Starting Onions

Aah...the weather.  Never a dull moment lately, it seems.  While we haven't seen the huge amount of snow being experienced in the Northeastern US (although we've had our fair share), we have had another record breaking year.  For us, however, it's not about the snow but the temperatures.  This is only the 2nd time in recorded history where the temperatures in February have stayed below the freezing mark for the entire month (the last time being 1978).  We have also, once again, had several record breaking lows, with temperatures in the -20's (< -4F) and wind chills in the -30 to -40C range (-22 to -40F).  Just another nail in the coffin for my dreams of actually getting some fruit from my trees this year...sigh.

But even though it's a frozen tundra outside at the moment, inside I'm busy starting seeds and dreaming of spring.  You know, I think that people that wait until May & go to the nursery to pick up all of their planting stock are really missing out...nothing lifts a gardeners spirits more than a bit of soil, seed & green in February.

I started my onions on February 19th.  I'm growing all of the same varieties I grew last year plus a few new ones.

Onion Seeds for 2015
I've decided that a little photo & description of all the varieties I intend to grow would be helpful, not only so that everyone can visually see what I've chosen & why, but it will also make a good reference for me come harvest time.

Beside each variety I’ve listed its average size & source.  New varieties are marked with an asterisk (*).

Sweet Onions

Ailsa Craig (large; Pinetree)

Ailsa Craig Onions
Some of these were HUGE last year – my largest onion was 756 grams (1.8 lbs)!  If you scan down to the photos of the storage onions I grew, you can see the size difference quite well as I used the same basket in all the photos.

Since these do not store for more than a couple of months, they were used up first.  I didn’t make a note, but I’m pretty sure they were done by early November & they kept fairly well up until then.

I consider their large size a novelty but I actually prefer smaller, medium sized onions as that's what I use most often in the kitchen...constantly having to store pieces of larger onions would be a bit of a pain.  The Ailsa Craigs were milder than the storage onions, but not by much - I still found them to be a fairly sharp onion.

Storage Onions

Copra (mid-sized; Pinetree)

Copra Onions
Living up to its long storage claims, all of the Copras hanging in my basement are holding up exceptionally well.  Not one has sprouted yet.

Rossa di Milano (mid-sized; High Mowing)

Rossa di Milano Onions
These are also storing very well & so far only one has sprouted.

Camelot Shallot (small; William Dam)

Camelot Shallots
I consider these to be small onions rather than shallots, simply because they are HUGE shallots, as you can see from the photo above.  I’ve used a few of them so far – and love them! – but am going to try holding most of them in storage as long as possible.   Other shallot varieties have stored very well for me – over one year! – so I want to see if these have the same storage capabilities.  So far so good. 

This year, I have started approximately the same number as last year.  If they do end up being the longest keepers, I will likely juggle things around next year and grow more of these while reducing the quantity of the other storage varieties.

*Red Wing (mid-sized; Pinetree)

Photo Source:  Pinetree
I wanted to add one more onion to the mix and settled on Red Wing.  It is described as having a very mild flavour AND being an excellent storage onion, which is a combination that you don't normally see. Storage onions are generally very strongly flavoured (and mild onions generally don’t store very well).  I’m looking forward to seeing if Red Wing lives up to both of these claims.

When I spoke about my experience (so far) with storing the various varieties, it should be noted that I did have issues with leek moths* last year, so a good chunk of the harvest was frozen – essentially those onions with visible damage (probably around 35% of the harvest).  The rest were braided or placed in mesh bags and hung in my basement which is relatively cool, at 18C (64F).

Perennial Bunching Onions

As the name implies, these onions are supposed to overwinter, forming multiplying clumps where you harvest the scallions as needed, leaving the rest in the ground to continue to multiply.  The goal is to sow them once, and then have green onions in perpetuity.

I grew He-Shi-Ko last year (which is currently under a few inches of straw), but found that the onions didn’t start multiplying until they were quite thick – about 1” or so.  They also didn't multiply very quickly, with each "parent" forming only 2 or 3 "children" (although this may be because it was their first year).  I would prefer smaller scallions which, ideally, multiply at a faster rate, so this year I’m testing a couple of new varieties.

*Evergreen Hardy Bunching (High Mowing)

Photo Source:  High Mowing Organic Seeds
This one is supposed to be winter hardy to -22C (-30F) or even colder & has a mild onion flavour.

