growing onions like paul bunyan

 “An onion can make people cry, but there’s never been a vegetable that can make people laugh.”

Will Rogers

Ah Springtime.

I love the way you do the things you do (as once said by UB40).

Everyone is a little bit happier and friendly.  The world is a bit more active and seems just a bit more bright.  It also means that for the garden-minded individual such as myself, noew is the time to start planting!  It is currently a bit too cold for my favorite crops like tomatoes, peppers and beans (they are growing under flourescent lamps in the kitchen), so I am focusing on other varieties of plants.  The past week or so, it has been onions.  I am new to growing onions and it has been quite a learning experience, especially because I am trying to try it all.  In the case of onions, it means starting some from seed and starting some from sets.  In case you were wondering, sets are immature bulbs grown from the previous season.  I could also buy seedlings from the nursery, but this option did not appeal to me.  I am trying to grow as much as I can by myself.

onionsets2The varieties that I am using as set onions are German varieties.  The first is Braunschweiger Red.  It is a good onion for storage.  The other is called Snowball.  It is supposed to be good for fresh eating.  I have zero experience with German onions with the exception of the 2 KG bag for 1€ at the supermarket, because the other varieties always seem so darned expensive.  As for seeds, I am lucky enough to have Walla Walla, White Spanish and an Italian variety of an unknown color.

Here are a few tips for growing onions:

1.  Use fresh seeds.  I planted three sorts of onion seeds – Walla Walla, Spanish White and an Italian variety from a friend.  The Walla Walla and Spanish White germinated in less than a week and are thriving.  The former were new seeds saved from last year’s crop.  I am not sure when the other variety was harvested, but I am guessing not in the fall of 2014.  Only one of the Italian variety has sprouted (out of about 40 seeds).

2.  Choose varieties that you will really use.  This may mean planting more than one variety.  Try a variety that keeps well and a variety that can be used for fresh, delicious summertime meals.

3.  Sow the seeds approximately 8-10 weeks before the anticipated last frost date.  I used a program from the Farmer’s Almanac that tells me when I should be starting seeds indoors, outdoors, etc.  It is customizable according to zip code:

4. Germinate the seeds using a heat mat.  I had read that onion seeds are very difficult to germinate and require a significant amount of time to do so.  This was not my case.  With the heat mat and a piece of plastic wrap over the seed starting tray they sprouted in 3-4 days.

5.  Cut the seeds off the ends of the onion sprouts.  I had assumed that the plant needed the nutrients provided by the seed husk.  This is apparently not the case, as with other plants that use these nutrients until their “true leaves” have formed.  In this case it is okay to trim them or the seedlings will be top-heavy and have a hard time standing up on their own.



6.  Starting trimming the onion seedlings once they reach 3 inches.  This encourages root development and prevents the tops from getting tangled/falling over/touching the grow light/etc.  These cuttings are edible.  Great for a salad dressing or in some scrambled eggs.

7.  Embrace the fact that onions will deter many pests and use them as a companion plant.  Their friends include members of the cabbage family (broccoli, Brussel sprouts, etc.), most varieties of tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, spinach and peaches.  Spinach and lettuce can also work as a living mulch for the onion plants that inhibits weed growth.  Avoid planting them near members of the bean family, peas, asparagus and sage, as the onions will inhibit their growth.

8.  If using sets, make sure that they are planted before May.  Not sure why, but that is what the package of onion sets tells me to do.  They can be planted earlier than that, at least in my current climate.  According to the directions, anytime from the end of February until the start of May will do.  However, if you are like my parents and still happen to have 4 feet of snow, this may not work for you.  Also, be aware that onions grown from sets may bolt faster than varieties grown from seeds and pay attention to the light requirements of the varieties chosen.  Some are better suited to northern climates where they will receive 13+ hours of sunlight – something required to produce bulbs.  Some are better suited for the 12 hours of sunlight provided by more southern climates.


9.  As long as the soil in the garden has been taken care of, onions require no special fertilization.  If you do decide to fertilize, avoid N heavy fertilizers at all cost.

10.  Water regularly and keep well weeded.  Seedlings in particular do not compete well with weeds and require consistent watering – about 1 inch a week.  If onions are not consistently watered in the summer (rather they receive lots of water at once), the bulbs are susceptible to splitting and rot.

Best of luck on your onion growing journey.  And never forget, soaking onions (whole) in a bowl of cold water for 10 minutes before cutting them remove the amino acid sulfoxides that make us cry when we cut them.

ps.  I HATE the new WordPress format.  Please, bring back the old one!


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