When I harvest my onions in late June I pull them up when the tops are beginning to fall down. Then I put them somewhere with good air circulation to let the tops and the onions dry. I want the tops in good condition to braid. Onions are easier to harvest when they can be easily pulled out by the tops. If you wait too long, the tops break off or are gone completely when you are harvesting and you have to dig the onions out of the ground.
No matter how you have harvested your onions, it is time to take another look at them. I grow enough onions to store for winter eating and know that some onions, even though they looked great at harvest, are clearly not going to last long in storage. However, just because you have a few rotten onions, doesn’t mean they are all bad, or going to go bad. In fact, even if an onion is beginning to get soft in one spot, it might still have some good in it. I find that, particularly with onions that have divided into two under the skin, the outsides might be soft but there are still two solid onions just below the rotting skin. At least they will still be good to use if you get that skin off soon.
Sort through your onions and pull out the ones that are solid all over. They will be your long-term keepers. Identify the ones that have just a bit of softness at the neck. They will last a good while, but you want to use them before the long keepers. By this time in the season you can readily identify the ones that need to be used now. (There will also be ones that need to go directly to the compost pile.) The onions that have some good in them, but will be of no use for long-term storage, can be used when you are canning salsa, spaghetti sauce, and whatever else you preserve that has onions in it. You can use the best parts of these onions to dry for winter use. Although not suitable to store as raw onions, they will be great dehydrated. I keep a basket of onions that have to be used very soon on my porch, right outside my kitchen door. They are handy to grab for summer cooking.
Onions need to be in a cool, dry place. According to Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel, onions should be stored at 45-55° F. and 50-60% humidity. I braid my onions for long-term storage and hang the braids from the rafters in my garden shed, transferring them to the crawlspace of our house by mid-October. In addition to looking great, it is easy to see the condition the onions are in if they are in braids. I don’t check the temperature or humidity of these places, but I know that it never goes below freezing in the crawlspace. Read more about managing your onion harvest at HomeplaceEarth.
I have read of people storing onions in panty hose—tying a knot in the stocking after each onion is put in. That keeps them separated and allows for maximum air circulation. You would cut at the knot to release the onion it was holding. Storing onions loosely in baskets is another possibility. A mesh bag would work to hold your best onions long term if you hung it in an airy place.
If you want to store onions for the winter months, it is important to have grown the varieties best for that. It is too late for that this year, but notice the descriptions of the varieties when you choose onion seeds or sets for next year. Also, if you think braiding is the way to go, make a note to keep the tops in good condition when you harvest next summer. Onions are a terrific staple crop for your garden that, with a little care, you can enjoy all year in your homegrown meals.
Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.
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