onions from seed: a success story

onion basketIT WAS ONE OF THOSE “live and learn” moments, and I did, last year: Onions, it turns out, are easy to grow from seed. No more $20-a-bunch organic mail-order seedlings (50ish young plants) for me, when a packet of somewhere from 300-500 organic onion seeds is maybe $4.

Here’s the thing: At that price difference, even if you have barely moderate success with your seedlings, it’s to your advantage to try. What I found was that just like in those bundles of seedlings by mail, some of the transplants I grew myself were puny; others, though, got chunky and robust-looking.

onions in juneAt a few dollars a packet, who cares about the runts? Toss them, or separate them out and plant a group of them to use as scallion substitutes. In my first-year experiment, I wasn’t ruthless like that, because I wanted to see what happened. The bigger starts basically had the best results, so this time I’ll be brutal in culling before transplanting.

I got my onion-growing lesson last winter from onion breeder and seed farmer Don Tipping of Siskiyou Seeds, whose wisdom included sowing thickly into open flats (no cellpacks). Here’s his detailed process.

With any onions that still had green necks, and wouldn’t cure well or store very long as harvest time: I used them up first, especially in my favorite recipe for onion soup, which promptly went into the freezer.

Learn how to make Paris-based David Lebovitz’s easy onion soup my way (vegetarian-style).

david lebovitz onion soup

when to sow onions

NOTE: Onions (and their cousins like shallots and leeks) are one of the earliest things to start from seed indoors. I do mine in early-ish February. My Seed-Starting Calculator can tell you when to sow what. And with onions: Always start with fresh seed. Unless stored under ideal conditions, it doesn’t last well year to year.

  1. Peg Lotvin says:

    Onions from seed are fast becoming one of my favorite veggies. I seldom cook a meal without starting with an onion so they don’t last long. I love to try new types every year. Last year was the best ever for onions. I must have had nearly 40 lbs of three types, red, yellow, and white. On January 10, 2016 I have one onion left from last year’s crop. Will be starting new ones before the end of the month. It makes spring seem closer.

  2. Gene says:

    I know some sources are geared to the big growers; but some are really tuned to the home gardener. Why then 60-75 in a bunch and sold 2 for $23.95? If you wanted two kinds, you’re talking fifty bucks for 300 onions that won’t keep long enough to use half. I once called and asked them to just offer a mix&match for $25. No way.

    Since then I’ve just worked from packets and start a couple dozen in 4″ pot. They easily (with a little root shaking) separate and grow as well as the shipped ones.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Gene, for your onion success story. I agree; I wanted several kinds of onions (different color, shapes, storage types and others) but didn’t want 50 of each or to spend the money on so many bundles. For years I split an order with a friend so we could both mix and match, but the seed thing is even better.

  3. Dianne says:

    I had already ordered my sets before I saw this post. I definitely will be growing from seed next year. For some reason I had it in my mind it was a big ordeal. Really not much different than other seed starting. I am no longer intimidated. Thanks for the encouragement.

  4. Karen M says:

    I grow 4 types of onion starts, as well as leeks, for my nursery customers. It has been hard to convince them to give up growing from sets though. I never stock them as the box stores sell them – I think they are popular in box stores or by mail as they hold & ship easily, but a a bit harder to grow on successfully. I offer Walla Walla onion plants in bundles of 40-50. My customers love them! Please know that those mail order catalogs that sell onion plants are making a mint on them. We offer our plants @ about $6/bundle and we are making a tidy profit. One last thing: do not worry if some of the little onion plants look bedraggled. They are BULBS. if the green tops are wilted and funky, don’t despair. Set them out in your garden and you will be very surprised to see how many do survive – almost all! I know because I plant the left-over orphans every year in my personal garden ;)

  5. If you’re gardening in the North, use long-day onions. Short day onions bulb well in the South. Plant too early, and weather turns yo-yo, onions may bolt to seed, thinking they’ve been in the ground for over a year. But plant too late, and bulbs will be small.

  6. Chris says:

    I’ve started onions from seed too, excellent if one has time and light. It’s a great cheap way of raising shallots, too. I also direct seed a second crop once the soil warms. Thinnings are good as scallions, and while the second-crop bulbs are smaller, I find they keep well.

