How to Grow Onions, Garlic and More

Bring the flavor and health benefits of onions, chives, and garlic to your home by growing them in your garden.

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    That's me harvesting onions, long before the rest of the vegetables have come up.

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Did you know that onions are an aphrodisiac? That they decrease the likelihood of heart attack and stroke? That they reduce cancer risk? You are probably unaware that it is illegal for barbers in a certain Pennsylvania town to eat onions between the hours of 7 A.M. and 7 P.M., or that ancient Egyptians placed their right hand on an onion to take an oath. Have you ever used an onion to revive someone from a faint or to relieve nasal congestion? How about rubbing a cut onion on your windshield to prevent frost? Or rubbing gold with an onion to clean it? Have you ever eaten an onion?

The last, of course, was a silly question. Even people who don't think they like onions probably eat them regularly. I can't imagine cooking without onions. When I prepare a meal, there always seems to be an appropriate place for an onion. Even a grilled cheese sandwich is enhanced, for my palate, with some onion shavings cooked inside. As a lazy gardener interested in eating as much food from my own garden as possible, onions are the perfect vegetable: they are easy to plant, easy to grow, easy to store, and easy to cook. Let's learn how to grow onions!

Growing Onions: The Basics

There is only one feature about growing onions that must be kept in mind: the length of day. They grow in two phases. The production of leaves is the first phase; this starts when the plant starts growing, when the temperature is warm enough for plants that wintered in the ground or for those recently planted. It ends when the bulb starts to form, which is dependent on the length of day. The size of the bulb depends on the number and size of the leaves at the time it starts to bulb. Each leaf represents a layer of the onion and the thickness of each layer is relative to the size of the leaf. We don't want the day-length to trigger the plant to bulb until there are many leaves of good size. In the northern latitudes of the United States, day length on June 21 reaches about fifteen hours. In Portland, Maine, our days are longer than fifteen hours from May 24 to July 15. In Vedalia, Georgia, the longest day is about fourteen hours. If we planted Vedalia onions in Maine, they would barely get started in the spring before the day length triggered them to bulb.

How do we know which varieties to buy? Some catalogs will indicate latitudes for different varieties. You can probably count on sets purchased locally. The only way you are really likely to get into trouble is if you buy seeds from a catalog company that is at a substantially different latitude than you are.

Planting in Sets

I just mentioned sets, which are the easiest method of growing onions. These are small onions that were started from seed, bulbed slightly, then pulled and dried. A pound will plant about fifty feet of row. When my garden soil has been tilled, making the soil light and airy, I grasp a set by the top, push the root-end into the soil about three inches, then on to the next. I space them about four inches apart in rows eight inches apart. When I hand dig the area, I make a three-inch-deep furrow, push the sets into the bottom of the furrow, pull the soil back over them, and tamp it down with the back of the hoe.

Since onions are very hardy, this can and should be done as soon as the ground can be worked in the spring. That will give the plant the maximum amount of time to grow before it turns to the job of making a bulb. Don't worry about optimum timing. Peas and spinach need to be planted before the onions, but you shouldn't get too anxious about all this. It might take some of the fun out of gardening. I have planted onion sets as late as June and been pleased with my harvest. Trying for optimum timing just seems too much like work to me.

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