The Story of Our Onions

By Ed Peterson

Just harvested:  Red and yellow onions.  Beauties!

The Journey Begins

We started in March, planting onion sets of 2 sorts, red and yellow.  Onion sets are simply small dry onions, like a scallion or green onion almost, that can be transplanted and grown easily without having to seed indoors.  We have seeded onions indoors with good success, but this year we ordered sets with another gardener and split them up between us for planting.  The exact type I cannot recall, apologies.  I'll get better at documenting all the specifics as we continue.  

Onions are one of the first things we plant and they can be planted as early as the first or second week of March in our zone, which is zone 5, in the Chicago-land area, where the average last frost is around April 20th.  


Planting the sets is simple; just push the bulb end of the onion into damp soil until just the top is showing, and the onion will grow.  We do this in raised beds with loose soil mixed with mulch and leaves from the year before, mixing in a heap of compost and tilling it all together.

Companion plants for onions are beets, carrots, lettuce, spinach, and tomato.  Plant about 1 inch deep and plant for partial to full sun.  Ours did very well this year in essentially all-day sun.  Space them, one from another, to allow for growth to maturity depending on how large the onions are expected to be at harvest time. We planted ours about 5 to 6 inches apart this spring.  As it turns out, we could have planted them a bit tighter.  

Onions becoming well established. 

Upkeep - Growth

Water immediately as any plant, maintaining moist soil until established. Once the sets/seedlings are established, in well-drained soil, onions need a soaking of one inch of rain water per week to grow best.  This year, we hardly watered them at all as we had record rainfalls throughout the spring and, in fact, some gardeners we know had their onion crops fail due to insufficiently raised beds and poorly draining soil.  Overly dense or overly watered soil will lead, in general, to smaller onions, or in some cases rot.  
In times of lesser rainfall, watering the soil at the base of the onion bulbs can keep your soil from over-hardening around the bulbs, allowing the bulbs to expand and enlarge to full potential.  

Keep as well-weeded as possible while the onions are small.  As always, we recommend no herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, or any other chemicals be used, mostly because we don't want to eat any of that.  We have had good success this way, and our onions are beautiful and delicious.  

Is it time to harvest?

When harvest time approaches, the onion bulbs will expose themselves, rising out of the soil.  I like to leave them growing in and atop the soil as long as possible to let them get large and to extend storage time as long as I can.  We do get impatient, of course, and start pulling them up and using them as soon as they are suitable to eat, leaving our beds of onions looking a little toothless at times. 

As we pull out onions, either because the greens have yellowed and fallen over or because we want to eat them, we plant other things where there is room, as onions are not recommended for a fall crop.  Plant lots of onions early in the spring, as you likely will not get a second chance at a crop.  Above you see some zucchini seedlings and parsley sharing the bed with the huge yellow onions.

And here you see other yellow onions sharing a bed with well-established, yet-to-bear sweet red peppers.

We harvested all the red onions because they were fallen, and also partially because we wanted to get started on some fall crops before it was too late in the season.  Onion harvest is very simple and they should come out of the ground with a gentle tug and twist to dislodge the little hairs at the end from the soil.  Most of ours were so extruded from the soil that they didn't even need to be brushed off to remove any dirt!


So now we have heaps of onions harvested and want to preserve them for as long as possible in their fresh state so that we can enjoy them for a long time.  We simply store the whole onion plant, greens and bulbs, in a well-ventilated place out of the sun.  We use a table in our basement near the dehumidifier or in the garage with the windows open and keep a fan blowing on them.  If you have an airy shed or a place outdoors where they will not get wet, I think that would be ideal.  

We use a lot of onions and so are constantly cutting the greens off and using the bulbs (we use the greens too in stocks or chopped), but we leave the greens on the ones we are not using until the greens dry and become weak at the base of the bulb and can be removed with a simple twist.  This will keep the juicy bulbs beneath skins from being exposed and allow for longer storage without rot.  

This is our first year having a crop of onions sufficient for both use and storage.  We'll let you know how the storage goes and how long we have our home-grown fresh onions into the fall and winter.

Ed Peterson, Author and Urban Grower


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