Onions - Three Little Changes

It's the beginning of March, so it's no surprise that the basement grow area has been a busy place lately.  Peppers, eggplant, Browallia, Echinacea, lemon bee balm and a Baker Creek freebie called “Love-in-a-Puff” have been sown.

I’ve also started on the onions & shallots.  This year, I’m only adding one new onion variety to the mix:  Patterson.  William Dam describes this variety as "similar to Copra but with larger bulbs and healthier foliage".  It also says that it's a replacement for Copra which is being discontinued (although I have a feeling they are referring to not supplying it anymore rather than that it’s being discontinued in general).  I am growing Copra this year as well so it will be interesting to see how the two compare.

The other onion varieties on my list are Ailsa Craig, Rossa di Milano, Red Wing, Jaune Paille de Vertus and Wethersfield Red.  The problem with onions is that I can’t seem to get rid of a variety once I’ve tried it – I enjoy them all!  So what I end up doing each year is simply reducing the quantity of each so that I can squeeze in another variety or two.

But lots of variety also means lots of $$, especially when the seed has a short shelf life, such as alliums (1 year).  In an effort to keep my seed budget in check, I tried storing leftover onion seed in the freezer a couple of years ago and, surprisingly, I had fairly good germination the following year.  I'm using leftover seed from last year for a few of the varieties so hopefully I have the same success this time round.

Didn't do the best job of labeling the photos last year,
but I'm fairly certain this is Red Wing

Looking back on my success, or lack thereof, in the onion bed over the past few years, I noted a couple of interesting things.  My most successful year was back in 2014 and each year since then has been a disappointment, even after I installed drip irrigation.  There were three key differences in 2014 that may have contributed to that year’s success and I’ll be testing all 3 this season.

Sufficiently Tall Netting

In 2014 I didn’t net the onions at all, and they did quite well - the average size of the Copras was 118 grams/4.2 oz.  But once they were harvested & cured, I noticed that many of the bulbs were damaged, leek moths being the culprit.  Every year since then, I’ve netted the onion beds.  The problem was that my netting was much too small and the onions pushed up on it which not only created gaps allowing the moths inside but also pushed down on the onion leaves.

Onions bursting from underneath netting in 2015
(obviously before I dealt with the jungle that was the pathway!)

Now, what do we do when onion harvest time has arrived and some of the onion tops have not fallen over yet?  We push them down, which stops the bulbing process.  Could the squish from the netting have prematurely halted bulbing?  It’s a definite possibility.  I did create a larger enclosure for them using tubing, but the netting kept flying open in the wind.  Also, I needed 2 lengths of netting to create the taller enclosure, which made uncovering the bed to weed a more tedious and time-consuming task…meaning that I did it much less often than I should have.

This Year:  I plan to use 3’ tall “cages” that I made using 2x1’s last year.  This should give the onions plenty of room to stretch.  Also, as the netting is attached securely to the cages, there should be no issues with leek moths (knock on wood!).

Compacted Soil

Back in 2014, the onions grew in a newly filled bed – Translation:  the soil was nice and aerated.  Since then, I’ve simply “forked” the beds when I prepared them and worked amendments into the top couple of inches of soil.  In the last few years, however, I’ve noticed that some of my crops, specifically root crops, are not developing as well as they should and I’m wondering if compacted soil has something to do with it.

One of the tenets of no-till gardening is the use of a deep mulch layer which is supposed to minimize soil compaction.  I use deep mulch (wood chips) in my ornamental beds, but when it comes to my raised beds, I don’t for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, there are the slug issues which seem to get doubly worse when I use anything other than the bare minimum of mulch.  Secondly, my beds don’t have the head room to accommodate several inches of mulch.  It can get very windy around here so thick layers of mulch, such as what I use when overwintering the garlic and asparagus, need to be secured with chicken wire or netting otherwise they end up in the pathways or blowing away.

Straw mulch on the asparagus bed stays in place with the help of chicken wire

This Year:  I decided to turn over and break up the soil (using my fork) in all of the beds when I added compost last fall.  My suspicion about compaction was confirmed – in some of the beds, I had a hard time getting my fork all the way down, even when I stepped on it.  The soil itself, however, was lovely, dark & humusy.  As for timing, I felt that turning over the soil in the fall, instead of right before planting, would give the beneficial organisms a chance to regroup over the winter.  Had I waited until the spring, I may also have had to deal with soil that was too wet to turn or still frozen a few inches down.

