April 10, 2017

Mastering The Art of Growing Onions

Why is it that native treats - those picked in the woods or found while one is foraging which are usually the most sought after by b both foodies and plant people. Spring is the season for Ramps - the frustratingly rare and hard-to-afford $20 a pound woodland allium which shows up in fancy food markets for a few weeks in April even around here, although New York State is the chosen spot where it grows wild and is foraged.

Some try to grow it ( even I, as I have found some seed and have even planted some store-bought plants in an attempt to introduce it to our woodland, but time will tell if the divide and spread). Morel mushrooms make this list as do most wild mushrooms do, but there is something about early spring foraging that makes it even more special, maybe it's because we are hard wired to crave fresh food in that gap season between an empty root cellar and the first harvest from the garden.

Many in the onion family enjoy raised beds, but not pots or containers. These leeks and green onions (foreground) are interplanted thickly with some early white turnips and a couple of parsley and self-sown dill plants, but in a few weeks, they will have more space in which to mature once the turnips are ready.

Ramps - the luxury of rarity.

Ramps both delight and confuse me. To be honest, I buy mine from a secret source but I am always confused as to how to cook them and enjoy them, it's not above be to simply acquire something just because I know it is rare - I figure that I will learn to appreciate the item after I figure out how to appreciate them better (my cilantro theory, the goes for raw oysters, avocados and kidneys - the may come from some strange competitive gene that only appears in the youngest sibling who wants to earn some weird exclusive respect from their parents simply because their older siblings 'failed' such 'tests'.

Ramps are a rare, seasonal treat in the North East with a flavor which combines garlic and onion. Are they over rated or not?  Well, they can only be foraged and while a few farms are raising a few in beds, they are unlikely to ever become a big, commercial crop. They still offer a delightful option to many foodies during the few weeks when they are available.

Or, it's the closely related 'macho-test' often associated with tolerating tests of hot sauce, or drinking raw eggs as a child. In this house, aside from the daily raw egg in a glass that my dad would drink with us when we came home from school before working out ("it will but hair on your chest") - by far the hairiest chest comes from the freshly grated horseradish torture test that my father would subject us boys to. It often happened on a cold, fall day when we would be lined up - by age - and challenged with a spoon of fresh, horseradish. As the youngest - one who would never admit defeat even if ones eyes showed otherwise, at least today I can say that I love horseradish, and the stronger, the better.).

Back to ramps, I guess I have never eaten them prepared by a chef in New York City, but I plan on it soon - until then, I try them in different ways, a frittata where they add their garlicky goodness in ways that somehow makes the omelette feel very special, even though a bit of fresh garlic or fried shallots from the garden be infinitely tastier, yet perhaps not as photogenic or 'rustic', I just can't help but think that if chives were rare, seasonal and local that they would be worth far more  valuable than the lowly ramp. Either that, or its just that they are wild and foraged that makes them special - or maybe just because they have roots which fine chefs wouldn't dare cut off.

Look, they may not be the 'lobster of alliums', but  within the entire genus of alliums, aren't there better choices? Perhaps, but ramps are just special to some people, and who can argue with 'special'? Especially with a genus which offers both weedy and rare. With alliums, some multiply too quickly and become ridiculously 'weedy' while others are difficult to even get to set seed. Some alliums are curiously common - the 'walking onion' our Egyptian Onion so common in old gardens which produced bulblets on the top of their flower stems. Every garden deserves some alliums either for their floral value or for use in the kitchen - here are some of my favorite, which I grow for food - it is easy to assume that raising onions is easy, since they are technically a bulb, and bulbs always perform, but as anyone who keeps a veg garden knows, the results in the end are sometimes less exciting than the beginning of the process. If you want big onions, real useful harvests of leeks, green onions, shallots and storage onions - maybe this post will help you.

Onion seedlings in a seed tray. Sown in February, these are sown closer and divided later, but the best results come from seed sown individually into seed cell trays, where each seedling gets their own little pot.

