Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Onion Experiment

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.


The Baklava Queen said...

Didn't plan it, but I'm joining you in the experiment, Ed. I ordered red cipollini onion seeds from Fedco and realized I should get them started soon! I also have scallion seeds for direct sowing but wanted to try something new.

Lifelong learning, indeed -- maybe gardening is the solution to preventing memory loss and senility!

Ed Bruske said...

Jennifer, I find keeping track of seeds and planting times every bit as challenging as the New York Times crossword puzzle. If you are a serious gardener, you should have no worries about going senile. I have no concerns about scallions--they grow like weeds in our garden. I should think that cipollinis would mature fairly quickly. Keep us posted on that.

el said...

Oh yes, onions. You really can grow infinite varieties of them if you start them from seed. Considering where you are, Ed, I would likewise plant some seed directly in the ground NOW. It will get going much more slowly but, like most things, succession-planting them is a great method of attack. You will be transplanting them when they get to be about 5" tall; just dig up the row and separate them.

I find, though, that, like potatoes, you often get all different sizes of onions, even from seed. It's just the name of the game.

Have you heard of potato onions? I know Southern Exposure sells them. Multiplier onions like these might be an option for you: they are small but they're perennial, and, considering how warm DC is (comparatively) you might be able to harvest them year-round. I would likewise look into Egyptian walking onions, which is another form of multiplier onion: I use these like scallions, year-round, here in chilly MI.

All I am saying is having a multi-pronged plan for the allium family will help...onions from seed can be quite tricky.

David Hall said...

I can't even get into the ground at the moment Ed! But I love onions. They have to be the most used vegetable in the world.


Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener said...

Before I had the greenhouse, I started seeds indoors under shoplights (tastefully) hang on chains so that I could adjust the light height as the seedlings were growing. Windows were never sunny enough.

In March, we got fresh manure and built a 3 foot-tall pile (using straw bales as sides), with some soil on it, let it sit for two weeks or so, put a cold frame on top and it was warm enough in there for tomatoes. The pile would sink down as it was composting releasing heat to the seedling. In may, I would be able to plant in there. When I was in the DC area, Rock Creek Park Stables was a favorite place to pick up horse manure (and on the way back we would stop by the - no longer around, unfortunately - National Cathedral greenhouse).

Good luck with all the onion experiment! I have tried the sets and have never been successful at them (local gardeners tell me to plant them in the fall). And of course, the year I was going to grow from seeds, I learned the necessity of fresh seeds for onions and leeks...

Alison said...

Hello Ed, I am just a few miles from you in Bethesda and I was wondering how your onion experiment went in 2009. I tried sets and they weren't very successful. How did your onions turn out?