2020 was the first big experiment in onion growing. Onions are basic to cooking and until this year I relied on others to produce onions for the kitchen. It was time to take a step forward and grow my own.
I learned a lot.
Planting from seed at home on Feb. 7, Talon and Red Burgundy onions, and Matador shallots, failed to germinate. Luckily I had split the shallot seeds between home and farm. The farm seeds germinated well. To resolve the home issue I bought some channel trays from the farm and have a heating pad in my shopping cart at the seed store. Before the snow flies I’ll buy a bag of the special soil mix used for starting seeds in channel trays.
On March 21, I planted white, yellow and red onion bulbs bought at the home, farm and auto supply store. I started half in soil mix in trays, and the rest were to be planted directly into the ground. Planting them in trays helped establish roots more quickly. They went into the ground on April 8 and grew well. They produced a number of decently sized onions, yet they had little storage value. At the time they matured I had onions left from last season so these were going bad before I was ready to use them. I might try them again next year, although since I retired from the retail job I don’t get over to that store very often.
On March 23, I planted both pelleted and non-pelleted White Lisbon bunching onions in my newly assembled home greenhouse. They germinated but the wind knocked them off the shelf and ruined them. I have a lot to learn about this style of portable greenhouse. The greenhouse was destroyed in the Aug. 10 derecho so there is an opportunity to do something different next year.
I ordered onion starts from Johnny’s Selected Seeds this year. In the past I used leftovers from the farm. This year I wanted to control which varieties were planted. Ailsa Craig, Red Wing and Patterson starts arrived just in time for planting in our area. On April 14 the whole onion patch was in.
When planting the onions I measured the width of my stirrup hoe and allowed space on either side to fit it between rows while weeding. In theory this was a good idea because it maximized space usage. Next year I’ll follow recommendations and plant rows further apart. It was difficult to fit the hoe in between rows once the plants matured. I planted starts closer together in the rows so I could harvest spring onions as they grew. This part of the process worked well.
Once the rows were planted I used the rest of the onion starts in four or five places, planting them close together to use as spring or green onions. This ensured every spot in the garden plots was used. We had a steady supply of green onions in the kitchen well into summer.
The three varieties purchased as starts produced reasonably well both as green onions and as mature bulbs. The amount harvested will last well into winter if they store as expected. That remains an open question as of this writing, although so far, so good.
The results of this experiment were a step along the way to better onion production. I bought some channel trays from the farm and next year will use a more controlled process to start from seed. I will likely combine home starts with starts from Johnny’s again. The home process for starting from seed needs proofing. Planting rows further apart should help the size of the final product.
The shallots grew well and plenty for kitchen use are in storage. Next year I’ll get shallot seeds and try again to start them from home. I assume the channel tray will foster proper germination and I can use my own starts next year.
With a year’s experimentation behind me, key challenges to address in the 2021 gardening year are:
- Achieving proper, uniform germination.
- Variety selection to enhance storage properties.
- Allow some varieties to grow longer into the season and hopefully get larger.
- Should onions started from bulbs play a role in the kitchen garden?
- Replicate the relative success of the shallot crop.
Onions are a basic part of American cuisine and growing them well should be high on a gardener’s to-do list. Good progress was made in 2020, as evidenced by the crates of stored onions by the furnace. I’m already thinking about next year.