Mastering Onions in the Home Kitchen Garden

Informed onion growers who raise plants for the kitchen know today that they best onion varieties come from seed, and the finest onions from the home garden come not from sets, but from seed which one must sow in mid to late winter indoors. Onion Sets are essentially small onions raised to a small bulb size, harvested and then wintered over to be replanted to continue their growth in the home garden in a more-handy size). Rarely will they produce large onions, but they are fine for some greens earlier in the year, and if grown well can produce moderately sized bulbs, but the difference between single season onions - those grown from seedling starts, is incomparable.

It comes down to variety when the home chef chooses onions to grow. Heirloom, slender red varieties, pure white types, golden yellow - there are endless varieties from which to choose, yet some basic onion culture knowledge is helpful for it can be easy to make a wrong turn when selecting onion varieties since many are decisions must be based on ones location.  Northern gardeners have some limits when it comes to onion varieties which only grow best in southern gardens during the cooler winter months, while summer gardeners in the south or west might do better with a winter crop than a summer crop. Always check with your local growers or university to identify what varieties are best for your region.

Raising onions and leeks in cell trays will give you better results when setting out in the spring. 

Many home gardeners in Zone 5 -6 find seedling starts available via mail or at the garden center, which are fine if not a better option than sets, but often they lure the home grower into thinking that they can raise a southern winter variety like 'Walla Walla Sweet' or Vidalia. Sadly, the results are often less than satisfactory given summer heat and day length.  These are onions grown as winter crops in Georgia and Washington state, and will barely perform in a hot and humid garden in North Carolina or Massachusetts.

Weeding is an art when it comes to onion culture. Space, and no competition helps.

A better option will be a large, yellow or white storage onion variety like Alisa Craig or 'Patterson', for one will have better results with  these onions known as 'storage onions' vs those with a higher sugar content but a short shelf life. The truth of course is that most home growers will use most of their onions within a few weeks of harvest, so actual storage isn't the real problem - but size is. If you want the largest onions, either start them from seed or seedlings, and ensure good moisture and nutrition through the summer, but variety is key, so choose any onion that has 'storage' in its description.

Onion seedlings can be sown thickly and divided when planting, but I now opt for growing them singly in cell trays, which gives me a larger onion.

Choosing Onion Sets or Onions from Seed?

Then there is the question of onion sets vs. seed.  My father preferred 'sets' but that was the 1960's and 1970's when onion sets were often the only way suburban gardeners would raise their onions. A paper bad of sets could be purchased at the farm store along with other spring essentials like pea seed, baby chicks and ground limestone. Today I raise a bit of everything, even onion sets if I must, but nothing says that you are an inexperience gardener more than starting onion sets indoors - they must be 'set' outdoors, in cold soil early in the season, if one wants to avoid early blooms and tiny bulbs.

Storage onions can be picked while green, but that will impact your harvest. If you want large storage onions in the late summer, keep them growing all summer long- and this means lots of water and food. Otherwise, they will go dormant by early August, and you will end up with small onions.

The same goes for those onions that you bought at the market that are starting to move into growth - it's OK of course, so plant a few in a pot I suppose, for some early greens, but don't expect anything more beyond a mushy bulb and fiercely tough greens once the weather gets warm - a flower if you are lucky, but I say leave the store-bought onion for DIY mommy bloggers and kids projects - they are a fine way to introduce children to gardening, as they grow quickly when set on a glass of water in a sunny window, while in the garden, all alliums are slow to germinate, grow and mature testing even the most experienced gardener - hence, the challenge of raising good green onions.

Raising Green Onions in the Garden

Green onions, scallions or scullions (?)  greens are a challenge to master, as they must be sown directly into cool soil early in the spring. Sown just thickly enough so that plants can mature to be a half inch in diameter, a row sown in April will look like nothing until June, but can offer the home chef endless green onions which are superior in both texture and flavor than commercially grown green onions, cutting easily into tiny slices as they have never be crushed in a box and shipping buy air.

