Onions: A Growing Guide

Onions are one of the most essential and tasty ingredients you can cook with. Experiment with raw onions in salads, add them to breads, throw them into soups (you can’t go wrong with a French onion recipe) or use them in saucepans. In addition, onions are known to offer a range of health benefits: they can boost your immune system, regulate your blood sugar, and even help keep your cholesterol under control.

In addition to their medicinal properties and their ability to bring more flavor to all types of food, they are also quite easy to grow, since they can be stored in the free corners and along the edges of garden beds. If you’re curious about how to incorporate them into your own garden, here is a useful introduction on how to grow onions:

Varieties of onions:

Onions are available in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The white, yellow or red bulbs vary in size, from small pickled onions to large Spanish cultivars; they can be in the shape of a globe, a vertex or a spindle.

Most types can be removed young like green onions, but there is also a type of perennial grouping called Allium fistulosum which is practically immune to disease and insects and produces superior shallots.

Each bulb of the multiplier or potato onion (A. cepa Aggregatum group) multiplies into a group of bulbs. So, at each harvest, you will have bulbs to replant for a continuous supply.

Egyptian onion or top (A. cepa Proliferum group) produces a cluster of bulbs at the end of a long stem with a second cluster frequently forming above the first. It also has an underground bulb, which is often too pungent to eat.

Other tasty plants include chive ((A. schoenoprasum), garlic chives (A. tuberosum) and shallots (A. cepa Aggregatum Group). Learn more about growing garlic here.

different types of onions

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How to plant onions:

You can grow onions from transplants, sets or seeds. You can buy transplants, which are seedlings started during the current growing season and sold in clusters, in nurseries, or by mail. They usually form good bulbs over a short period (65 days or less), but they are prone to disease. The choice of cultivars is somewhat limited.

The sets are immature bulbs grown the previous year and offer the most limited variety choices. They are the easiest to plant, the earliest to harvest and the least susceptible to disease. However, plants are also more prone to hatching (sending a flower stem prematurely) than seedlings or transplants.

If you are planting sets of onions, the sets can be identified only as white, red or yellow rather than by the name of the variety. Most growers prefer white combinations for green onions. When purchasing sets, look for bulbs 1/2 inch in diameter as they are the least likely to bolt.

Growing onions from seeds offers the great advantage of a wide choice of cultivars. The challenge with starting from seed is that your crop will take up to four months to mature. Gardeners in cold winter regions should start planting onions indoors.

Always check the day length requirement of a cultivar or the recommended latitudes before buying, as day length affects how and when onions bulb. Short-day onions, such as the “Red Hamburger”, will form bulbs as soon as the days reach 10 to 12 hours. They are only suitable for southern latitudes. Long day types, like “Sweet Sandwich” and “Southport Red Globe”, need 13 to 16 hours of summer light to form bulbs. They are the type to grow in more northern latitudes.

Onions like cool weather at the start of their growth, so plant them in spring – except in mild winter regions, where onions are grown in fall or winter. Generally, onions grow at the top in cool weather and form bulbs when the weather warms up.

Plant onion seeds four to six weeks before the last medium frost – or even earlier indoors or in a cold setting. When indoor seedlings are 2 to 3 inches tall, harden them by exposing them to nighttime temperatures above freezing.

Outdoors, sow seeds in thick layers about 1/2 inch deep. You can try mixing the radish seeds both to mark the planted rows and as a trap to lure the maggots away from the onions. Plants thin 1 inch apart and thin again in four weeks 6 inches apart.

For transplants or sets, use a dibble to make planting holes 2 inches deep and 4 to 6 inches apart. Use the closest spacing if you plan to harvest young plants such as green onions. For sets, open a groove 2 inches deep and place the end of the pointed rod at a distance of 4 to 6 inches, then fill the groove. A pound of sets will plant about a row 50 feet long.

onion garden label

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Tips on growing onions:

The practices you follow will depend on the specific culture you cultivate. In general, onions grow best if you keep them well weeded. Use a sharp hoe to cut intruders; pulling or digging up weeds can damage the shallow roots of onions. Once the soil has warmed up, place a mulch around and between the plants to discourage weeds and retain moisture in the soil.

Dry conditions cause the bulbs to split, so water if necessary to provide at least 1 inch of water each week; keep in mind that transplants require more water than sets. Onions cannot compete well with weeds, so it’s important to direct the water directly to the roots of the onion.