*Evergreen Long White Nebuka (William Dam)

Photo Source:  William Dam Seeds

This variety is described in the William Dam catalogue as having “long, slim white stems” and being “very hardy for overwintering”.  I actually forgot to purchase the seeds for this one and didn’t realize this until I was going through my packets last week.  I'll have to pick up a packet when I go there to get those backordered basil seeds that I've been waiting for.

It’s interesting to note that all of the website & seed packet photos I've seen for these types of onions show very slender onions.  The He-Shi-Ko onions I grew last year were no exception:

Photo Source:  The Cottage Gardener
The onions WERE slender….so long as you harvested them young.  But since I left them to multiply – which is my ultimate goal – they grew much thicker.

He-Shi-Ko Onions
Freshly harvested from the garden
You can clearly see the size difference from the website photo above
So you can’t necessarily trust the photos if your intent is to have a perennial bunching onion patch.

Seed Starting

Last year was my first year growing onions & it was incredibly fun.  My method for starting the onions is a bit more labour intensive than what most people do, which generally involves scattering seed in a container or flat, topping with a bit of soil, watering - done.

My priority right now is increasing my chance for success, so I don’t mind doing a bit of extra work to achieve that, especially at this time of year where any gardening related task is especially appreciated.

I use 2 large 72-plug trays for the onions & I sow 3 seeds per plug (4 seeds for the bunching onions).  I go one step further, however, and I pre-germinate the seeds before sowing them.  This gives me the most assurance that each plug will actually have 3 seedlings & I don’t have to contend with thinning or sow "extras" that take up valuable room under the grow lights.

Also, some of the seed packets contain almost exactly the amount of seed that I need, so pre-germinating means I use all of the viable seeds without overcrowding them.

Germinated Onion Seeds
Since I know that I will have 3 (or 4) seeds per cell, I fill the plug sheet with moistened seed starting mix & then insert labels to separate each section, based on the total number of seedlings I want per variety.  As seeds germinate, I sow them in the appropriate section & then sprinkle vermiculite on top of the soil, giving me an easy way to identify which cells have been sown & which have not.
The vermiculite helps to prevent damping off and
is also an easy way of identifying those cells that have been sown.
This method worked so well last year that I’m hesitant to change things up at this point   But I do love experimenting, so chances are I will try the scatter method in the future, as I gain more experience… well, maybe.

According to my schedule, I’m supposed to start onions on February 1st.  Last year, however, I didn’t get around to starting them until March 1st.  Since I ended up with such a great crop, I don’t want to deviate too much from what I did…starting plants too early can be just as detrimental as starting them too late.  So I decided to push back the sowing date for the onions by only 2 weeks, to mid-February, instead of the full month.  I’m hoping that this will either give me an earlier harvest or larger onions.  If I find that they perform more or less the same as last year (or worse), I’ll probably just go back to the March 1st sowing.

Some seeds are particularly fast germinators - most of the Copra and some of the Red Wing took one day!  As of two days ago, only 5 days after I started the seeds, every cell was sown with the exception of one row that is reserved for the Nebuka perennial bunching onion seeds that I have yet to purchase.

And lastly, after reading Mark's recent post on sowing leeks, I think I may give these a go this year.  I have a vague recollection of growing leeks in my first garden many years ago and being less than successful.  But I do have so many onions growing already, I can't see the harm in devoting one little square to a leek experiment.  I'll have to look at William Dam's offerings and pick up a packet when I'm there.  Since leeks do need a LONG time to mature, I had better plan a visit sooner rather than later.

Till next time…

*I originally thought that the alliums were being attacked by onion maggots but have subsequently realized that, in fact, I was dealing with leek moths so have adjusted this post accordingly.


  1. I'll be following your updates on Red Wing--I have wanted to try a red onion (love the sweet mild flavor), but had always heard they don't store well. Hopefully this one will be a winner!
    We've had the same temps as you. I feel like a very hardy soul when I look at my calendar. We've also had quite a few days in the MINUS 20-30 degree range. Not much snow either down here--which always makes me worry about trees, etc.
    Have a wonderful weekend

    1. That's the one good thing about being buried in snow - at least your trees & plants are safe. I hope that I don't get too much dieback or, even worse, that one of my trees doesn't make it. After all these years waiting for that big harvest, it would be quite the letdown.

