Onions…Crying for Joy!

For over thirty years I grew onions from sets, just as my grandmother and mother had.  White ones for using over the summer and early fall; yellow ones for storage.  I never saw red ones until I went to college.  Then I traveled to Italy and discovered cipollini, those luscious, small, flat heirloom gems that are so sweet they caramelize when grilled or roasted.  And marinated cipollini are a gourmet delight for appetizer trays or chopped for muffullata, that traditional New Orleans olive-salad stuffed sandwich.  Frustrated that I couldn’t find them here, I ordered seeds from Pinetree, a variety called “Bianca di Maggio.”

Seed Starters Handbook compressed Growing onions from seed was new to me, but I figured “Hey!  Chives are their cousins, and they grow from seeds like weeds, so it can’t be that hard.”  However, just to be on the safe side, I consulted my go-to bible, Nancy Bubel’s “The New Seed-Starters Handbook,” which I’ve had since 1988.  Yes, I know you can find seed-starting advice on the web, but I just feel more comfortable getting my info from someone I trust.  After all, seeds are not cheap and space is limited so I don’t want to waste either, not to mention time.  It was from Nancy’s book that I learned most onions take a long time to grow before they are ready for the garden.  Here in Indiana (Zone 5) long-term varieties need to be seeded in early February.  That suits me just fine, because by February I’m itching to start something…anything!  I’ve found that for my potager all full-sized onions need to be sown by Valentine’s Day, so I’ll be seeding the final “regular” onions today.

Onion seedling compressed Bubel advises that onion seeds vary in the time they take to germinate, even from the same seed packet and that fresh seed is necessary because onion seed has a short shelf life.  And if they aren’t stored in a cool, dry, dark place that life can be even shorter.  In the photo above it’s easy to see that one seedling is well on its way, one above it is half its size, and one to the right is just emerging.  Three up, 97 to show yet.  Onion seeds germinate best at 65-80 degrees F but as soon as there are green shoots, grow them on a bit cooler, no higher than 70 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night.  I sow them in rows in a flat, then prick each one into a 4-pack when they are 2-3″ tall.  When they are well-rooted and danger of hard freeze has passed, I harden them off a day or two to accustom their little grassy leaves to wind.

While waiting for those seeds to grow into “grass” analyze and prepare the soil for transplanting into the garden or containers.  (Cipollini grow great in a window box along a patio edge.)  Onions prefer a “sweet” soil (that is, not acidic so check the Ph…6.5 is good) and if soil is deficient in potassium, they won’t keep well no matter what variety is planted.  Low phosphorous levels will cause thick necks and slow maturity.  Gypsum fertilizers or soil conditioners or sulphur will prevent onions from being sweet.  Very high nitrogen will often hinder good-sized bulb formation, but the biggest factor is warmth.  Onions are day-length sensitive.  Most onions need long, warm days and short nights to bulk up into a bulb.  Lots of sunshine is a must so choose a full sun location.  Don’t let all that info scare you.  The sunshine, warmth and average soil will usually work fine, but a soil test can remove any doubt.  Cipollini are small members of the onion family (only about 1″ tall and 1-3″ across) and are easier than a big Walla-Walla  (which require over 110 days of heat) because they mature quickly.   If you’ve never grown onions, start with bunching onions, scallions, or cipollini to build your confidence.  (And if you live in the South, choose “short-day” full-sized onion varieties, rather than the long-day ones I grow.  However, cipollini don’t really seem to mind where they grow.)Cippolini compressed When they are ready to transplant into the garden or windowbox, dig a trench the width and depth of the 4-pack soil cube, sprinkle a bit of compost in the bottom and plant the cubes of soil cheek to jowl, trying not to disturb the roots as you set them in.  Rows can be place adjacent to one another.  (For larger varieties of onions, the soil cubes and rows must be spaced further apart to allow ample room for full-sized bulbs.)  Lightly bring soil over the edges to fill in the trench and prop up each little green blade, and that’s it.  Keep them weed free, and you’ll have beautiful cipollini in about 8 weeks, depending upon weather. When the tops fall over, they are ready to harvest. Cipollini ready to harvest compressed   I do a large planting, replacing peas, so there are enough to marinate and can (shown below) for the entire winter.  Cipollini can compressed  (The balsamic vinegar, rosemary and onion-flavored broth left when the can is empty makes a terrific marinade or salad dressing ingredient, so don’t waste it!)  For succession crops, to ensure there will always be cipollini to grill with veggies or steaks, I plant them every two weeks throughout the summer, making small trenches here and there whenever another crop of lettuce, spinach, carrots, etc. comes out.  This method works for any small onion, scallions, pearl onions, or bunching onions.  It’s not the only method for growing onions, but it has worked well for me.  And I have to admit, last year I went to France and left a flat of 4-packs on the bench for weeks.  They never did get planted into the garden, but matured nicely in the flat and went right to the grill! As I said, cipollini are very easy!

