Growing Onions

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Storage onions are one of my “gotta grow” crops. We always try to grow enough to keep us supplied  through the winter. The picture (above) was taken in my onion bed on June 12, 2013. You can see that the stems had already put on good growth. Mind you, we are talking about “storage” onions that have thin necks, cure well, and store through the winter. The onions in the picture were ‘Copra’, a yellow storage onion. We also grow ‘Red Wing’, a red storage onion. Of course, we grow other onions to pick and use in season.

Onion plants can be started three basic ways.
From SETS. This time of year onion sets are available in grocery stores, hardware stores, garden centers,  even in the drug store.They can be found bagged by the pound or loose in bins and you bag your own.

onion sets bagged 400Sets are “small onion bulbs planted instead of seed” so says the Oxford English Dictionary. You have no choice as to variety when you buy sets. They are labeled ‘White Sets’, ‘Red Sets’, and ‘Yellow Sets’.

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Notice the different size sets. The smaller, dime size, sets will grow into bulbing onions  that can be pulled in season whenever you need them. The larger bulbs are best pulled when they are scallion size. Onions grown from sets will not store well so I usually grow a patch of them for summer use only. Plant onion sets  about a month before your last frost – I usually aim for mid-April. Push the sets into prepared soil so the tip of the bulb is barely visible – I describe it as “as deep as the knuckle on your index finger”. Space them about  3 – 4 inches apart in rows 6 – 8 inches apart, closer if you are going to pull them young and farther apart if you want them to grow bigger bulbs.

You can also grow storage onions from PLANTS.  You buy onion plants in rubber-banded bundles – about 50 onion plants per bundle. These are at our local Farm and Home Hardware store. onion plants 400

Plants are small dormant onions with leaves and short dried roots. Onion plants are sold by variety name so you can pick and choose the kind of onion you want. I have found plants of both of my favorite storage onions ‘Copra’ and ‘Red Wing”. Expect to find onion plants labeled by variety and accompanied by descriptions that might include “stores well”, “short keeper”, “mild flavor”, “early maturity”. Days to maturity might also included; Copra: 104 days, Early Yellow Globe: 102 days. Read the descriptions and choose the onions that best suit your needs. If you want to grow storage onions in northern Ohio you need to choose Long Day onions – more on that a bit later.

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Plant onion plants about 3-4 inches apart in rows about 6 – 8 inches apart in mid-April – or as soon as your garden soil is workable. The cool spring temperatures help them get a good start on their growth.

SEEDS are another way to start your storage onions.

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I must admit this my favorite way to grow good storage onions. I order my Long Day onions seeds in December or early January and sow them at the end of January. Yes! I said January! This early sowing gives then a needed head start.

I broadcast the seeds into mushroom boxes from the grocery store and as soon as they germinate I put them under lights. onion seedlings2 400

When they have have grown about 5 inches tall I use scissors and give them a hair cut, cutting them back by about a third. Fertilize the seedlings once every 10 days – keep in mind that the seedlings are in a container not in the ground so more fertilizer is not better.

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I allow them to grow another few weeks and then I transplant them an inch or so apart into rows in deep flats. Transplanting them about an inch apart gives each seedling more room and results in a bigger root system and stronger transplant. I have discovered that aluminum turkey baking pans are perfect – they are deep and you can easily punch holes in the bottom for drainage.

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I keep the seedlings in these flats until they go into the garden in mid-April or later if soil the soil is too wet. I plant the seedlings about 4 inches apart in the garden in rows about 6 – 8 inches apart.

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Keep the plants weeded and watered. I use grass clippings to mulch between the rows.

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Long Day bulbing onions will concentrate their growth in the leaves or tops until about June 21 (the summer solstice), when for gardeners in northern Ohio, the days will be 15 hours long. After June 21 the onion plants slow their leaf growth and give their energy to growing bulbs. Bulb growth will continue until the end of July or early August. So . . .  the bigger top the plants have grown by June 21 the bigger bulb the plant can grow. If you plant your bulbing onions, say in mid-May, they will have less growing time to develop a healthy set of leaves by June 21 and will, ultimately, grow a smaller bulb. Bigger sets of leaves = bigger bulbs. Grow your onions on until about half of the tops are yellowing and falling over. Depending on variety, that will be the end of July or early August.  You can carefully drag a flat garden rake over the bed to bend the rest of the tops over. Do not stomp on the tops to bend them over!  You don’t want t0 damage the bulbs.  Pull the onions and lay them out of the sun and rain for a day or two or even up to a week. The picture makes it look as if they are piled high but in truth they are spread about 2 deep. This rest helps the leaves wilt and makes tying them into bundles a bit easier.

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Tie them in bundles of 10 -12 and hang them in an airy place out of the sun and wind. Your ultimate goal is to get the top of the stem to dry and tighten around the bulb – that is why thin necked onions store longest. We hang our onions under the overhang where we store our firewood for at least 4 weeks – longer if the air is humid.  Alternately you can cut the leaves off of all the bulbs, leaving about an inch of stem, and dry them on screens. I don’t have the space for the screens so I hang mine.

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When the leaves are shriveled and the necks are dried tightly to the bulb you can cut the leaves off to about an inch. Store onions at 35-40 degrees with 60-70% humidity if you can manage it. Store them too warm and they will sprout. I also carefully trim the roots before storage.

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Onions that have thick necks will not dry or store well so I clean them, chop them, and dry them in my dehydrator. I use the dried onion for soups, stews, or anything that will cook for a while.  I  also grind it for onion powder.

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I grow my storage onions from seed because experience has taught me that seed grown long day onions cure well and store longest. I have had Red Wing onions stay solid and usable well into May. So……choose SETS for summer onions and PLANTS or SEEDS for storage onions – although you can pull your storage onions anytime for immediate use. Get ’em in the ground soon!

Hey from the farm
Fran       The Country Cousin

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1 comment to Growing Onions

  • Debbie Venus-Fenrich

    I planted my Copra onions yesterday, just as the rain began sprinkling, so they are now in! A little chicken straw over them for protection. Hoping they turn out as good as last years! Thanks for the tips!

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