The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Onion day

Spring garden

I feel a bit like a kid who swears the dog ate her homework when year after year I have to report trials and tribulations with our bulb onions.  Unfortunately, this year is no different.

Pot of baby onions

The problems began on February 1 when I started onion seeds saved from last year in the same plastic flats I've been using for seven years now.  Even though my germination test said the onion seeds were pretty good, not very many came up, and most of those that did sprout soon damped off.

I think the problem was partially due to fungi hanging out in the plastic flat, but it was exacerbated by old, unvigorous seeds and by cold weather that prevented me from putting the flats outside to enjoy the sunshine.  Cool, damp, dark conditions were perfect for the damping-off fungus to colonize weakened seedlings, but I was able to get another set of seeds going by putting newly-bought seeds in a pot instead of in the problematic flats.

Onion sets

I had been concerned that a pot of onion seedlings would be trouble to transplant, and I did have to gently tease each seedling apart, doubling my transplant time.  I don't mind the extra minutes, though, as long as these guys take.

Since I'd been counting on the old seeds germinating, I only bought half as many new seeds as I needed, so I was only able to plant seven beds (the same number as last year) instead of the fourteen beds I'd hoped would take us through the year without storebought onions.  Which is all a long way of saying --- I need all of the seedlings I set out Monday to survive!

Watering in a transplant

I think next year I may hedge my bets by planting a bed of onion seeds close together under a quick hoop the same way I do broccoli and cabbage.  Planting directly into the ground avoids so many problems with indoor seed-starting, with the only minor inconvenience being that you have to wait on the weather.  But I'll also try to disinfect my flats and will plan to buy new onion seeds every year, which might also solve the problem.  Maybe 2014 will finally be the year of the onion?

Our chicken waterer is perfect for chicks from day 1.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I don't know if you've heard of or tried it before, but I used a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water misted on the soil around the starts with a spray bottle to keep the damping off disease somewhat at bay. I've read that if you treat the soil with it before you see any sign of damping off (which I didn't do), it works even better. Using sifted barn dust as seed starter ended up giving me lots of fungi and weed seeds, which I wasn't expecting. I'm with you -- we really need onions, and lots of them!
Comment by mitsy Tue Apr 9 09:20:08 2013

Hi Anna - Never having started onions from seed before, you'll have to forgive me... Why not start each of your onion seeds (and any seed, for that matter) in a tiny biodegradable pot? I teach gardening to a bunch of kinders and 1st graders, and we just made little seed starting pots using newspaper - we're sprouting sunflowers and pumpkins. I figure in the few weeks that they take to sprout and get a few sets of real leaves, the newspaper will be pretty mushy, and will disintegrate pretty quickly when we plant into the ground. You'd be able to get a headstart on your onion seeds, and perhaps transplanting into the ground would be easier?

Comment by Rena Wed Apr 10 01:00:26 2013

Mitsy --- I remember you mentioning the hydrogen peroxide treatment. I'm just so darn leery of anything remotely chemical, and that hits my not-organic-enough buttons. :-) I figure the better solution is to tweak my method so the damping-off fungi are outcompeted by happy fungi, which always seemed to be the case until this year. I may get desperate enough to try it eventually, though....

Rena --- I've never had good luck with newspaper pots. We used those for tomatoes our first year, and the newspaper didn't really break down in the soil quickly, resulting in unhappy seedlings after transplant. (We also don't subscribe to the newspaper, so we'd have to hunt them down if we wanted to make pots out of them.)

Comment by anna Wed Apr 10 12:50:48 2013
I have had no luck starting things inside. In Ny you have to start inside or buy started plants. I usually start inside but then they die and or don't look as healthy as the store ones so I buy some from the store. Things from the store plants or what I start outside do great. Just not inside.... ugh
Comment by Irma Wed Apr 10 21:55:19 2013

Damping off is the worst!!! I have heard that a chamomile spray helps to prevent the fungal disease.
And as Murphy's Law goes- my chamomile seedlings have become infected... thus far I've lost about half of my plants... my condolences on the loss of your onions

Comment by Gineen Thu Apr 11 11:26:51 2013

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