Green onion seedlings can be sown thickly, and can be confused with grass when they are young, but nothing beats a freshly picked green onion for recipes - ask any chef.

Success with green onions begins and starts from seed. This is a crop which can only be grown from seed, which is not an easy task for the impatient. I cannot function without a summer of green onions, and the varieties that the home gardener can raise are far more tender and special than any commercial variety as well - red green onions such as 'Deep Purple' sold by Johnny's Seeds, or green and white varieties, each when raised via seed, superior and on my top 5 list of what every home chef must grow.

The value of space in a garden makes green onions far more useful and dependable than most any other crop (about my 'top 5' list - this is just me justifying the value of space in a small, urban garden. Items one buys each and every week from the market gets more space than anything else, along with parsley, dill, cilantro and basil). Flavor and quality factors in of course, so space is always dedicated for those crops which are infinitely more flavorful when harvested from the home garden, to just because they are raised at home a mere few feet from the kitchen door, but more because the varieties one can grow are often far better than commercial ones which are selected more for their ship ability and for other practical reasons than something merely based on taste or nutrition.

The home raised onion may be slightly better than a store bought one purchased in-season (autumn for yellow onions and red onions, or spring for super-sweet Vidalia and winter growing sweet - types from the south), but space for alliums in my garden is based on choice and variety - with leeks getting top spot over even garlic, which I can get at farmers markets just as conveniently. Every few years I will grow a couple or three varieties of garlic, but the space is precious.
Garlic and Leeks growing in my garden last year. Raised beds works well, but avoid culture in containers unless they are large, raised beds or 100 gallon drums - leeks need space.

On Raising Leeks in the Home Garden

Leek culture is fun, but they do occupy space year-round, requiring an early start via seed indoors in January and then setting out in early spring into stone free sifted soil which - well, let's face it - there are some financial leek growers around (such as men who live in the UK like these guys), In American, the leek suffers from a lack of history in both cuisine and in garden culture, which is ashamed, for in so many ways, it is the queen of the alliums, adding subtle flavor and gentle elegance to most every dish it is added to, let alone the joy of braised leeks. Whenever I cook with leeks someone will comment on their lovely scent, with warm butter and olive oil, the scent of leeks is sublime.

Leek seedlings are planted deep, in a trench and in a hole in early April. Soil is then hilled in, as the season progresses - the goal here is to achieve a long, white stalk with green leaves higher up on the plant.

Competitive leek growing in the UK aside (saving that for another post!), in our home gardens, leeks can offer a challenge, but if one chooses to grow leeks in the home garden, one can assume that one is not only a more informed gardener, but surely a bit competitive - at least, not one to shun when challenge is faced. Leek growers tend to 'bring it on' when it comes to growing their vegetables, and actually enjoy taking the extra steps to achieve leek greatness (the same goes for parsnips by the way!).

James Crockett of PBS' famed Crockett's Victory Garden show from the 1970's introduced many of us to the specifics of proper leek growing, which begins with sifting compost and soil as one would do for a deep, soft, friable soil often reserves for perfection of root crops like parsnips and carrots, but since leeks are not technically a root crop but a bulb, they demand extra soil amendments and treatment throughout the season, beginning with a rich soil with added compost and nitrogen, but also  planted deeply as seedlings, sometimes nearly a foot deep if the seedlings are long, as just a few inches are needed to emerge out of the soil. Most growers begin with a trench, with added composted manure, hilled to the side, and then brought down to fill the trench as the seedlings grow through the spring and summer.

The competitive growers can offer us some valuable tips as well, even though our kitchens hardly need a leek which is 12 inches in diameter or a meter long. Small leeks are nice too, but there is no such thing as 'baby leeks' no matter what your gourmet market says. Small leeks are merely poorly grown leeks. The home grown leek is lovely in the garden, graceful in foliage and form, and a row or two of leeks can look attractive for the entire season. IN winter, they are one of the vegetables which can be harvested late, after frosts and sometimes even in snow (however, protection will be needed in the far north, nothing that a deep mulch of straw won't fix - the truth is, leeks will freeze if temps drop too low below zero.).

