Before we jump into the world of onions, remember the Master Gardener Spring Expo is happening this Saturday, March 1st! For a modest $5 investment, you’ll find lots of great information on gardening and yardscape skills, and “rub elbows” with other like-minded people. It’s a great day of learning, conversation and friendship. For more information, check the “Bulletin Board” in this paper or the end of this article. I’ll see you at the Expo!
If you’re not an accomplished onion grower, it’s time to sharpen your growing skills this year. The best way to enjoy the versatile onion is right out of your garden. The onion is found in many of the dishes that the world enjoys and in many forms. The onion crosses ethnic lines effortlessly, finding itself rightfully at home in dishes such as salsa, pizza and pasta sauce, home fries, Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern dishes, onion rings, and on top of salads, tacos, and of course, burgers and hotdogs. Sweet onions actually contain more sugar than the typical apple, but it’s camouflaged by the sulfur compounds in the onion. The abundance of sugar is evident when you cook them — the browning is simply the sugars in the onion caramelizing.
With its compact growing space, simple cultivation, irrigation and fertilization needs, and the ability to store well, there’s just too much going for the onion for you not to include it in your regular gardening roster. Add to this the great amount of variety and types, and there is something for just about everyone. Onions are available in bunching types (when I was a kid, my mom called these “multipliers”), bulb, compact, large, sweet, strong, and storage types.
Keep in mind that onions are biennial, taking two years to complete a natural life cycle. The first year the plant works quickly to establish roots, then leaves. Each leaf corresponds to a ring in the onion. It’s been said that the perfect onion has 13 leaves and rings. Once the days get long enough for the variety you’ve planted, leaf development will cease, and the plant will move to bulb formation. The more leaves you have before bulbing, the bigger the onion. At the end of the growing season, the tops will yellow and fall over, signaling that the onion is ready to harvest. This is all in the first year, so how is the onion a biennial? Well, just because we’ve harvested it in the first year doesn’t negate the plant being biennial. Our first year harvest was for our purposes, not the onion’s. Left in the ground over winter, the plant will continue growth the following year, leafing, and then producing a central stem with a seed globe on it (this is called “bolting”). Once that is done, the life cycle is over. So, we harvest in the first year to enjoy taste, texture and storage characteristics that will all disappear the second year as the plant converts bulb resources into seed production.
For bulb-type onions, a basic understanding of onion day lengths is needed to assure you get the right varieties for our area. In the U.S., three types of onions are typically grown — short, intermediate and long day. This relates to latitudes; southern areas utilize short day varieties, a bit more north use intermediate, and the northern parts use long day types. Here, we generally use intermediate varieties (Candy, Fiesta and Utah Sweet Spanish are all a great choice here), although “Walla Walla” is a long day onion that does well here if planted early enough and protected from cold in the early spring. “Short,” “Intermediate” and “Long” pertain to the day length that will trigger the bulbing process. No matter how few or many leaves are present, if you hit the day-length trigger, the onion will form a bulb. Because each leaf produces a ring in the bulb, the fewer the leaves produced, the smaller the onion, and, the more leaves produced, the bigger the bulb will be. In the south, it gets warm faster, allowing earlier planting. This allows the southern gardener to plant early and produce many leaves before bulbing starts. If you planted a long day type in the south, you would get lots of top (leaves), but a very small bulb, as the days in the south would never get long enough to trigger bulbing. There’s a great 5-minute video on day lengths (and other grower’s insights) at www.dixondalefarms.com. Look for their “day length” link on their home page.
There are three methods to plant onions: seed, starts/transplants and sets. Seed is the least expensive, and gives access to a wide variety of cultivars, which can be readily purchased online or in catalogs if the variety you want is not available locally. Seeds must be started in January through March, and then transplanted out. Starts are juvenile onion plants with three to five leaves on them. This gives you a head start on the perfect 13 you are going for. Onions grow a new leaf about every two weeks, so having a good quantity to begin with is a plus. This is my preferred method. Sets are small bulbs that are actually second year onions. They are produced by sowing seed later in the season, allowed to grow until a small bulb is produced, and then harvested and dried for the following planting season. Because they are second year onions, they have a greater tendency to bolt, and usually won’t store as well as a first year onion. Also, the amount of varieties available in set form is usually limited.
