Sunday, June 12

Onions In The Garden

A Pile Of Freshly Harvested 2005 Spring Onions

What food lover could survive without onions? They appear raw and cooked in zillions of dishes, and yet so often they are taken for granted. Even serious cooks rarely consider their onions. They are merely a pantry staple: good for storing, fairly cheap, and available all year round. But storebought onions can be disappointing, as they frequently have either no flavor or are unpleasantly strong (the latter I find to be especially true with red or purple onions). They can be soft and discolored and look as though they've been bashed around. Years ago I experienced a mind-boggling moment when I complained to the clerk in a supermarket produce section about the sad state of their onions. "That's because they're from last year's harvest," she explained. "They've been sitting in a warehouse for eight or nine months." No wonder they looked lousy.

As with all other vegetables, good onions are worth seeking out. Find them--hopefully organically grown--at a farmer's market or grocery store that buys locally and seasonally. Of course the best tasting onions of all are ones that you have grown yourself.

Onions in the garden are low maintenance and easy to grow (and they just happen to be one of the world's healthiest foods). Anyone can produce a delicious crop as long as they follow my cardinal rule: Never ever start them from seed. Do not allow yourself to be seduced by the alluring names and tantalizing descriptions in seed catalogs (Red of Florence--very rare! Topeana Lunga--popular with Mediterranean chefs!) for you will only be disappointed in the end.

It only took me several growing seasons and at least two dozen packets of seeds to finally face the truth: This is never going to happen. Onions simply take too long to mature. But after years of harvesting what looked like a basket of cocktail onions, I refused to give up. Instead, I began to order fancy onion sets along with my seeds. (Onion sets are tiny onions grown in cramped quarters so that they are forced to mature while remaining small. When replanted in your garden, they will develop into full size onions.) Unfortunately this was another bad idea, as the sets always arrived far too late in the spring. I just ended up with pricier cocktail onions.

I now get my onion sets from three large bins at the local supermarket. These magically appear in front of the store each winter, always in the same reliable and thrilling varieties: White, Yellow, and Red. For less than two dollars, I can buy a couple of hundred and plant them whenever I want. It took me a while to get over the feeling that this was cheating, but I now realize that any onion in the garden is better than none at all--even if it comes from a bin at the supermarket. When buying onion sets, look for bulbs about the size of a dime.

If, despite my warnings, you truly feel that everything in your garden must be started from seed, including the onions, then I wish you luck--and suggest you start the seeds for next year's crop today.

White Spring Onions In My 2005 Garden

Onions will do best in full sun and loose, fertile, well drained soil. Mix in compost or well rotted manure if you have it. Kelp meal is a wonderful thing to add to any garden soil (and you can also feed it to your critters). Planting your onion crop consists of simply poking each little bulb about an inch into the ground. If, as I do, you garden by the moonsigns, you will want to do your planting during a fertile day in the first quarter.

You can arrange them in neat rows at least six inches apart or scatter them among your other crops where they will act as a natural insect repellent--just don't put them next to asparagus, beans, peas, or sage. If you do not have a garden, you can plant several onions in a large pot and set it on your front porch or your back steps or out on the fire escape. Water well, and continue to water at regular intervals if you don't get much rain. You can use a natural fertilizer such as manure tea, compost tea, liquid kelp, or fish emulsion on your onion plot if your soil isn't the greatest, but just don't overdo it. Too much fertilizer will produce lots of leaves and small bulbs.

Refreshing little green shoots shoots will soon appear. If you are growing a large crop, mulch with grass clippings or hay, as onions do not compete well with weeds, and carefully weeding 100 feet of onion plants is not a fun thing to do. You can also side dress with compost at this time. If weeds are not a huge problem in your garden, a thick layer of compost will often act as an adequate barrier against weeds. Pull out or snip weeds at their base in smaller plantings (you want to avoid bothering the shallow onion roots when weeding).

Growing a cover crop--such as beets--between rows will help to shade out weeds. Other companionable cover crops to grow among your onions are carrots, turnips, and kohlrabi (so delicious and so easy to grow from seed--I prefer the purple variety). You could alternate rows of onions and one or more companion crops. While I've never had much luck with carrots in my garden, I do grow several types of beets each year. The baby greens (which are often purple or red) are delicious and beautiful additions to salads--and they're extremely good for you, too.

If your soil is nice and fertile, you can also grow early lettuce among your onions. This is a great way to get double duty out of your gardening space. Simply scatter the seeds once you have planted the onion bulbs, lightly covering them with soil, then harvest baby lettuce plants as the onions need the room.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of growing onions (along with other members of the allium family), is that diseases and pests rarely attack them. I did know someone who was plagued by an onion-trashing rabbit, but this problem was remedied with a quick blast to the bunny and a delicious braised rabbit and baby onion dinner.

After several weeks you will have a bonus crop: you can snip some of the leaves and enjoy the best scallions you have ever tasted (although technically these are not true scallions). When flower stalks appear, pinch them off so the plant will send all of its energy into the bulb. Or you can allow them to bloom into what a friend calls "martian flowers" and just take whatever you get from the business end.