      I felt so bad when I heard about your grass seeds - I've had so plenty of those "knew it in the back of my mind but ignored it" moments & you just kick yourself (several times) afterwards. Hopefully you can get in on some spring deals at the garden center. Have a great weekend too - we should be back to "normal" temps by the end of the weekend - let's hope they're right about that.

  2. I love comparing notes with other gardeners. I am growing Copra, Redwing, and Evergreen Onions this year. Copra has been my standard for several years and is still doing very well in storage. The flavor is getting very strong though. It is my first year growing Redwing. I hope it stores well.

    1. That's interesting about the Copra - I had never considered that their flavour may get stronger as they store - I haven't really noticed a difference but that's probably because I use them almost exclusively in cooked dishes where they are quite mellow. I'm thrilled that you are also growing Red Wing onions - like you, I love comparing notes about different varieties with others - this will be fun!

  3. Oh, my! What a lot of onions. I hope they all do well for you. The weather here has been something else also. Nancy

    1. Yes...that is a LOT of onions. I decided to grow the same amount as last year - we are about 6 months in from the harvest and, based on how many onions are left, it looks like I will meet my goal of eating exclusively from the harvest. I'm certain I didn't grow too few, but it's still too soon to say if I grew the right amount or WAY too many. I'll have to wait until August, once the new crop is harvested, to find out.

  4. I wish I could find a storage onion that does well at our latitude. We are in the intermediate day zone for onions and the ones that do well aren't great keepers. I have tried several of the long day types, but they have never bulbed up for me.

    I hear your sigh about the fruit trees. Our blackberries did not do well last year, no doubt due to the cold winter then. And I just planted a persimmon tree last fall. I am crossing my fingers that it made it through our cold winter. I lost a big one last year, so I am not holding my breath!

    1. I guess the good news is that there always seems to be new varieties to try and hopefully you will hit on a good one for your area. Not sure if you tried it yet, but Johnny's has one intermediate-day variety that they state is an "excellent red storage type" called Ruby Ring -

      And looks like we are both holding our breath when it comes to our trees - hopefully we will be breathing big sighs of relief come spring....whenever that may be.

  5. Sadly even good storage onions don't store very well here. Some disease gets them and they rot. So I work to use them up in January so I don't have rotting onions in my basement (ick). I'm hoping the shallots store better. But time will tell.

    1. Our house is VERY dry in the winter - not so great for my hands...I need a bottle of lotion in practically every room - but I guess it's good for the onions, so at least that's something! I'll be crossing my fingers that those shallots hold up well for you next year.

  6. I am envious of your wonderful production last year ... I don't seem to grow onions well and keep trying different options (sets, seeds, etc.). I have some seeds to start this year but I'll have a late start - when I do, my plan is to scatter them into a large styrofoam seedling tray. Then I'll split off 3 or so seedlings and transplant to a larger container before going into the garden. That has worked for me in the past but not always successful. I look forward to reading about your many varieties!

    1. I hope that you do a post when you sow/transplant those onions - I would love to see your method!

  7. Nice varieties Margaret! I want to try Copra and Alisa Craig onions next year. I see a lot of gardeners plant them. I sowed my onions the first week of January and they are hanging in. They take so long to grow, I hope they will be ready when it's time for transplanting.

    1. Thanks! Mine are just now peaking through the soil - this is the first bit of green that I'm seeing this year so it's a bit of a thrill!

  8. Those weather statistics make depressing reading! I hope your onions will be quick-growing ones, so that they can make up for a late start.

    1. This weather is no treat to live in, that's for sure...but at least it makes you that much more appreciative of the spring when it finally arrives.

      I'm thinking of trying two different leek varieties - one is an early variety, so it will definitely have time to size up. The other one is a later maturing fall variety - with the weather being so variable these days, you never know - I may get lucky.

  9. I have grown both Red Wing and Red Bull and they both store very well, at least as long as the Copra onions.

    1. That's great to know. I hadn't heard of Red Bull...sounds like thats another variety to try in the future.

  10. I've already done some trays of leeks and red banana shallots using the scatter method but now trying the pre-chitting approach for the 2nd batch having just read this post!

    1. My method is a bit finicky, but I find it comforting to know that the seeds are viable & that every seed I sow will actually come up. Having said that, the leek seeds I subsequently purchased were incredibly small, so I decided to try sowing them directly - it's been 6 days and they have not come up yet, so of course, I am now all worried & it's taking some discipline not to start rooting around in the soil to see what's going on!


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