bulb at the base.
This onion is decidedly uncooperative.

It tasted really nice, so it wasn’t a total flop. But it was supposed to be a NY Early yellow bulbed onion. This guy just looked rather pathetic and unformed.

And on this particular subject, the literature is no help. There is a remarkable lack of information about growing onions in your bathroom.

I want to be able to look up the “Best Onion Variety to Grow in Your Indoor Garden” and get the answer I’m looking for. But what I typically find is stuff like “How to Re-grow an Onion from an Onion Scrap”, or “How to Grow some Casual Green Onions or Chives on a Window Sill”. I threw in the word casual to show my disdain. I shouldn’t be so judgmental, but this is just not what I am looking for.

Don’t get me wrong, those certainly sound like fun things to do. And I probably will try both of them, now that I’m thinking about it.

But what I really want, is to grow a big, fat, globe of an onion in my Tub Garden. From seed. And believe me, I will find a way to do it. If there’s one thing I learned in medical school, it was patience and perseverance. That’s two things obviously but you get the idea.

The Importance of Day-Length

When I first started this whole indoor gardening fiasco, I actually thought the day-length cycle would be more of a problem. The reading I did said that fruits, flowers and vegetables wouldn’t bud or make flowers until certain cues happened from nature. So I wasn’t sure if anything was going to do anything other than grow leaves, and then just plop over and die.

For example, in marijuana literature (because that seemed like the only information out there at the time) you set the lights to 18 -24 hours a day, (with preferably a blue spectrum) to encourage lush vegetation. Then, when it’s big enough, you convince the plant that winter is coming by turning the lights down to 12 hours a day (with a more reddish light). The plant gets ready for the cold to come and this “triggers” it to set it’s fruit (or buds in the case of the marijuana).

But there was no way I was going to start changing light cycles, or have red and blue light zones, and move plants from zone to zone like professional growers must do. I am just way to busy (lazy) for that. I figured I would only try this crazy experiment if I could do it very simply: White LED lights. All set on one timer. All in one room. Done.

I muddled my way through the first few years, taking notes and experimenting. I gradually increased my total light time to 18 hours a day (with 6 hours of total darkness) and found that this really was the sweet spot for my garden. Any longer, and the plants started to show signs of stress. Any less light, and they wouldn’t grow as big and robust. Fruits have been blooming, vegetables have been vegetating, and flowers have grown tall ever since, rather than short and stubby like they did at the lower light-cycle lengths.

So, overall, I was feeling like the day-length problem, and even the temperature cycles of actual nature, weren’t going to be much of an issue for my indoor garden. I felt like I had Mother Nature’s number.

Until I tried to get dumb onions to bulb.

A close-up of green onions, just harvested with harvesting tools nearby.
These were supposed to be onion-onions. Not green onions.

Why onions are a little bit “more special”

So what’s the deal with onions? Well, they are pretty sensitive little vegetables. Occasionally, authors will throw out the term photo thermoperiodic when describing onions. As in, “These dumb onions are so photo thermoperiodic!” The term just means that onions are sensitive to periods of light and temperature.

I think, technically, all plants are photo thermoperiodic, but this word is specifically applied to onions because they rely on the effects of these seasonal changes to cue their bulb formation. Aha!

As many gardeners know, onions are divided into long-day onions, intermediate-day onions, and short-day onions. Usually, you can just go buy whatever type of onions are sold in your area and they will be fine for your latitude. For example, if you live way up north and your summer days are really long, you should plant long-day onions, and that is what you will find for sale at the stores near you. If you live down south closer to the equator, the short day onions will work, and that’s what they’ll be selling at your nurseries. You shouldn’t have to think too much about it.

My seed starting station with 4 seedling trays planted with various onion varieties. The text overlay shows they are "short" "long" and "intermediate" varieties of onion that are being planted.
Tub experiment: Allium Sativum

Planted happily outside in nature, as most normal gardeners would do, an onion will spend most of the cooler spring months growing a healthy leaf and root system. Then, when the longest and warmest days of summer are approaching, a certain amount of these longer, warmer days will cause a hormonal change that causes the onion to stop putting energy into its leaves. Instead, it will direct it’s efforts into making a bulb. Each variety of onion has a different requirement for how many days, and how many hours, of light it needs to trigger that response. Then, as the days get shorter and cooler as fall approaches, the onion leaves will topple over – signifying that all of the plant’s energy is in the bulb, and it’s done for the year.

But what would happen if every day was the same length, and the same temperature. Every day, all year?

This is what I have observed in my own, ever-constant garden. The onions start growing happily. They make leaves and look healthy. But the perfectly constant environment, forever, means nothing else happens. They just go on, making leaves and roots. The onions must think they are stuck in early spring, in some place with extraordinarily long days. Nothing “triggers” them, and so they never make bulbs. I initially thought, with my garden getting 18 hours of light a day, I would be able to grow all three types of onions. But now, I am thinking it is the change in day length and temperature, not the absolute amount of lighted time, that must trigger the bulbing process.