Onions require good sun exposure and drainage to flourish. They grow well on raised beds (about 4 inches high). 20 inches wide works very well for a stagger pattern of planting. The soil needs to be crumbly with a good amount of organic material on it. Plant the recommended spacing for your variety and water in right away. I like to use a dusting (applied very sparingly) of wood ash over the planting. This decreases disease, and increases cold hardiness. Once established, you should fertilize every two to three weeks until bulb formation. Cease fertilization but continue watering to allow the bulb to form fully and take up needed moisture.
A couple of local success stories may interest you. My Master Gardener buddy Walt Barlow grows the Candy variety in Stansbury Park each year from starts that he plants about the first of April. He prefers Candy for its size (4 inches to 5 inches diameter), sweetness and success in growing in our area (Candy is intermediate day), as well as it’s moderate storage ability of two to three months. His wife finds the onion to be a great general purpose variety. Walt sells his onions (after his wife gets first dibs on her allotment!) at the Benson Gristmill Farmer’s Market. Walt prepares his growing beds in the Fall with compost and general purpose fertilizer. He loosens the soil in the Spring and plants his starts. He fertilizes them about every 3-4 weeks with ammonium sulfate and irrigates them regularly with a drip system. The onions mature in about 70-90 days. When the tops brown and begin to fall over, he harvests, dries and places them in mesh bags. Be sure to stop by the Farmer’s Market at the Gristmill and see Walt and his onion crop this year.
My friend John Baker is also an accomplished onion grower in Erda. His preference is “Walla Walla” and has grown a great crop of about 200 onions for the last three years. The sight of these softball-sized beauties growing in the Baker garden definitely causes a double-take. John plants his onion starts late March in soil amended with manure and grass clippings. He plants them in “single file” rows about 24 inches apart, and lightly cultivates them to keep weeds controlled. He uses sprinkler irrigation at dusk when it’s calm. At harvest time, he pulls the plants and places them on a wire rack in his garage. In about two days, he cuts off the tops, leaving about an inch of neck on the bulbs. He lets them dry further and then places them in burlap bags. Walla Walla don’t store extremely well, but he gets a couple of months of storage, if they last that long due to how popular this crop is with his extended family!
As you can see, others are doing really well growing onions in our area, and you can too! If you’ve not tried your hand at onions before, or had limited success as a grower, take another shot at it with what you’ve picked up today.
By the way, if you want some incredible handmade beer-battered onion rings, visit the Stockton Miners Café on Main Street in Stockton. Clay and the crew there serve a top notch plate of rings. Plain, with ketchup or fry sauce, you’ll be hooked. Tell ‘em I sent you; they won’t hold it against you.
UPCOMING GARDENER EVENTS
Spring Garden Expo, Saturday, March 1. Registration at 9:30 a.m. Event begins at 10 a.m. and goes until 2 p.m. $5 Admission. Sessions include roses, turf, soil building, organic gardening, All American plant selections and self-watering containers. Main session at 1 p.m., Mike Pace, USU Box Elder County Extension Agent, “Fruit Trees in Your Back Yard.” Held at USU Extension Office, 151 N. Main, Tooele.
Fruit Tree, Grape and Berry Pruning Demonstrations, Saturday, March 8. Learn hands on how to prune apple, cherry, peach, pear, grapes, raspberry and blackberries. Session One will be at my home at 984 Ironwood Road, Erda, from 10 a.m. to noon. Session Two will be held at the Bitner home at 140 Durfee Street in Grantsville from 1-3 p.m. Dress Warm!
Saturday Gardening Workshops, Coming Soon at Tooele Valley Nursery at 10 a.m., 425 E. Cimmarron Way and state Route 36. Call 435-843-5959 for more information and topics.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.