Tuesday, 25 March 2014

#2 How to Grow Great Onions

I get asked this one a lot... How does one grow really great onions that size up well and taste great?

Here comes the how-to for a really successful onion growing year...

The secret to great onions is to have really great soil to grow them in...isn't it always? Great soil is always the answer : )

Start with great soil!

You want to start with rich and fertile, well-draining soil that is loose, friable and weed-free. The onions want a garden depth of lovely loose soil to at least 6 inches deep.

Amend your bed with manure or compost and add bonemeal and sulphate of potash for great onions (yes, these are organic amendments). Do not go heavy on nitrogen fertiliser though (blood meal, alfalfa....) as it will give you all tops and small bulbs.

Ensure that you have great drainage as onions will rot if grown in wet beds. Raised beds work well for onions, but if you do not have them and tend to have heavy soil, you can simply make a raised hump for your onions to grow in. Make this hump about 6 to 8 inches wide and 3 to 4 inches high. Plant along the centre of this hump.

Start your onions from seeds, seedlings, or sets

Seeds come in a huge variety, a virtual plethora of colours and tastes. They take much longer to grow, however, and thus may be more work than the others.
They can be directly sown into the garden or started ahead of time indoors.
Sets are readily available at most garden centres and even many box stores in spring. Generally available are multipliers (shallots), yellow, white and red. Though there is not a huge selection in varieties, they are super easy to plant up and care for, to get a decent crop of onions. 
Seedlings/transplants, though less readily available, are generally found at garden centres and tend to come in more varieties than sets do. Transplants are seedlings that have been grown on for several months from seed. They are the favourite of most gardeners. Simple to plant up in trenches and they grow better and bigger bulbs.
Growing onion from seeds
I grow all my onions from seed, annually as I love the great variety of  types to choose from ... all kinds of heirlooms, sizes, colours, tastes and shapes.
Start your seeds in flats, trays or 6 packs in early February to plant out in late spring, when the ground is drier (April in the PNW). Use a soil-less potting mix, with some compost added in. Do not use garden loam in pots or trays. Seed, lightly cover with your compost mix to about 1/4 inch in depth, water in. Place on bottom heat till you see shoots for faster germination, or simply place in a sunny spot and they will come up just fine. Keep soil moist.

Each time the green tops grow to about 3 inches tall, cut them back again to about 1 inch tall. This will encourage bigger and better bulbs later on. If you forget, this step can be done at planting time, as well.

Many, many varieties of heirloom onion seedlings available at my wee greenhouse operation,
the Nitty Gritty Greenhouse.

Picture of onion sets from www.green-talk.com

Growing onions from sets  .... sets are small onions, grown the season before and then put into dormancy. They are the easiest onions to plant and grow. 
Can be planted in the garden 4 to 6 weeks before last frost (mid to late March here in the Nanaimo area) if your ground is dry and ready to go. Do not plant in wet, soggy soil. They will grow just fine and size up just fine if you do not get them planted till mid, or even late, April.
Discard any onion set that is mouldy or shrivelled up, as it will not grow.
Push into your loose and friable earth with the root end down, pointy end up. Place about one inch deep, just deep enough that the tip of the set is showing. Plant 4 inches apart, in rows that are 12 inches or more apart.
Water in.
 Well rooted in onions seedlings...
Growing onions from seedlings/transplants
Make a trench about 3 inches deep. I usually use my Winged Weeder, but any kind of hoe will work to make the furrow or trench.
Lay the onion seedlings into the trench, about 4 to 6 inches apart. They will be lying on their sides along the side of the trench.
Push the soil into the furrow, up and over the bottom 1/3 of the seedling. Straighten up the seedlings by pushing the soil towards the seedling from the other side.
If the tops of the seedlings were not trimmed during the growing phase, cut the green onion tops to about an inch long. This will help you onion to form a bigger and better bulb. When the tops start to grow again, you know that your onion is well rooted in and is now in growing mode. 
Water in.
 How to grow and care for your onions
Water once every week or two to a depth of one inch. Do not over water or your onions will rot. Water once a week during really hot dry spells.  
Do not feed. If you have amended your soil and have great soil, you do not need to feed the onions during the growth period. You will get soft onions if you feed.
If you really feel that they are lacking and need a feed during the early stages of growth, spray with liquid seaweed as a foliar feed every two weeks in June and maybe once in July. Then stop.
How to harvest

You can harvest immature onions at any time during the growing phase for your cooking or kitchen needs.

For mature onions that you are going to cure, you know that they are ready once the tops begin to yellow and fold over. When most of the onion tops have folded over (80% or more), give the others a hand by pushing them down yourself. Leave in the ground for another week to 10 days to finish maturing.

If you leave them in the garden for too long after the tops flop over, they will begin to rot and die as they are no longer growing, their job is done, they are maxed out.

On a sunny day, pull the onions gently from the ground. They can be left on top of the garden bed for a day or two to start the curing process. Do not wash or spray down with water!

How to cure your onions

Onions can now be braided and hung to dry in a shaded area, somewhere with good air flow and no direct sunlight... carport, open sided shed....

They can be also be laid out on tables to dry. This is how I dry mine ... place them in a dry, shaded area with great air flow (I set up drying tables under the carport).

You can also simply lay cardboard or newpaper on the carport floor and spread the onions on top to cure.

Leave to dry completely for three weeks. If they are not completely dry, they will rot in storage. When dry, they will feel lighter and the skins will be papery and dry.

Clean up the onions by removing the roots and the tops. 

Place into mesh bags or crates or baskets (I use baskets) and store in a well ventilated area.

Note: Any onions with bull necks (thick, fat necks) will not dry and thus are not suitable for storage. Take these ones into the kitchen with you, clean them up and use them up first. They will store in your fridge for a week or two. Can also be chopped and thrown into the freezer for soups or stews.

 Garlic is already cured and cleaned up
Onions pulled to cure...

Tropeana Lunga or Red Torpedo onions are Italian heirlooms.
One of my all time favourites.

What to do with all those onions?

Anything you want! Pickle them, freeze them, de-hydrate them, or simply leave in storage and use as needed. That what I do!

White Cippolini Heirloom Onion's 

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