Every homestead kitchen needs a few varieties growing in the garden to add spice and excitement to food. If you are wanting to grow amazing onions, this is a great place to start. This article will give you a good idea whether to plant onion sets, seeds, or transplants and give you a basic understanding of how to plant them and how and when to harvest the onion bulbs at the end of the season. You should also be able to plan your onion harvest so that you can grow your own pure seed the following season. These are the homesteading skills necessary for you to be self-sufficient in onions on your own homestead.
How to grow amazing onions and be onion self-sufficient
Onions are from the allium family that includes chives, leeks, garlic, shallots, scallions, and Egyptian onions. Onions are hardy biennials, which flower and set seed in the second year of growth. They are easy to grow. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, from small pearl onions used for pickling, to large Spanish varieties that store well for winter. They can be round or oblong, spicy or sweet. Every homestead kitchen needs a few varieties growing in the garden to add spice and excitement to food.
Should you buy seeds, transplants, or sets?
Onions can be grown from seeds, transplants, or sets. Sets are usually available in March or April. Planting onion sets gives you the least choice in the varieties that you can grow. Usually sets are available in a sweet white onion, a yellow winter keeping onion, and a red onion variety. Sets are immature onions that were planted and harvested the season before. These have a tendency to bolt and flower because they are actually growing in their second year, when you put them in your garden. If you forgot to plant onion seeds early enough, you can still get a harvest from your garden by planting sets out in April. When choosing sets for planting look for bulbs that are ½ inch in diameter. Larger bulbs have a greater tendency to bolt, and smaller bulbs may lack the energy to produce roots and tops in the short window you have before the mid-June day length trigger.
How to plant onion sets
Planting onion sets is easy. Prepare the ground by removing all weeds. Adding humus to the soil in the form of finished organic compost is a good measure, but avoid nitrogen-rich additives, which will give you leafy green tops, at the expense of well-formed bulbs. Plant the sets in the ground 6 inches apart with the tip up and slightly protruding from the soil. Some authorities advise planting the rows 10 inches apart, but I plant in raised beds and put each bulb on a 6 inch centre. I find that it is easier to keep the bed weeded if the plants are closer together. If you live in a drier area use conventional spacing to allow each onion to receive the optimum soil moisture. Onions need water to grow properly.
Which onion seeds should you choose
Onion seeds give you the most choice in varieties, but they grow slowly and require a long season. If you are growing onions from seed you should start them in January or as soon as possible, indoors. This applies if your onions are day length sensitive.
Here’s a bit more explanation about day length in onions:
Onions can be day neutral, short day, or long day. Day neutral onions begin to bulb as soon as their tops are big enough to support the bulb growth. Short day onions depend on the amount of light that they get and need only 12 hours of day length before they begin to bulb. This is the variety to grow in the South. Long Day onions are for Northern growers and will begin to bulb when the day length is 13 to 16 hours — around June and July in the North. The amount of green top that the plants have when this day length is reached, determines the size of the bulbs that you will get – all other factors being equal. Since the bulb is the portion that you want to harvest, you need to give the onions their optimum growing conditions to achieve strong green tops before mid-June, so that you can maximize the bulb size in the later part of the growing season.
Planting onions from seed
Onions take about 5 – 8 months to mature from the time the seeds are planted, so you’ll want to begin them early in January or February. If you are in an area that gets frost in winter, plant them indoors in pots or in a greenhouse to give them protection. If you live in an area with a mild climate just plant them where you want to grow them – spacing the seeds at least 2 inches apart, in rows 6 to 10 inches apart. During the growing season thin this bed so that each plant is growing on a 6 inch center. Use the thinnings as scallions or transplant them in between rows to increase your yield. Mild areas can even plant onions in the Fall, after equinox – harvesting before the summer heat sets in – use a day-neutral variety if you intend to plant in the Fall.
Immature onions, also called scallions, can be harvested and used as green onions. I like to plant them close together and then harvest the thinnings as I need them, planning to have them properly spaced, on 6 inch centers by mid-June, to allow them to bulb up.
What about onion transplants?
Your local garden center may have onion transplants for sale in March or April. Transplants are seedlings, grown in the current growing season and sold in bunches. They usually form good bulbs in a short period of time – 70 days or less. These are perfect for short season areas and allow a good harvest without the chance of bolting in the summer heat. If you are buying transplants at your local garden center, they are probably already hardened off, and ready to transplant outside. Transplants are usually planted after the danger of frost has passed, while it is still cool. Onions like cool weather in the early part of their growth.
