Gardening Tips: Gardeners, Start Your Onions!

What to do this week

I know it’s the dead of winter but it is still time to think about finalizing your seed orders and starting your transplants. Onions and leeks are the first thing to start on the windowsill rotation. There are a lot of good reasons to start onions from seed as opposed to buying sets. For one thing, onions are biennial, which means they want to grow bulbs to store food in their first year and put out flowers and set seed in their second. That first year is good for us, we like eating that lovely bulb of stored deliciousness.

Onion sets are in what is technically their second year of growing. Set producers trick these little bulbs by withholding nutrients and space to keep them small and discourage that flowering cycle, but there are always some — 10% or so — that aren’t fooled. Even the ones that don’t bolt to flowers don’t store as well as first-year hard onions. Which is another reason to choose seeding yourself.

Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk

Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk

As well, sets only come in two kinds — yellow and red — whereas onions from seed come in all shapes and colors, with different levels of pungency and storability. Long-storage types like Copra or Patterson will keep hard nearly until the harvest of the next year’s crop. If you want enormous win-the-blue-ribbon-sized onions, try Ailsa Craig. Italian cippolini are sweet and delicious raw right away. All onions get sweeter in storage as those sulfur compounds turn to sugar. My own personal spring tonic is a thinly-sliced raw onion sandwich with a little Dijon mustard. (I try to wait a few days before going out in public afterwards.)

The best time to seed onions is from now until the middle of March. This is because the bulbing trigger for onions is the day-length at the summer solstice. The further north, the longer this day-length is, so be sure to buy onions adapted for our latitude. This means it is important for the onions to put on as much growth as they can before June 21.

Leeks don’t have the same light adaptation, but the best varieties like a long growing season, so I start them at the same time. (It’s why I put in my seed orders early, so I can get them started as soon as I can.) Plus, it is comforting to start growing something green when the weather is bitter and blowing. Onion seeds don’t keep well from year to year so it’s important to buy them fresh. Next week, I will talk about soil blocks and seed-starting in greater detail, but for now, I am busy clearing off all the sills of my south-facing windows.

Even in these windows, the plants will tend to lean and reach for the light. I manage this by setting a foil-covered piece of cardboard behind them to reflect the light and turning the trays 180 degrees every week or so. If you are unlucky in the windowsill department, you can use a grow-light set-up. But be warned that the onions will be fooled into bulbing early if you don’t put them on a timer. They don’t know it is only grow-lights and not the sun at solstice.

Be sure to position the lights close to the soil, raising them as the plants grow. It isn’t necessary to buy special, expensive bulbs — you can just use one tube each of the cool and warm fluorescent bulbs. For the DIY crew, 4’ fluorescent fixtures are not very expensive to buy and rig up. If you are short on space and worry about where you’re going to put the tomatoes when it is time, rest assured that the onions will be able to go out to a cold frame or greenhouse by April, which is the earliest you should start tomatoes. And by the time you need to seed squash and other cucurbits at the beginning of June, the tomatoes can go out to the greenhouse in their turn. Yes, you might have to be careful when rolling over in bed for awhile so you don’t send seedlings flying, but that’s part of the fun.

All the alliums are heavy feeders, so I like to make their starting soil mix with a little extra compost. I also add a little fish fertilizer to their water every couple of weeks. They don’t like to dry out at all, so be careful to keep up with watering (without water-logging them). Next week, as I said, I will talk about the why and how of soil-block making – mudpies for grown-ups! Then we’ll really be able to get growing!

P.S. If you’re still getting your seed order together, consider getting some perennial flower seeds and starting your own. It’s way cheaper than buying a single plant at a time from the garden center. We’ll talk about that soon, too.

Featured image: Onion seedlings. Photo by Madeline Yakimchuk.



Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.





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