There's just so much to learn about food gardening that it can't possibly be thought of as anything but a lifelong process. This year it's onions we are trying to focus on. We'd like to get those right so we are planting them from seed.
The last couple of years we planted onion sets that we bought from our farmer friend Mike. Onion sets are simply onions from last year that are pulled from the ground when they were still small, then stored until spring for re-planting. Ours never seemed to get large enough after we planted them in the garden. I asked Drew Norman about it when I was visiting him at One Straw Farm over the summer. He said onions do much better when planted from seed.
Since then I've learned that there are three different types of onions to select from depending on which area of the country you live in. There are "long day" onions, for instance, that are bred to perform well in the more northerly latitudes, where the sun shines much longer during the summer. There are "short day" onions better suited for the southern states where days are shorter during the summer. Finally there are "intermediate" onions that do better somewhere in the middle.
Well, guess what? The line separating "long day" from "short day" onions runs right through the District of Columbia where we live. So which onion to choose? I decided to try some of each. I opened our copy of Johnny's Seed catalogue to start the search.
Some seed catalogues list their onions as "long day," "short day" or "intermediate." Johnny's, by contrast, indicates in the description of each onion the latitudinal range in which it will do best. The District of Columbia sits at 38 degrees latitude. The onion "Candy" caught my eye. It is supposed to do well in the 33-40 degree latitude range, which makes it an "intermediate" onion. I ordered some of those. The onion "Copra" is supposed to produce large, sturdy bulbs that store for a long time. It does best in 38-55 degrees latitude, making it a "long day" onion, just on the edge of our range. I also picked a red onion, "Ruby Ring," that is adapted to 35-50 degrees latitude, according to Johnny's. This is supposed to be an "excellent red storage type," and since we love an occasional red onion, I had to have it.
I also selected two different bunching onions or scallions, one to grow through the season and another hardy variety to over-winter. I'm sure we'll have more than enough of those. And since ordering my seeds I've learned something else about growing onions: if you don't want to bother with sets or planting seeds in trays, you can buy bunches of young plants.
Already I can see some advantages to buying onions as plants. Onion seeds are normally planted in trays very early in the year, January or February. But unless you have a greenhouse or a grow light system, you may have trouble giving the seedlings enough light after they've germinated. The sun is still very low in the sky. It hits our window at a sharp angle before disappearing around the corner.
I planted our seeds a week ago. They are just starting to germinate. I only hope we get enough sun through the window. Or perhaps it will be warm enough to set them outside during the day. That's what makes this an experiment. Fortunately, if all else fails, I'll still have time to buy bunches of young plants and get them in the ground.