  7. Matt says:

    I to have been inspired. This spring I think they will be a nice addition to my garden, and for a price like that for seeds how can you go wrong. Thanks for all the great info.

  8. Ray says:

    I tried onions from seedlings several times, but without much success. All runts in my garden. Your post gives me courage and encouragement to try again!

  9. Diane says:

    I tried growing the cippolini onions from seed last year here in zone 4 Adirondacks, and although they were small, they were tasty! I will use up the seed from last year (fingers crossed) and interplant them with my greens to ward off the varmints. Perhaps between the taters, too, since the voles enjoyed more than I care to mention…..great website find!!!

  10. Margit Van Schaick says:

    It’s really important to try to keep onions well-weeded and with enough moisture so they can develop. I’ve failed to be diligent about both of these criteria for growing onions well, and have learned that babying them and checking on them just about daily brings success. It’s wonderful to go out whenever and pick scallions, as well as grow full-size bulbs for storage. I love to grow several kinds, experimenting. The price, the freshness, and the flavor!

  11. Just got done reading your article in Country Gardens, love and so glad you wellbe putting your 2 cents, so to speak in the magazine. I enjoy and learn so much from you, also very glad you moved to your current abode, I can picture everything you mention about your house and garden. Enjoy the rest of the winter, Spring is near. The Old Lady and The Hoe, Sharon

  12. Katrina says:

    Great article (loved the interview with Don Tipping). I’ve twice tried growing onion from seed, and both times have failed miserably. I gave it up for a few years, but looks like this will be a good year to try again :)

  13. Shellie says:

    I’m interested in trying Don’s growing method of an open flat and am very new at starting seeds indoors. I used your seed starting system in the fall for the first time and it worked wonderfully! To create an open flat, can I put drainage holes in one of my 10×20 growing trays and set it inside another tray (without holes)? I’m afraid they will nest too closely for good drainage. Is there a better method I’m missing?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Shellie. Yes, you can put holes in the trays — I was able to find some with the holes on Amazon (though not at my local nursery). But I think the others are easily adapted…if anybody smoked any more (not that I am suggest it as a good idea!) the tip of a cigarette would make a perfect hole!

    2. Elaine Nahman says:

      I’ve been successful using the standard market trays that are available….the ones that hold (8) 6-packs. Just line the tray with newspaper. Two or three layers are sufficient to hold the soil and be certain to go a little bit up the sides or the soil will fall out. The newspaper will moisten sufficiently to allow water not to build up or you can poke a few holes on the bottom for insurance. I have used this method very successfully indoors for starting seeds for corn.

  14. Bonny says:

    It’s now onion harvest time. I couldn’t agree more. I have started my onions from seed for three years now. They are much better keepers. I start them early ,as in February , broadcasting in the plastic clam shell containers that winter lettuce comes in.. then if it’s too cold out I transplant to bigger pots. Usually I just transplant into the garden, planting too close and using every other one for scallions. I have had no problems with germination of year old seeds. This year I seeded some leftover seeds in June since the scallions were gone and the onions too big. I kept them covered until they were up two inches and am now waiting for some fresh scallions. Onions from seed might be my favorite crop of all.

  15. Jason says:

    I use standard 1020 flats with good mix under LED lights to start onion seeds. No holes in the trays… I haven’t had issues as a result. I simply wait until the top of the soil feels dry and water thoroughly with liquid organic fertilizer. Keep em trimmed to 4″ or so, harden off in actual sunlight as soon as weather permits, and plant into well loosened and prepped beds. Water and fertilize heavily on a regular basis. For a number of (frustrating) years, I was able to grow a lot of healthy seedlings, but I had very poor results once planted out. It was a game changer when I started REALLY prepping my beds. Onions are literally the only crop that won’t give me at least a modicum of success without deeply amended and loosened soil. Baby em as Margit mentions in her post and success will follow. Note that despite the extra attention, I still consider onions to be relatively low-maintenance due to the fact that I don’t typically need to worry about pests or disease with them. Unlike darn near everything else in my garden, I can count on the crop being there if I put in the care.

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