Leek seedlings in my greenhouse this year, in late February.

I start my leek seed early, in most years late January or early February as the seedlings can be tiny and grass like. Leeks are the first seeds I sow for the coming season. The Brits are more aggressive, starting their seed in November or even earlier in cold greenhouses, but that is both impractical and not that effective for those of us in northern North America, but the goal is to have strong, leek seedlings by mid April to set out into the prepared bed. Seedlings should be pencil thick, or about a 1/4 thick if grown well.

 Trenching is the traditional method of growing leeks, with seedlings set in about 6-8 inches apart while I prefer 9 - 10 inches as I like to get leeks growing rich and thick. I use a granular 10-10-10 mixed into the soil first just below the surface scratched in, and then topped off with a water soluble feed to kick-start root growth and to take advantage of cool weather growth.  Leeks are one or the few veggies I set into the grown using a dibble - a pointed stick, which makes a nice, deep hole perhaps 6-8 inches deep. Any stick will do of course, with the goal here to set the seedling in deep. A bit of soil filled into the hole is required, but newer methods are emerging, most advise the grower to allow the rain to fill in the rest of the hole with soil as the leek seedling grows.

In the UK competitive leek growing is practically a sport. (photo courtesy of The Mirror). To achieve such size, growers have many secrets, but most begin in the autumn of the precious year with sowing seed in cool greenhouses.

Since soil is key for leeks, nutrition is something one should take some time to perfect. If you didn't have success with leeks in the past, it's more likely due to soil nutrition than anything else. The truth is, leeks are one of those vegetables referred to as 'heavy feeders', and balanced is best (10-10-10), while 10-20-10 might be more effective if you can find it as technically, the plant is a bulb. If you can find an organic food with this analysis the certainly use that - I use both organic and chemical fertilizer as I am a horticulturist and home grower, and err on the side of most horticulturists that all fertilizer is chemical (hello periodic table), but if you go all 'organic', note the analysis particularly with fish emulsion which can be higher in nitrogen which you want to avoid. A dry organic mixture is OK for use with leeks as they are a long-season crop, and granular dry mixes often need more time to become available to plants, but will require soil prep in the following autumn to provide maximum effect.

Leeks are rather care free throughout the summer however, with good watering and a monthly feed will suffice, and some hilling of soil might be necessary. Beyond that, by late summer or autumn, the leeks will look large and spectacular in the garden, and if so, may just need some careful lifting as needed in the kitchen with a pitch fork around October. Leave the rest in the garden for use on an as-needed basis.


  1. I need this...we have not been very successful at growing them! 🌱

  2. Wow, thank you for such a detailed post. We've been struggling with onions here in Central Oregon. My grandfather grew them by the truckload in the Willamette Valley 2 hours away. Didn't realize so much went into this. Thanks for all the tips.


  3. I wonder these Ramps you're writing about - are these Allium tricoccum or Allium ursinum? They look very similar, and sounds like taste similarly as well (garlic-ish). The latter grows freely in UK (and throughout a Europe and Asia). Also a trendy thing here in restaurants. Once, in April - we were in the Kew gardens, and their restaurant had a lovely spring soup with added wild garlic which apparently their pick themselves in the Kew park! It was a lovely soup indeed.
    I tried to establish them in my garden (bought bunch of bulbs), it seems to be growing, but probably will take years and years until it really colonise the space...

  4. I'm loving these detailed how-to posts. Please do more!

  5. We have a small yard and grew onions once, but we used them up real quick so now we growi garlic instead. A clove goes in the ground in fall and you pull out a bulb in spring. Doesn't take up much room and you'll have garlic till the next harvest.

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  8. Very detailed post! Thanks!


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