Timing of Sowing

Most sources indicate that onions grown from seed should be sown 10-12 weeks before the last frost date (which translates as mid-end of February around here).  In my very best onion year, I sowed the seeds at the beginning of March.  Since then, I've been sowing them earlier, in early-mid February - could sowing too early have negatively affected their growth?  The William Dam catalogue makes a rather intriguing statement:  “Tip:  Do you want large onions?  Don't start too early.  We start ours in April".  Hmmm – I think this calls for a little experiment 😁

This Year:  I’m going to test the theory that sowing seeds later leads to larger onions.  Since I had such good results sowing onions in March, the bulk of the onions were sown now, including about 1/3 of the Copras.

The bulk of the onions were sown in March

For my experiment, I had already sown another 1/3 of the Copras (plus the remnants of last years packet of Jaune Paille de Vertus) back in early February.

One cell pack of onions sown in February

The last sowing of Copras will be in April, per the catalogue recommendation.  I must say, I'm VERY skeptical about their claim, but you just never know.

The trick will be to make sure I keep the February/April sowings separate & label them properly when they are transplanted in May – it’s such a busy time of year in the garden and I’m usually in a rush so this is often where my “experiments” fall short.

And there you have it.  Three little changes that will hopefully make a “big” - as in bigger bulbs 😉 - difference in my onion harvest this year.

P.S.  In case you are wondering about that pesky basement leak, we are fairly confident that we know where it originated and are planning on doing some renovations that will take care of it for good.  We are still in the information gathering stage, so I won’t go into the details...yet.


  1. It seems like I'm always experimenting in the garden, although not so much with onions this year, I've only got I'itoi onions and some scallions going. The downy mildew was devastating last year and I read that the spores can stick around for 3 or 4 years so I didn't feel like going through that disappointment again.

    I know what you mean though, last year I had maybe a dozen different varieties of onions! And darn, not one was resistant to downy mildew.

    It sounds like you've done a great job of analyzing what the problems were with your onions. I hope you have a great harvest this year.

    1. Thanks Michelle - let's hope that one of these changes turns out to be an "aha" change that improves my harvest! Your downy mildew issues were so sad - those types of setbacks can really put a damper on our enthusiasm for a crop. Let's hope you have better luck when you try again in a few years (which we all know you will!)

  2. We grow onions from sets and noticed that he ones planted later in the ground caught up with those that had been started in modules and transplanted so this year all. Will be planted direct. I wonder whether your love on a puff is the sams as our love in a mist i.e. nigella,

    1. It will be interesting to compare the difference in the size of the onions, IF I don't lose track of them in the bed :)

      "Love in a Puff" (Cardiospermum halicacabum) is a vine with a puffy seed pod that contains black seeds with a white heart shape on them (hence the name). It's not related to Nigella (which I am also growing this year!)

  3. You could do with being part of a seed swap or seed share group so that you can share out single packets of seed. We have a company over here which sell smaller quantities of seed at a lower price which is much better for smaller growers. I always seemed to have problems with red onions, I don't think I ever got a good harvest from them at all, they seem to grow much slower than other varieties or they were much quicker to rot in the ground.

    1. You know, we do have what's known as "Seedy Saturday" - where gardeners can go and swap seeds. Every city/town that participates arranges their own so they can be quite different apparently. I'm actually planning on going to the one near me this year & am looking forward to seeing what it's like.

      That's odd about the red onions - I haven't seen any difference between red and white. In good years they both did well while in bad years they both did poorly.

  4. I don't start onions from seed, but I'm still very interested in your experiments. I am also thinking about compaction in my beds this year. They're only a few years old, but I haven't even been forking them, so I'll be doing that when I mix in some compost.

    1. Out of the 3 factors, I'm thinking this may be the most important one. It will be interesting to see if you too find that your soil has compacted over the years.

  5. Good luck with this year's onions. I think your standard for soil compaction is different from ours. Around here, it's not compacted if you can get the pitchfork in more than six inches or so.

    1. When it comes to ornamentals & non-root crops, I would also consider 6" to be fine, so long as the roots can spread out. I haven't had any issues with tomatoes, greens, etc., it's the root crops that seem to have suffered - we'll have to see if my changes make difference this year.

  6. I may have forgot to push the publish button so if I didn't here is a comment! LOL That is a lot of onions! I am waiting to get some sets to put in for green onions. Have been reading how to vent my cold frame! Hope I don't forget to do it and fry my things! Nancy

    1. Well, here is your comment! Lucky you, having a cold frame - I wish I had one to "worry" about ;)

  7. Very interesting. I gave up on onions several years ago, but based on this post, I see several areas that could explain my lack of success with onions. I'll be eager to read about the results of your experiment. I love that you're going to have a test group and a control group!

    1. Hopefully I'll keep up with the different groups - it's so easy to lose track of what is what once it gets planted out. I must make sure that my labeling is spot on this time.


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