Onions (Allium cepa)

Above are photos of some of the onions from last summer. Patterson yellow storage onions on the left. Red Zeppelin and Red Marble, a cipollini, on the right. I ordered field-grown onion plants from Johnny’s Selected Seeds last year. One bunch of each variety. Each bunch contains 50–60 plants and costs $15.25. So, $46 for onion plants. Of course to grow them from seed is cheaper, and I would like to do that. I have Bridger F1 seeds for this summer, a yellow storage onion. That’s an experiment. I so treasure the onions I have this long winter that I’m happy to invest another $46 for another year. The onion plants were part of my January order. They will be shipped the last week in March. Hope the snow is gone by then.


I store the onions in the coldest area of the basement. Johnny’s says to store in onion bags or shallow boxes at near freezing and 65-70% humidity. Ha. I don’t do any of those things. I store onions and garlic in paper bags as seen above. The temp is around 50° with humidity around 30%. If there was a area of my house anywhere near 70% humidity in winter, I would stay there myself.

I check the bags regularly and take out for immediate use any onions that seem soft. I appreciate good fresh onions even more in winter than in summer. They are light-years better than the best onion you can buy at the best grocery store. They make $46 seem like the best investment ever.

I look forward to documenting the planting and growing process this summer. Last spring I was overwhelmed with finding space for 150 onion plants and planted them too close together. Some of them were still quite small at harvest time. I hope to grow them all larger this year for a more bountiful harvest, but the truth is those little ones, although a pain to peel, are delicious in stews. If left whole or simply cut in half, they almost pop like a cherry tomato when bitten into and add a lovely texture to the stew.

I’m also thinking of planting them around the inside perimeter of the fenced-in vegetable garden this year, thus giving them more room and also using them as a defense against critters like field mice who find their way through the smallest holes in fencing when they have a reason to. It is reported that critters don’t like alliums such as onions and garlic. This planting plan, however, will require that all the beds are prepared for planting at a very early date, so the weather will be a factor.

Alternatively, I can dedicate several raised beds to onions. In past experience, onions and garlic grow largest around the outer areas of a raised bed, and smallest in the middle, which is another reason for the first planting plan.

Using Eliot Coleman’s “leek technique,” as illustrated in The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook, I plant onions using a dibble, a 1″ round dowel with at 45° cut at the planting end. After the soil is prepared with a broad fork and rake, incorporating an ample helping of compost, simply dibble the holes needed and set the onion plants in the holes. Hold them at the proper height and press the soil around them with fingers. Water.

Coleman suggests putting 2 or 3 plants in one hole. If the soil is light, they will push apart as they grow. I did this at the end of planting last year when I was out of space for onions, but I think it’s best to plant one per hole when possible for larger onions at harvest.

Onions need light, well-drained soil so they can expand. They need full sun and 1″ of water per week of either rain or irrigation.

Harvesting onions is an immensely satisfying endeavor. When their tops start to fall over, pull them and leave them on the ground to sun-cure. This obviously has to be done during a dry spell. I like to harvest them in stages, pulling the biggest ones and leaving smaller ones to grow a little more. If rain threatens, I bring them in and spread them out in the grow light tray, which otherwise is not being used at that time of year, usually August and September. When the sun returns, I take the onions out to the picnic table and spread them on a clean tarp, bringing them in again each evening.

Obviously, I’m dealing with a small number of onions, otherwise this strategy would not be workable. It takes at least a week to sun-cure onions, but I like to take even longer. I think that’s the reason my onions have kept well even in less than optimal conditions in the basement. I repeat this process until the onions are all pulled. For the last batch, I dig with a garden fork because the tops may be completely gone but the onion itself is still fine. Not growing any longer, of course, but still keeping in ideal condition in the soil. Not many vegetables are so amenable to such drawn-out harvests.

When a batch of onions has cured to hardness and the outer skins are tissue that can be brushed off, along with any residual soil, the onions are ready to be placed in bags, labeled with the date, and stored away in the basement.

A very satisfying fall project.

How long would they last in the ground? Of course, rain is a factor, but in a dry fall I think a long time.

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