Once I realized how easy cipollini were, I expanded my selections to include “Red Marble” and “Gold Coin” cipollini for storing and winter grilling.  I like “Bianco di Maggio” the best, but they don’t store well which is why I can them.  Onion Torpedo compressed  Also added are these delicious “Red Long of Tropea,” another onion I met in Italy that I adore, as well as Onion Bassano compressed “Bassano,” a big round red Italian onion and “Flat of Italy,” which is a really good keeper for me.  I can’t find any of these in stores or markets, so I’m delighted to be able to grow my own.  Onion Patterson pkt compressed This year, I’m adding “Patterson,” a large, yellow F1 hybrid that stores exceptionally well.  With all the shallots and garlic, chives, garlic chives, and walking onions there’s quite a selection of tasty alliums in the potager all season, Allium rack compressed and braided onions, shallots, and garlic hanging on the allium rack in my garage all winter. (Photo is before garlics and most onions were added.)

So, if like me, your are itching to start something, seed some onions.  This summer, you’ll be crying with joy as you harvest!



About carolee

A former professional herb and lavender grower, now just growing for joy in my new potager. When I'm not in the garden, I'm in the kitchen, writing, or traveling to great gardens.
This entry was posted in garden books, Onions, Uncategorized, vegetable gardening and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Onions…Crying for Joy!

  1. bcparkison says:

    And they are so good for us. I’ve had more success with bunching onions and garlic.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gary says:

    Great read I have to try this next year

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A. JoAnn says:

    Wow, I still have the “bible,” too!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Cortney says:

    I love homegrown onions but struggle with them taking up garden real estate when onions are so easy to get elsewhere (store or market), but I think you’ve convinced me to at least plant some cipollini this year to marinate them- those look amazing! Would you share your recipe?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. coppicelearner says:

    What an interesting piece! I have grown onions from sets but never from seed – maybe I should try! Thank you for sharing your expertise so generously.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. curioussteph says:

    inspiring! my itch is growing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Onion braids are so beautiful! We tried onions in the garden bed but i think the soil needs work. We learned that our front garden bed as nice loose soil so we plan to try root veggies there this year.
    There are some raised bed onions still in the ground – the fawns are green so we’re leaving them in place until they turn brown. Hoping for a good onion harvest!


  8. I really enjoyed your post. I tried growing onions from seed for the first time last year and was rather unsuccessful. I scattered the seeds in large pots that each contained a tomato plant. They grew to the grassy stage, and then in the worst of the summer heat (95+ degrees) they shriveled up and disappeared. 😦 Any suggestions for this year? I wasn’t sure if I overcrowded them, they shouldn’t have been in containers, or it was the heat (or all the above!). I’d love to hear any tips you might have…


    • carolee says:

      I’ve never done it that way, but if I were to do it, I’d plant the onion seeds first and let them get off to a great start for 2 months or 3. Then set the tomato plant in the middle. They both need adequate, steady watering. Tomatoes are greedy feeders and may have used all the water and food. Both tomatoes and onions are shallow rooters so would be competing for the same nutrients in a container, so it should be a VERY large container. Heat shouldn’t bother onions…they both like it. And I’ve grown all types of onions in containers. What kind of pot did you use size-wise?


  9. I tried red onions this past year but sadly most of them were very small when the tops turned brown. Not sure why but I would love to have a beautiful harvest like yours. 🙂


    • carolee says:

      Possibly not enough nutrients or water…a small variety? Planted too late to have enough days of proper day length? Did you start seed or use sets or plants? Even small onions are useful! Best of luck on your next try…do try!


  10. Thanks for sharing your favorite varieties! I’ve added some of them to my wishlist for next year. I have a lot of seeds leftover. I was so excited to finally get a big garden last year that I ordered too much in my excitement! Starting my onion seeds (zone 6) this weekend!


    • carolee says:

      I always have some seeds left, but always need more. Most seeds store well, and who knows what the future will bring. Great weather so I can sneak in one more crop of this and that….when the stores have no seeds left to offer that I want? A crop that fails and must be replaced by something else? Who wants to risk that? I can always justify buying seeds!!!


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