I am going to try this experiment one more time with all three types of onions (long, short and intermediate-day) to be sure. If nothing bulbs, my theory will be proved and I may have to start playing with my light timers. Or my thermostat. Something I never really wanted to do. Something I may not really be willing to do…

A close-up of 8 different types of onion seed packets, laying on a book with a sharp pencil.
So many types of onions to try…

The other kind of annoying thing about onions, is they take quite some time to grow. Their typical time to harvest is about 100 days, with some varieties taking even longer than that. So, they take up a lot of precious gardening space for a long time.

To put this into perspective, I planted this experimental set in mid July. Since the Pumba onions can take 155 days to harvest, they won’t be expected to harvest until at least mid-December!! This is truly a game of patience and perseverance. Which, as as I said earlier, are two things I luckily have.

Phew, these onions better taste amazing.

Multiple seed packets on the left, a notebook, pencil and envelope ready to do some research on a black background.

To pass the time, may I recommend Growing an Onion from a Kitchen Scrap? Or Growing Some Nice Green Onions or Chives, Casually, on a Window Sill with me? They will probably do very well and not require nearly this level of head-scratching.

Then, in December, with diligence and methodical observation, we hopefully will be able to move the science of Bathroom Gardening forward, one slow step at a time. And maybe I’ll get an onion to bulb indoors. If that does happen, I probably will do the Tom Hanks fire dance. And maybe even beat my chest, just a little bit, if no one is looking.

Vegetarian "meat" balls, in a large cast iron skillet simmering in a light brown sauce with a serving spoon.
Making lemonade out of lemons…

But wait! Before you leave, here is a fun (not frustrated or bitter) recipe I made up specifically for onion failures. As I seem to have a lot of those on hand.

It uses just the tops of the onions. No bulbing required. It’s more of a winter recipe anyway. So I will be happy to have it this December if, or when, these onions don’t make bulbs. Instead of onion-failure-fueled depression, I will use the nice green tops and have lovely, civilized, vegetarian “meatballs”.

And I will say that I meant to grow those onions, precisely that way, just for this recipe, all along.

Gallery image of 4 pictures Top left, green onions chopped. Middle left, the texture of the meatball, close-up. Top right, 5 meatballs in oil, frying. Bottom, 15 vegetarian meatballs in a thick swedish style sauce with a wooden spoon
Mmmm “meatballs”! Top left, the onion greens all chopped up. Middle left, the meatball texture prior to cooking. Top right, the “meatballs” browning in oil. Bottom, served with a nice swedish-style sauce.
An extreme close up of a vegetarian meatball, with green onions on a black plate.
Who needs onions when you can have meatballs?

Bulbless-Onion Bulgur Balls

Course: Dinner, AppetizersCuisine: Vegetarian, Swedish styleDifficulty: Medium
Servings

8

servings
Prep time

30

minutes
Cooking time

30

minutes
Bulgar soak time

60

minutes

Swedish style, meatless “meatballs”. Delicious served for dinner with a side of rice, used as a fancy appetizer or even lunch when europeans come to visit.

Ingredients

  • For the Bulgur Balls
  • 3 cups bulgur

  • approximately 10 green onion plants, tops and all, enough to make 2 cups chopped. Any greens could be substituted here including lettuces, beet tops, radish tops, kale or even cauliflower (for a milder substitute). I, of course, used my failed onions.

  • 4 Tbsp butter

  • 1 1/2 cup panko or italian bread crumbs

  • 1 cup pecorino romano shredded

  • 1 cup sharp white cheddar shredded

  • 4 eggs

  • 2 Tbsp salt

  • 1 cup fresh chopped parsley

  • salt and pepper to taste

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil

  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil

  • For the sauce
  • 2 Tbsp Butter

  • 2 Tbsp Flour

  • 1 cup heavy cream

  • 1 cup vegetable broth

Directions

  • For the Bulgur Balls
  • Bring a pot of water to boil. Add the bulgur. Turn heat off and allow to soak for 1 hour. Drain completely. This step can be done ahead of time, or overnight, as well.
  • Meanwhile, chop the onion green tops fine. Place a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add 2 Tbsp of the butter and sauté the onion tops until just wilted.
  • Combine the sautéed green onion tops, bulgur, cheeses, eggs, 1/2 cup of the fresh parsley, salt and pepper. (Salt and pepper to taste prior to adding the eggs). Mix with a fork until just combined. Add up to 1/2 cup water until just sticky enough to roll in to a ball. Roll into balls with your hands. (We did approx 2″ diameter but you can make any size you prefer.)
  • Place a large non-stick skillet or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add both oils and the remaining 2 Tbsp butter. Heat until glistening. Then add the bulgurballs, working in batches, and brown on all sides, about 3-4 minutes each side. Turn with a fork or tongs, very gently as these are a bit more crumbly than meat meatballs. Set aside on a paper towel or clean kitchen towel to soak up any excess oil.
  • For the sauce
  • In the same skillet used to brown the bulgurballs, turn the heat down to medium and add 2 Tbsp butter. Scrape up all the brown bits. Add the flour and stir until it just turns brown.
  • Add the cream and vegetable broth. Turn the heat to high. Bring to a boil while whisking constantly. Sauce should thicken considerable. Turn the heat to low and add the bulgurballs back in to the skillet. Serve immediately, with the remaining parsley or chopped green onions as a garnish if desired.

Notes

  • “These meatballs are crunchy on the outside, tasty on the inside, and yummy all around”. -Declan, aged 7, almost 8.

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