If you are like me and always cram too many onions into your plot, after several more weeks it will become painfully obvious that you are never going to get a four-inch wide onion in two inches of space. Do not despair, for this greediness is what creates your second bonus crop: your baby onions need to be thinned, which means that you will be able to take pleasure in an early harvest and still have plenty left for later.

Tiny slices of freshly picked spring onions are wonderful in absolutely any kind of salad. But to truly celebrate their delightful flavor, I urge you to try one of my very favorite recipes--Three Onion & Three Cheese Pizza. Click here to read all about it.

If your garden gives you more spring onions than you can use right away, you will be able to store some for later. Once they get to the mature stage (when the tops start falling over), you will need to "cure" them. This simply means pulling them up so that the sun can reach the bulbs. Let your onions cure right there in the garden for about a week. If rain is expected, move them to a porch or open shed or other covered airy spot. You want the tops and papery skin on the bulbs to be dry and crinkly. Snip off all but about an inch off the tops, store them in a cool, dry place, and relish the thought that come autumn, you will be able to breeze right by those sorry looking onions in the supermarket, knowing your delicious homegrown bounty has been safely secured.


  1. Can you get Walla Walla sweets out there? They are our local favorite and make the best "scallions on steroids" ever. I think that they lose a bit of the sweet if they are stored very long but that's what generic yellows are for, right?

  2. Hi Kitchenmage,
    I've bought Walla Walla sweets before, but I've never tried growing them. The flavor was really nice, but I bet they'd taste a hundred times better out of the garden. Hmmmm. Will have to look into finding some sets. (Because you know I won't start them from seed, LOL!)

  3. *smacks haed* no wonder the onion seeds and sets never really amounted to much. I'm wondering what the onions you get at the supermarket are called? The closest thing I've seen in the supermarket lately are boiling onions. Is it too soon to be looking for them?

  4. Hi Anonymous,
    The onions I buy at the supermarket are simply called onion sets. They're just teeny onions but are grown especially for planting, not eating. They appear right outside the front doors to the store in three huge bins (one for red, one for yellow, and one for white) I think around mid-winter. If you live in a warmer climate (we're Zone 6--well, WE'RE Zone 5, but everybody not down in a little valley is Zone 6) you might find them earlier. They probably won't be in the produce aisle. Good luck! : )

  5. i'm fm asia n would like to grow spring onions. I do not have a garden n would like to grow in pots. What is onions set because we don't have then in supermarket..u mention they r for planting n not for eating? I want to grow those SO for cooking. My mother did mention that the bottom part of the spring onions roots can be that true?
    Thank you

  6. i know this is an older post- perhaps you'll see my comment, though...

    i was just reading online that one of the big issues with indoor seed starting in onions is that people give them too much light- too many loght hours. part of the short-day-long-day nature of onions, to long of days (and short of nights) too early makes the oio bjulb up before it has leaves/stalks to support large growth.

    could this be your issue in the past?

    we have done onion sets and plants we have bought, but this year we are trying heirloom seed. not because we have to have everything from seed, but because we want good storage onions, something the Red Yellow and White signs at the store dont guarantee.

    perhaps we'll fail perhaps not-- we are, though, also ordering prestarted plants from

    tabitha & karl

  7. I have been told to keep the bulb of the onion uncovered. Is this correct thing to do?

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. We live on a farm in Western Oregon and have had luck starting a storage onion called "Copra" from seed in the late winter early spring. We transplanted them out of the container as soon as possible. We just harvested our crop this year and their average size is slightly smaller than a baseball. THey are and will keep all winter with good flavor. Territorial seed offer them as seeds and sets:

  10. hey there...i like this article that you made in planting onions. i, too, love planting herbs in my small garden, usually in pots. hope to hear from you more. my email is

  11. Most all the farm stores and nurseries that sell vegetables in the Willamette Valley sell onion seeds, sets, and starts(small plants). Of all of these - the starts are absolutely the easiest and most reliable. Seeds need to be started indoors here and are easy to mess up. Sets are easy to get and not too expensive, but tend to go to seed and that will give you a woody center and an onion that won't keep long. Starts don't have any of those drawbacks, are available in the spring just when they should be planted. If you wait for the spring sale you can get them at a Wilco Farm Store for about $2.50 a bunch (about 50 plants).
    I just ordered 30 bunches online. If you look, you can get some great deals on bulk shipments -
    Lynne, Salem Or.

  12. I planted onion sets for the first tiem this year. When the greens fell over I didn't pick all my onions, and now i've noticed that they have resprouted. Is this good/bad? Should I leave them alone? Help me farmgirl :-)

    I live in Minnesota - zone 4, if that helps.

  13. Hi akadietcoke,
    Not to worry - you're just growing more free food! The onions themselves may or not still be good - just dig up a few and see how they look. If they're still okay, go ahead and use them like you would any onions.

    If they've rotted or otherwise look inedible, leave them be and enjoy your surprise crop of fresh green onions. I did this last fall; you can read about it in my garden blog post, Garden Journal 10/8/09: Growing Short Day Onion Varieties in Spring and Free Green Onions in Fall.

    Wondering what to do with all that bounty? Check out these posts: What To Do with 125 Scallions and Wanted: Your Favorite Recipes 7 Ways to Use Green Onions

    Happy eating! :)


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