What to do while onions are growing
Keep onions well weeded during the growing season. Once the soil has warmed, put down mulch around and in between plants to discourage weeds and keep the moisture in the soil. If you are growing in a desert climate, plant the onions further apart in a pit to focus any available moisture in the planting zone. Mulch well, and provide at least 1inch of water each week in the early growing season. Once the bulbs are formed, you can stop watering to encourage the plants to harden off and the tops to dry down, before storing for the winter.
How to harvest onions
Onions will begin to form bulbs in June and continue until August and September. In the Fall, once the onion tops have turned yellow, use the back of a rake and bend their stalks over to the ground. This stops the sap from feeding the stem and sends the energy back into the maturing bulb. Within a week the tops will turn brown, signaling that the bulbs are ready to harvest. Pull up the bulbs on a sunny, dry day and leave them on the top of the soil to dry in the sun. Lay the tops of one row over the bulbs of another row to prevent sunscald. Leave them to dry for a day or two and then bring them in when the bulbs are dry. If during this time, there is a danger of frost, cover the onions that are lying exposed on the ground, with a blanket and remove it during the day. If rain is in the forecast, bring them under cover for this drying down period.
Preparing onions for storage
Onions can be braided like garlic for storage. See this post on how to braid garlic. If you intend to bag them for winter storage, cut the tops off the onions to within an inch of the top of the bulb, once the onions are thoroughly dry. Store them in a cool, dry place and hang them, either in a mesh bag, or braided, so they have air circulation, to prevent mold. Depending on the variety, onions will keep in a cool dry place for 4 months to a year if properly dried and stored.
How long will onion seed keep?
The usual recommendation is to buy fresh onion seed every year. You can extend the life of the seed by storing it in the freezer, in a plastic, airtight bag. I have had onion seed spout up to 3 years after purchase but the viability decreases and the germination rate decreases the longer that you store it. If you have onion seed that is older than a year, always test the germination before you plant – this saves precious time. If you know the estimated germination rate you can plant more seed as necessary, to ensure that you have enough plants to fill your garden beds.
Growing your own onion seed
You can grow your own onion seed by planting out mature onions that you grew in the previous season, in the following spring, in a dry, sunny corner of your garden. Choose a spot that the sprinkler doesn’t quite reach, because you want these to dry down while the rest of your garden might still require watering. By April last year’s onions will be sprouting inside the storage bag, letting you know that they are viable. Plant at least 4 to 6 bulbs, of the same variety, on 1 foot centers in April or May, leaving the tops of the bulbs just at the surface of the soil. It’s easiest to keep the seed pure if you only grow out one variety each growing season. Keep the onion bulbs mulched and well weeded. These will root and grow flowering top by June or July and set seed that will mature in August or September. Allow the seeds to fully form in the flowers and the flowers to dry down before harvesting. You can test the seed by pinching off a few seeds and rubbing them between your fingers. Viable, mature seed will be plump and black. Save the mature seed in paper bags and allow it to dry thoroughly undercover. Separate the seed from the chaff by winnowing, and save the seed in paper envelopes to plant out the following season. By saving your own seed each season you can become self-sufficient in onions in a few years.
The onion self-sufficiency skillset
From reading this you should have a good idea of which form of onion you should be planting in your own garden, whether onion sets, seeds, or transplants. You should have a basic understanding of how to plant it and how and when to harvest the onion bulbs at the end of the season. You should also be able to plan your onion harvest so that you can grow your own pure seed the following season. These are the homesteading skills necessary for you to be self-sufficient in onions on your own homestead. Which onion varieties are you planting this season in your garden?
- The Complete Book of Plant Propagation by Jim Arbury, Richard Bird, Mike Honour, Clive Innes, and Mike Salmon (Taunton Press: Newtown, CT) 1997.
- Rodale’s All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Fern Marshall Bradley and Barbara W. Ellis, ed. (Rodale Press: Emmaus, PA) 1992.
- Grow It! By Richard W. Langer. (Galahad Books: New York) 1972.
Chris from Joybilee Farm lives on 140 acres in Southern BC, Canada. Chris Dalziel is a veteran homeschool Mom with 3 graduates, a published writer, with 30 years of homesteading under her nails. Living in a log house, in the mountains and surrounded by pines, and pasture, Chris was a city mouse who migrated to the country, as a young mom. Chris is also an award winning fiber-artist who raises her own medium from her organic garden, and from her own sheep, goats, llamas, and angora bunnies. Chris is passionate about ethical, holistic husbandry — her sheep have garlic breath. Her passion is to revive the skills and knowledge of the “Lost Arts” of homesteading and present this plainly, so that others can master them and live joyfully and courageously in these perilous times.