Mary's Veggie Garden

February 3, 2011

Onions in the Garden

Filed under: Gardening,Onions,Vegetables — marysveggiegarden @ 8:21 pm
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Onions are  part of every dinner at my house. Since one of my gardening goals is to grow what my family eats, I grow onions. Though onions are inexpensive and readily available at the grocery store, there is satisfaction in growing all the vegetables that go into a meal.

Onions and their kin – chives, leeks, shallots, scallions (aka bunching or green onions) and garlic are all in the Allium family. The Allium genus also contains many species grown as ornamentals. Deer don’t like these strongly flavored plants and will ignore them if there is anything else to eat, thereby making Alliums one of the few vegetables that can be grown without a fence.

Alliums have strappy leaves, either tubular or flat. Because they don’t have a lot of leaf surface, they require full sun: the shadier your garden, the smaller the onions. Onions grown in my shady home garden are  a third to half the size of those grown in full sun in my Vassar Farm plot.

The easiest and cheapest way to grow onions is to start with ‘sets’: baby onions grown the previous season. At about 8 weeks, the tops are rolled over and allowed to dry, then the tiny bulbs are harvested for later sale to northern gardeners. Three varieties of onion sets, a red, a white, and a yellow, are available in garden centers during March. The red and white sets produce milder flavored onions which store for a short time.  The yellow sets, usually a variety called Stuttgarter, are more strongly flavored and store fairly well. In my basement, Stuttgarter onions harvested in early August do not start sprouting until December.

Plant onion sets and transplants into the garden during  April in D.C., N.Y. Onion bulb formation  is triggered by day length so the longer the interval between planting and the longest day, June 21, the bigger the bulb. In NYS we grow long day length onions. Gardens centers sell seeds, sets, and transplants appropriate for their area, but watch out if buying from a catalog or while on vacation in Florida. In the southern US they grow short  day length onions which grow poorly in the north. Just remember, the further north you travel, the more summer day-light hours there are, until you reach the far north, the land of the mid-night sun. There are also a few day-neutral onion varieties which grow anywhere.

The thick neck of this onion will not dry well enough for long-term storage: eat within a few weeks of harvest.

Plant onion sets shallowly, with their bottoms about 1” deep. Because onions have shallow roots they should be mulched well to preserve moisture and control weeds.  Onions can be harvested at any time, early for their tender onion flavored leaves, and later for the bulbs. Onions with thick necks, that grow from the biggest sets, should be harvested first, because they often bolt and put their energy into flowers instead of bulbs. Thick necks do not dry well, so these onions are unsuited for long-term storage.

After gaining experience with onions, expand your repertoire to other culinary Alliums. Chives are a perennial herb which provides a light onion flavor to salads and egg dishes from early spring through summer. A single pot of chives will thrive and increase in the garden for years.

Leeks present a bold fan shape in the garden and a mild onion flavor in the kitchen. To produce a long white shank, plant leeks in a trench and backfill as the leeks grow. Although leeks require extra labor they grow well in this area and a deeply mulched planting provides leeks fall through spring, even from under snow.

For the nitty-gritty details on growing all members of the onion family see the Vegetable Growing Guides at: http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/homegardening/

In this blog, on the right side bar, choose the category ‘Onions’ for transplanting information and ‘Leeks’ for winter harvest information.

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