Any good cook knows the value of onions. Red onions add sweet crunch to salads, while yellow or white onions add flavor and depth to soups, stews, and sautés. Green onions are versatile. Their mild flavor is equally at home in fresh and cooked dishes.
Onions are among the simplest vegetables to grow. They take up almost no room in the garden and can be tucked in among your lettuce, carrots, and other vegetables. Planted early in the spring, they’re ready to harvest within sixty to ninety days, depending on the variety and plant type. Some gardeners say they even repel insect and animal pests from the garden.
Regardless of the onion variety or plant type, all onions need the same conditions – full sun and light, moist, well-draining, moderately rich soil. Onions thrive when planted in cool conditions so the greens grow quickly. Then, they need a long, warm growing period to ensure adequate bulb growth. In most cases, they are planted in spring and allowed to grow through the summer. In warm climates, some gardeners plant them in the fall to overwinter.
Another thing you need to know is the difference between short-day and long-day onions. In the north, summer days are longer than winter days. In the south, the length of the day stays fairly consistent year-round. Long-day onions grow best in the north, where the long, sunny days activate bulb formation. Short-day onions don’t need long days to form bulbs and grow better in the south. If you buy onion sets or seeds locally, you usually are ensured the correct type of onion for your climate. Read packaging carefully, though, if you order from another part of the country.
The most confusing thing about growing onions is probably selecting them. Onions typically are grown in three ways – from seed, from started plants, and from sets, which are dried, immature bulbs.
Green bunching onions are generally grown from seed. Also, seeds are a good choice if you live in the south or if you are an experienced onion grower just looking to try some new varieties, as onion seeds take a long time to grow to maturity. In the north, onions grown from seed might not reach the bulb stage before frost arrives. To grow onions from seed, plant them in a soft, moistened seedbed in spring – about the same time as you plant your lettuce. Cover them with half an inch of soft soil and keep them moist.
To start seedlings, start seeds eight to twelve weeks before the last expected frost. Keep soil temperature at about sixty degrees and don’t allow them to dry out. When they stand six inches high, cut the top three inches off. Plant the onions outdoors, spacing them five inches apart.
The simplest way to grow onions is by using onion sets. You’ll find these in bins in spring at a local nursery or garden center. They generally come in limited varieties, but they’re so easy to grow. Plant onion sets in spring, spacing them two to four inches apart. Set them with the flat spot facing down so the tip lies just beneath the soil surface. Keep the soil moist and new greens will appear quickly.
You’ll know your onions are ready to harvest when the leaves turn brown and fall over. Dig them or pull them up carefully so you don’t damage the bulbs. Lay them on the ground to dry for a few days or place them on a screen in a dry location. Don’t cut off the tops until the bulbs are completely dry. To store onions, braid them by their dried greens and hang them or store them in wicker baskets so air circulates freely. Don’t refrigerate them or store them in a humid cellar.
Green onions are ready to harvest when they reach somewhere between pencil and pinky-finger thickness. These are best stored in the fridge, as they tend to lose their flavor when dry. In you live in a warm climate, you can overwinter your green onions in the garden. When you need some onions for a favorite dish, simply walk outside and pull up a few!