How To Grow Onions | Understanding Varieties

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Onions are an absolute delicious way to add so many nutrient and health benefits to your lifestyle! Learning how to grow and store your own onions is extremely important to understand if you are on the road to self-sufficiency, or you just really love onions! Growing your own harvest of onions can be really rewarding, or really disappointing, especially if you don’t know how to grow onions in your area! Not every onion is the same, in more ways than one, and it is vital to put some pieces together before you wind up with nothing but onion greens and grocery store bulbs.

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Understanding Onion Varieties

Knowing how to grow onions begins with understanding the different varieties that are available to grow. For a majority of people, knowledge of onions stops at red, white or yellow. They understand that it adds a spicy or sweet crunch to dishes, comes in three varieties and is offered in a bulk bag or individually. There is so much more knowledge needed about onions in order to become onion self-sufficient by growing your own!

health benefits of onions

For even more on onions, head on over to my Onion Health Benefits and Uses post to keep the knowledge flowing!

What Are Onion Varieties?

There are literally dozens of each different type of bulbing onion, all classified in the main categories of red, white, and yellow. This difference in varieties is often why you can go to the grocery store in July and find a bag of yellow onions with huge bulbs. However, come November or December, that same store only has smaller onions that hold a bit of a different flavor. This difference can be chalked up to these big stores or companies buying onions from different farmers that often grow different varieties, depending on their location. So while each variety might be of importance to you and your taste buds, it’s the type of onion that I want you to be concerned about when growing and preserving your own.

There are three different types, or groups, of onions, and this grouping becomes very important when you are growing your own. You can throw any type of onion out into your yard and it will set roots and grow some green. However, if you are not growing the correct type of onion for your area, you may never see those big delicious bulbs and might be stuck eating onion greens for the rest of your life!

Ok, that’s a little dramatic. But still, onion type is very important!

Why Does Variety Matter?

Each layer of green growth on an onion accounts for a bulb layer. This means that the plant needs to have enough time to grow green growth first and then be kicked into its bulbing phase. The initiation of this bulbing phase is dependent on the day length, or sunlight hours in your location. The separation of locations for onion types is not the same as your growing zone, which means your onions don’t care what your average temperature is throughout the seasons. However, your onions DO care about where you are latitudinally. Onion varieties are divided into short-day and long-day (plant breeders have created a intermediate-day variety that is a little less sensitive to light, but I am going to stick with the original classifications for this post). It’s this short and long-day differences that make picking the variety of onion you grow very important.

Long-Day vs Short-Day

The type of onion you grow for your area is a major aspect many people overlook when learning how to grow onions. Understanding long and short-day variations will make growing onions so much easy for you!

Long-Day Onion Varieties

Long-day onions are varieties that are best grown north of 35 degrees north latitude, receiving approximately 14 to 16 hours of daylight. These are usually planted in late winter or early spring for a summer harvest. These varieties are typical best for long term storage, however, the storage does vary by variety. Dixondale farms, a family operated farm for over 110 years (and my favorite place to purchase onions) has great information about varieties and storage lengths. Some great long-day varieties include Copra, Patterson, Red River and WallaWalla, just to name a few.

onions varieties

Short-Day Onions Varieties

Short-day onions require 10 to 12 hours of sunlight in a day. These are grown in locations south of 35 degrees north latitude, where the days are shorter. These varieties are often planted in the fall for a spring or early summer harvest. These varieties naturally have a higher water content so they are not best for long-term storage, but in the proper conditions, some can be stored for 3 to 4 months. This type contains a lot of the sweet onions and include varieties such as Texas Super Sweet and Red Creole.

Now that you know what type of onion varieties you need to grow, you need to decide next on how you’re going to grow them. Onions can be purchased and grown in three different ways.

Seeds vs Starts vs Sets

How To Grow Onions From Seed

how to grow onions from seeds

The first method, and hands down the cheapest, would be to grow from seed. This is the preferred method for most experienced gardeners because they understand the value in that you get more for your buck and often bigger bulbs. The downsides to this method is that it needs to be started a lot sooner than other methods. The seeds will not only need time to germinate but have some good green growth before the long days begin and kick that onion into bulb growth. This often means starting in containers and maintaining those plants until the plant is established and the weather permits them to be put outside.

How To Grow Onions From Starts

how to grow onions from sets

The next best method would be to purchase onion starts. These are live plants that the supplier germinated from seed and allowed to grow some good green growth before removing from the soil, doing a little trimming, and shipping them to you.

These are first-year plants so they will produce a decent sized bulb. The cons of growing this way is that it can be quite a bit more expensive than a pack of seeds. Furthermore, the plant was most likely started in different growing conditions than what you will then plant it in, and this may have a effect on the plants growth and ability to fight disease.

How To Grow Onions From Sets

short day onion varieties

The third method is to grow from onion sets. These plants are often what you will find in your big box stores, thrown into a box or mesh bag. These are plants that are grown until they form a small bulb. They are then picked, the roots and greens are completely cut off, and they are thrown into storage for the next growing season. This means that when the plant goes into your garden, it is now in its second year. Because onions are biannuals, this plants energy will primarily be focused on producing seed to reproduce. So you will get a bulb from an onion set, but it will be nowhere near its potential size and you will have to fight the flowers all season.

How To Grow Onions | The Perfect Environment

Onions preferred growing conditions don’t vary much from the average plant when it comes to loose, well draining, fertile soil. Plant in and surround your onions in well-aged compost that is full of beneficial microorganisms. Your onions may fall ill to disease or be nutrient deficient (as they are heavy feeders) if your soil does not contain the good microbiota that will help the plant take in nutrients and fight disease. They prefer a soil pH between 6 – 6.8 and will thrive in full sun. Planting your onions next to crops like tomatoes will help the tomato ward off certain pests as alliums have a very strong and deterrent smell.

A lot of people have claimed that onions are a no fail production plant because they “are so easy”! I beg to differ! There is so much additional understanding of this allium in order to have a successful harvest. However, once you understand what we discussed in relation to your location, onions can be a walk in the park!

how to store onions

Be sure to check out our Harvest and Storing Onions post to set your onion self-sufficiency up for success!

Thanks for reading and happy growing!

Hey Beautiful! I’m Tara, garden enthusiasts, keeper of chickens, herbal homesteader and stay at home mom of 3 tiny humans and a sourdough starter named Ma. I love teaching others how to live a self-sufficient and sustainable life through homesteading, scratch cooking, and remembering to live barefoot, wild and free!

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