Our First Year Growing Onions

I have never grown onions before, as they are widely considered to be difficult to grow.  They are cheap in the store, and not something that is much better fresh, like tomatoes or corn.  But for some reason I decided to give it a try this year, and I will grow them every year from now on because I liked it so much.

Planning and Ordering 

Onions are day length sensitive.  The plant starts out growing a green leafy top that just look like big scallions.  At some point a switch is flipped in the onion’s brain that tells it start forming a bulb.  That switch is flipped based on the length of the days.  You have to get enough leaves in before bulb formation starts to get a good sized onion.  So the variety you can grow is determined by your latitude, not the heat of your climate.  We are in Central Virginia, and can grow either “intermediate day” or some “long day” varieties.  “Short day” onions are grown in the south where the days are shorter in the summer.  As a rule, longer day onions are less sweet but keep better, but there are exceptions.

Since it was my first year I wanted to do just intermediate day as they are supposed to be the best for our area.  I ordered from Dixondale Farms, which gets good reviews from everyone.  I ordered the Intermediate Day Sampler.  They sell the plants in “bundles” of 50-75.  It is around $12 for your first bundle and then $5 for each additional.  I ordered two of the sampler, for an expected total of 100-150 plants.  The sampler is a mix of “Candy”, “Red Candy”, and “Superstar”, a yellow, red, and white, respectively, all three are supposed to be sweet and relatively long keeping.

Planting

They arrived in a small box, with little plants that looked a little dry, which is apparently normal.  I wish I had taken a picture.  I planted them within a few days of getting them.

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I was able to pick the date I wanted them shipped, and picked mid March.  They typically go in with your other early stuff like peas and potatoes, as they can take a frost.  I think they could have gone in even earlier.  We had an unusually cold March, with some hard freezes and they didn’t seem to mind.

The directions said to plant them in 2 rows that were 18 inches apart.  The plants needed to be only 4 inches apart.  That is amazing.  That meant that this skinny little row, carved out of a few feet of space next to this weird rock wall, was PLENTY of room for my 140 onion plants that I ended up receiving.  It was a forty foot double row.   I had space to put 10 feet of red new potatoes at the end.

Growing

In the beginning you are focusing on getting the tops big, green, and leafy.  Each leaf equals one ring (a perfect onion has thirteen).  Big leaf equals big ring.  So to get big tops, and big bulbs, you need a lot of water and a lot of nitrogen.  You can buy nitrogen heavy fertilizer (the first number on the fertilizer bag tells you how much nitrogen).  Chicken manure is also high in nitrogen.  I didn’t do any of that.  I just wanted to see how they would do without any special treatment or spending a lot of money.  I mixed in a balanced fertilizer at planting, and that’s it, aside from whatever the compost has offered the garden.  This picture was taken April 27th, and you can see they are still very small, but clearly alive and growing a little:

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Quite a bit bigger on May 9th:

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See them on the right on May 27th?

(Do you like the old dryer in front of the barn?  Don’t worry, its now in a different spot.  The yard.)

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Since the onions are greedy for nitrogen and water, it is important to keep them weed free.  So this…. is a no no:

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(Taken on June 21st.)

As the bulbs form, the tops die.  No more water or nitrogen needed or wanted.

Harvesting

And on June 25th, the day arrived!

They were all pulled, and we brushed the dirt off, and laid them on newspaper on the porch to dry, five piles in all.

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Here’s Candy (only half of them, there were about 60 total):

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Half of Superstar (about 60 total here as well):

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And the much smaller harvest of Red Candy (9 total):

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I brushed, Camilla sorted, and Maddie counted.

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You can see some are big and some are small, except for the red which are all sad looking.  They might need the true onion VIP treatment of nitrogen and weeding.

We have sliced up one of each to taste test.  They are very sweet and mild tasting without the super strong onion smell that burns your eyes.

Storing

This remains to be seen, but I will update!  I hope to go a long time without buying onions.  I would love to make it all year, and if they keep, it is possible.  I don’t think I use more than 2 a week on average.

After a few days of drying on the porch, they will need to finish drying inside.  After a few more weeks, I will either braid them or trim the tops and put them in mesh bags.  We’ll keep them in the basement, which is cool and dry.  MAYBE if I feel motivated I will chop and freeze some. Probably not, since I don’t need more mysterious things in the freezer.

Next year I will also try one of the long-day varieties, which are supposed to store very well.

Overall

I loved the first year of onion growing!  Nothing bothered them in terms of pests or disease.  Since I wasn’t concerned about growing enormous bulbs I didn’t do any of the special things that they want.  Next year maybe I will do some high nitrogen fertilizing, just to compare.  I was really happy with the survival rate of my plants, too.  Out of 140 received, I harvested about 130 onions.  The ones that didn’t make it probably got stepped on.

They do, however, look ridiculous on my front porch and next year they need a better home, even if it’s just for a few days.

Happy Summer!

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