We are big onions lovers in this house, each year I devote an entire 4x14ft garden bed to the allium family. One half is fall planted garlic and shallots and the rest is filled with onions come spring time. Last year I had a separate 4×4 bed for leeks, I’m not sure where they’re going this year becuase that bed is supposed to be horseradish but you can bet I’ll find a place for them!
As much as I love onions in the garden I refuse to start them from seed and, baring the zombie apocalypse my husband assures me is on the way, I won’t be starting any time soon. Before I tell you how I get the pungent goodness into my garden I’ll tell you why I don’t start onions from seed.
- They take forever. Onion seeds need to be started in January for my zone 5 garden. I don’t know about you but I just don’t have the patience, time or cat-free space to care for seedlings that long.
- You need space on heat mats for germination and space under lights until it’s finally time to plant them out in the garden.
- You have to harden off the seedlings, I’m sad to sad I’ve forgotten entire flats of plants out over night and lost them to an unexpected frost. It’s so very sad to lose a whole crop after months of care over something stupid.
- Seed longevity is basically zero. Germination after the first year is wishful thinking, that means you need to buy new seeds each year. In January I’m still leisurely flipping though my catalogs deciding what my garden goals for the year are (hint: it’s always the most independently productive garden possible). I try to keep my separate orders to a minimum to cut back on shipping costs so placing an early order isn’t on my favorite things list.
Since I do end up with onions in my garden I’m clearly getting them from somewhere. And it’s probably not where you think. Forget about the marble sized onion sets you can find by the package in garden centers and home improvement stores.
The secret is to start with onion plants. They come in bunches, usually about 50-75 plants. They’re small, occasionally you get one a bigger than a pencil but most that size or a bit smaller. They’re happy to sit in the dark until you plant them. Last summer I didn’t get anything planted until way too late but I still ended up with an awesome leek harvest and a decent number of cipollini onions. The rest of the onions grew but since I’d waited too long they didn’t form large bulbs. Not that that stopped us from eating them!
I’ve already got the bed ready for the onions to go in ASAP this spring. It’s recommended to put onion transplants in the ground 4-6 weeks before the last spring frost. Here in my zone 5 garden that’s the beginning of April, assuming we don’t have 6 feet of snow. You can get fancy and plant then with a Planting Dibber but I just use a stick, I’m just classy like that hah! I poke holes with my stick, drop the plants in and water well. As long as the holes aren’t too big the water does a good job filling them in. After that it’s business as usual with mulch and fertilizer. You can see my mid summer, poorly weeded leeks. They looked so incredible before the harvest (there are still a few in the ground too) some were giants! Considering how expensive they are in the store, not kidding the market I went to last week sold them $6 a pound!, it was a great investment in feeding the family.
There are two reasons to plant onion seeds, neither of them results in a big onion bulb. The first is direct planted scallions. That’s actually what the seeds are in the top picture. They grow much faster than onions so you don’t have to start them ahead of time. Just plant them in the garden and you’re good to go.
The other acceptable reason for having onion seeds is using them for sprouts. Compared to alfalfa and fenugreek (I ate so much fenugreek when I started back to work while nursing) they take longer to ‘grow’ but they make a tasty addition to salads and sandwiches. I bought my sprouting onion seeds from Johnny’s.
Many thanks to Dixondale Farms for allowing me to use the picture of their onion plant bundles, I know I took photos of mine last year but I’ve got no idea what I did with them! This post was in no way sponsored by Dixiondale Farms, I just think their awesome and I’ve been a happy customer for 2+ years.