Sunday, May 24, 2015

Onion Challenged: Growing Heirloom Onions From Seed

I think it's already been announced that I am "Onion Challenged".  It doesn't help that the stores in my region put onion plants out for sale when it's too early.  So I have been trying to grow onions from seed.  Last year was a total failure.

I have observed that Dixondale and some of the other onion producers sell their onion plants in tight little bundles that look like they've been dug up, just as they grew, with roots tightly interwoven, some plants are little, some are bigger, but all require untangling from each other before they can be planted.  And I thought how that might really help when growing from seed, as they would shade each other and help support each other.  So I went out to the shed and found a bowl-shaped plastic flower pot, like Lowe's sells as hanging baskets.  That was all posted on January 7 and January 23. 

Now, I know that I'm off-schedule in this process.  The seed should've been planted outside, in the fall, or maybe started in the house in July or August, and then carefully transferred into a bowl-shaped hole in the garden in, say, September, without disturbing the roots at all.  They could then stay there in the garden until late April or early May of the next year, and then be separated and transplanted individually into the garden.   It's not so much that onions can't take the cold of winter, because they can.  It's that when we plant them too early in the spring they do not have a chance to establish their roots before a late freeze comes along.  Without a healthy root system, they die easily.  I wonder why onion plants are not sold in the fall??  That seems, to me, to be the best time.  But I guess there are so many people looking for onion plants in the spring because they didn't think to get them in the ground the previous fall, that merchants don't find it profitable to try to sell them in the fall.

The good thing about having your little seedlings in the ground in a bunch through the winter is the same as why it's good when they're first planted.  They support each other.  And if you want to put a winter cover on them, a frost blanket or whatever, you've got them all in one spot rather than strung out all over the garden.

This spring I had three kinds of onion seed:  Borretta Cipollini, Clear Dawn, and Ailsa Craig Exhibition.  The first two were only partial packs, as I'd tried to grow them the spring before.

Sadly, there were fewer seed in the Borretta Cipollini pack, and though they germinated, they dwindled in number and the few that were left did not survive the move into the garden.  Clear Dawn, however, has given me 39 plants.

I dug the bundle up today, rinsed off the rootball in a bucket of water, and separated them.


Ailsa Craig was my new seed packet and I had more seed.
There were 91 plants.
Some were small and some were about green onion size.  There was more mud that stayed in this clump after rinsing because it was just so dang big.  These metal cafeteria trays are about 14" x 24".  There was a handful of roots left over.  I don't think this will hurt anything.

So now what should I do?  Set them back out into the garden, separately?  Trim the roots first, or not?  Let them dry out some first, or not?  Inquiring minds want to know.....

I wasn't really expecting to get anything edible from these this year.  But some of them are big enough, maybe they would go ahead and bulb up, do you think?  I'm only a month late.  And of those big ones, if I don't pull them by the end of the year I'm thinking they'll probably go ahead and go to seed next spring.  I want seed, as these are heirloom onions.  The small ones should go ahead and winter over, and make onions big enough to eat next spring.  I'm feelin' my way along here, because this is the most successful I've ever gotten, growing onions from seed, and like I said earlier, my timing is off.

I'm hoping to collect some usable seed from the Walla Walla that wintered over last year, from plants that didn't get big enough to make anything last year, even though I started WITH PLANTS.  But the rain and wind has broken a lot of the seedheads off.  Bummer.  If I get seeds from the ones that are still unbroken, I will go ahead and plant them and they will be started at the right time. 

This is about all I know, so far, about successfully growing onions from seed.
PS: This is next day, and I have thrown my back out, so this is going to be a challenge, indeed, especially since I found THIS very well written article in Vegetable Gardener Magazine archives that doesn't sound like my timing was all that much off and maybe I should try to get the onions planted separately right away.  Hubs will have to help me as I can't bend over now.   Our longest day is on June 21, and apparently it is day length that prompts the onion to bulb up.  So it looks like they have a month to grow.  Maybe it will work out.  Today I will go out to the garden with my cane and determine a good location in which to plant.  Spots have filled up quickly so that will be a challenge of its own.  I have also seen, on a Houzz garden forum where someone has said that growers trim the roots to make the onions go dormant for better shipping.  So guess I won't trim the roots.  I'll let you know how it works out.

PPS:
New Dawn on the right side of the walkway, Ailsa Craig on the left.  Fingers crossed....

Hugs xoxoxo

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