Onions are cheap. Sometimes they even go on sale at door-buster prices of 25 cents a pound. If you have a small yard, you may be wondering why you should even learn how to grow onions. You might wonder if it’s worth it to spare a few meters of your precious garden to grow something you can buy for nothing. The answer is simple. Unless they are organic, store-bought onions are loaded with pesticides. Also, Americans are pushing for more sustainable farming methods, including keeping the distance from farm to fork as close as possible. There is no closer farm than your backyard, and no greater benefit than knowing exactly what went into the delicious food you are eating.
What Is it Like to Grow Onions the Organic Way?
Learning how to grow onions organically is either very easy or very hard. There isn’t really an in-between. How well you do will depend entirely on whether you select the right variety for your area and how many gophers live in your yard. The first is easy, the second is going to involve some human gopher traps instead of poison since you wisely chose to go the organic route.
5 Tips on How to Grow Onions Successfully
This section shows you how to grow onions without pesticides or chemicals. It is easy if you follow these steps.
1. Prepare Your Soil
Learning how to prepare the soil is one of the most important aspects of learning how to grow onions. This should be done even before purchasing your onions for several reasons. First, if you are presented any problems like compacted clay or excessive rocks, you want to give yourself time to amend the soil. Second, if you can’t find an ideal area in your yard (full sun), you may want to choose a different variety of onion to accommodate the space. It’s good to know what you are working with before you start shopping for your sets.
To prepare your soil:
- Dig your bed up to till the soil about 12 inches deep. If you can manage to turn over the dirt even deeper, do it. Your plants will only benefit from a very well tilled soil.
- Remove all the rocks and debris in the bed. Rocks will cause misshapen bulbs.
- Mix organic materials into your bed with the soil. Good choices are cow or horse manure, crumbled leaves or compost. Make sure the compost is done after cooking. Compost that is still breaking down can cause pest and nutrition problems in any of your garden plants, onions included.
- If your soil is too heavy with clay, add a little sand with the organic matter to keep it loose and improve drainage. Onions don’t produce well in very heavy clay.
Finally, if you can afford to test your soil, make sure that it has adequate phosphorus so the bulbs grow nice and large. It’s not necessary to test the soil though as long as you know the basics of how to grow onions. IF you decide to add fertilizers based on solid test results, make sure they are organic.
2. Choose Your Type
Now that your soil is ready, you will need to choose the type of onion you want to grow. Bulb onions come in three types, short day, intermediate and long day. The further south you go, the shorter your days, (and thank goodness too or summers in Georgia would be unbearable!). Basically, these types are guides to help you maximize yield.Once your days go past a certain number of daylight hours, the onions start to form bulbs. The long day varieties will start to form bulbs when the day is between 14 and 16 hours long. The short day varieties like
Once your days go past a certain number of daylight hours, the onions start to form bulbs. The long day varieties will start to form bulbs when the day is between 14 and 16 hours long. The short day varieties like Vidalia only need to get 10 to 12 hour long days to produce bulbs. This is why it’s so important to choose the right variety. If one were to plant Vidalias in Maine, they would start to try to produce bulbs in mid-March or early April when the soil is not yet warm enough to support proper development.
This is the only thing that onions are extremely finicky about. Choose the right kind for your latitude, and you’ll do well. If you can’t find a place in your garden area that gets the fully prescribed amount of sun for your zone, consider a day neutral variety.
3. Sets or Seeds?
Your next step will depend on whether you want to start from sets or seeds. They are both equally good methods, with different advantages.
Knowing how to grow onions from seed helps keep costs down, but they take longer to get to the final result of course. If you are starting from seeds, it’s usually more productive to start the plants indoors and plant them outside about three weeks before your last frost. They can also be sown directly into the garden, just keep in mind that they will take longer and plant accordingly.
Growing from sets has the advantage of being much faster. If you choose this method, put sets out at the same time you would your seedling sprouts and follow the same route of care afterward. If you are lucky enough to live in an area with nice, warm winters, you can plant sets for a short season variety in the fall as well.
Whether you choose seeds or sets, be sure to set your plants far enough apart that they can fully mature without crowding each other. That will be between 3 to 6 inches depending on the variety.
4. Weed, Water and Wait
This is actually the hardest part – not just because it seems to take forever before you get to enjoy your delicious home-grown, organic onions. It’s easy to forget and let the weeds take over your bed. Don’t! Weeds will suck the life out of your onions and you’ll end up with tiny, stunted bulbs. Don’t over water them. Onions don’t like extremely wet soil. Plan on giving them about one or two inches of water every week with a little extra if they start to wilt or it’s very hot. Then it’s just a waiting game.
You’ll know your onions are ready to go when the green part above the ground starts to turn yellow and fall over. Dig up one test onion and if it looks big enough, go ahead and harvest the rest. If you live in the South, don’t plan on overwintering your onions in the ground. They’ll only start to grow again. But in the North, you can pull your bulbs out of the ground as you need them before the hard freezes start. Make sure to get all of them out before the ground gets too hard to dig.
Final note: Are you saving seeds? Onions actually have a two-year growth cycle. In the first year, they grow a nice, big, fat bulb. The second year, they produce seeds at the tops of the green shoots. If you would like to harvest your own seeds to perpetuate your crop, simply leave a few of the plants to continue growing. They will die back during the winter and then pop up in the spring and produce a lovely set of seeds that are very easy to harvest and store.