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

Tips for 365 days of homegrown onions

Curing onions"Hi Anna- another curious inquiry: I know you've mentioned what type of onions you grow on your homestead, but would you please repeat it again, and how much did you plant this year to finally have enough to last you through the winter? Our homestead will be the same size of yours and it would be helpful to have an idea of the ideal amount to plant without having to go through eight years of trial and error!"
--- Karen B.

This is an excellent question, especially since it's taken us several years to figure out each aspect of growing our own onions.  The first place to start is with deciding if you want to Potato onionsgrow from sets or from seed.  Although I don't have first-hand data to back this up, the books all say that onions from sets won't be good keepers, so we chose to grow from seed.  However, some farmers are smart and grow both --- using the onions from sets (easy to grow, but more expensive to start) for eating over the summer, then keeping the onions grown from seed for winter eating.  Part of our success with still having onions at the end of December is actually do to a variant of this method --- I used a bunch of our potato onions in summer soups, which left many more of our onions from seed to store for the winter.

Which moves me on to one of the questions you actually asked --- what variety did we settle on for the onions we grew from seed?  We grew Pontiac this year with great success, but before you go out and buy your seeds, please read this post about the difference between short-day and long-day onions.  The short version is that southerners and northerners need to choose different varieties of onions --- we live in the middle, but long-day onions did better for us in my trial.

2013 onion harvest

How much did we grow?  We planted seven beds of onions this spring, which equates to about 126 square feet of onions.  As I'll explain shortly, we're still working the kinks out of starting our seedling onions, so I probably could have gotten about 50% more onions out of that area if I'd made sure all of the seedlings survived transplant and spring cold snaps.  And I'm afraid I didn't weigh our onion harvest this year since I started cutting into them before they were done curing.  Suffice it to say that we're big onion eaters, needing an onion in most things I cook, then take a look at the photo above to get an idea of the harvest quantity.

Onion seedlingsThe final factor I want to point out is the importance of getting your onion seedlings off to a good start.  After various sorts of trial and error, I've settled on starting the seedlings in pots (one big pot works well) inside around the beginning to middle of February.  Onion seedlings are very slow growers, so you won't need to do lots of potting up --- just keep them somewhere they won't freeze solid during spring cold snaps.  I set out the seedlings in early April directly into the soil (although you can set them out sooner under quick hoops), then harvested plump bulbs in the middle of August.

Starting broccoli sets under quick hoopsI had actually planned to plant twice as many onion beds in 2013, but didn't have enough seedlings for various reasons.  I'm used to pushing the envelope with old seeds, but learned the hard way that onion seeds are one of the few that germinate very poorly when more than a year old.  Meanwhile, I also discovered that they're very prone to damping off in homemade potting soil.  In 2014, I'll be buying all new seed, and will try half of our seeds under quick hoops since this method of starting broccoli and cabbage transplants has been a real winner in our spring garden.

In other words, I've still got more to learn!  But hopefully this post will save you at least six or seven years of trial and error.  Happy onioning!

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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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have you tried saving seeds, or is that difficult to do with Onions?
Comment by Stephen Mon Dec 30 12:22:58 2013

Wow! You eat a ton of onions! I have gotten us through the winter on about 15sf of onions. I figure about 4 storage onions per sf...60 onions per winter...that's about 2 per week, which is enough for us.

I always use sets, Stuttgarter for preference. For a dollar, I can get all the sets I need (and then some) and I just don't have the patience to nurture onions along from Feb onward. They seem to store fine; some always sprout but some always make it to spring.

I also plant them at double density - 3" centers - and during the summer, I remove and eat every other one at the "bulb onion" stage. What's left grows out on 6" centers to bulb up for winter. Steady water and a little shade (I.e., not too hot and dry) helps them get up to size.

Comment by Emily Mon Dec 30 12:32:22 2013

Stephen --- I haven't started saving seeds of root crop biennials (carrots, onions) yet because you have to dig the tuber, save it over the winter, then replant and let it bloom. I might get there eventually, but at the moment am growing hybrids, so I'd have to choose an heirloom variety first. Saving onion seeds definitely isn't low-hanging fruit like squash, tomatoes, etc.

Emily --- Yeah, onions are one of our food groups around here. Mostly because our meals are very heavy on soup, and every soup starts with two or four onions.... :-)

Comment by anna Mon Dec 30 12:46:05 2013
Thanks so much for this post! I've been wondering what I was doing wrong and your advice to use new seed, plant earlier and plant location appropriate varieties will tip the onion balance in my favor this year I hope.
Comment by Robin E. Mon Dec 30 13:46:42 2013

Thanks Anna! This is the sort of detail I was hoping for! Happy New Years to you and Mark.

~Karen B.

Comment by Karen B Tue Dec 31 18:31:18 2013

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