If you have prepared your soil well, no fertilization should be necessary. Always take it easy nitrogen, which can produce lush peaks at the expense of bulbs. The new growth of the center will stop when the bulbs start to form.

Egyptian onions, chives and shallots require a slightly different crop from regular onions. Here are some guidelines for growing these onion parents:

Egyptian onions
Plant Egyptian onions in the fall all over the country; harvest in spring as green onions or in clusters. In mid-summer or fall, miniature bulbs form at the end of the stem, where most onions form flowers. Pick these tiny bulbs when the tops start to wilt and dry out. Use them fresh or keep them in the freezer.

Chive
Plant the chives and garlic chives in early spring in rich soil. They will tolerate partial shade, prefer full sun. The seeds are very slow to germinate, so most growers prefer to plant tufts, which you can harvest after two months. Space the tufts, each of which should contain about six bulbs, 8 inches apart.

Cut grass tops frequently to maintain production. Lavender flowers resembling pompoms are very attractive, but always remove exhausted flowers to reduce the risk of creeping automatic seeding. Dig up, divide and replant every three years. Transplant into containers and move indoors for winter crops. Chives are almost as good frozen as fresh.

Shallots
Shallots, preferred by French chefs, have a blue-green stem used when they are young. In addition, it has a gray, angular, sweet-tasting bulb that is related to the multiplying onion and is used as a sweet-tasting garlic. Shallots will tolerate all but the most acidic soils, but will dig deep because the plants cut down 8-inch long feeder roots. However, they have no side roots, so space them just 2 to 3 inches apart.

Propagate the shallots by dividing the clusters of bulbs. Each clove, in turn, will produce four to eight new bulbs. In February or March, plant them 1 inch deep, barely covering the tip of the clove. Keep the soil weed-free and slightly moist, but do not fertilize. In early summer, move the soil away from the bulbs. Harvest the shallots as green onions at any time. Cutting the tops close to ground level will produce new tops, and such a harvest actually increases the production of bulbs. The bulbs mature in about five months. Pull and store like onions.

The right way to water onions:

To effectively water the onions, extend the soaking hoses along the row near the plants. Or open a small trench between the rows and fill it with water. This keeps the roots provided, while leaving most of the soil surface dry, which inhibits the germination of weed seeds.

Watch this video to learn the basic steps of planting onions.

Questions to keep in mind:

You can usually expect a disease-free and insect-free culture. One of the possible pests is the maggots: 1/3 of an inch long white larvae without legs that move in a row from one bulb to another and burrow upward to feed on the stems. To reduce the risk of significant damage, scatter the onions throughout the garden. (This transplanting can also benefit other garden plants; many species of Allium will repel pests – such as aphids, Japanese beetles and carrot flies – roses, lettuce, carrots, beets , parsnips and cabbage family members.) a thin layer of sand around the onion bulbs can discourage adult flies from laying their eggs at the bottom of the plants.

Barely visible onion thrips tend to attack in hot, dry weather in July or August. They produce deformed plants with silver spots on the leaves. Thrips overwinter in weeds to reduce pest populations by keeping the garden clean. Try spreading reflective mulch, such as aluminum foil, between the rows to confuse the thrips. If you detect the problem early, you can spray plants with Beauveria bassiana or spinosad to fight thrips. As a last resort, apply neem to control a serious infestation.

A disease called anthrax causes the leaves around the neck to swell or harden, which eventually bursts and spreads powdery black spores on the plant. Mildew, a purplish mold, appears in mid-summer in hot, humid weather. Onions are also prone to pink root, which causes the roots to take on various colors, then shrivel, and neck rot, causing the tissues to form a hard, black crust. All of these problems are caused by fungi in the soil and can be avoided by rotating the crops and introducing humus into the onion bed to ensure good drainage.

Tips for harvesting onions:

Once the top of the onions turns yellow, use the back of a rake to fold them horizontally. This prevents the sap from flowing to the stems and diverts the energy from the plant to ripen the bulb. A day later, when the tops turn brown, pull or dig the bulbs on a sunny day and let them dry in the sun. Put the top of a row on the bulbs of another to avoid solar burns.

When the outer skins are completely dry, wipe off any dirt and remove the tops, unless you intend to braid them. Store in a cool, dry place; hang the braided onions or those stored in mesh bags in a ventilated place. These dried bulbs will keep for about four months to a year.

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