Stillwater News Press


March 15, 2014

In the Garden 03-16-14

Keys for great onions

Have you ever wondered what happened to your onions? More than once I have carefully set out the bareroot onion plants, fertilized and watched as the green tops grew strong and straight; growing was never a problem, coaxing the plants to bulb was. One year I would harvest perfect onions and the next, despite my efforts, ended up with woody foliage that refused to form a bulb. I bent the flowering tops, dug soil away from the neck, tried everything. Then I educated myself!

Onions varieties fall into one of three categories — short day, long day and day-neutral. Their internal clock triggers bulb formation according to day length. Short day varieties (commercially planted in southern gardens in the fall) form bulbs in late spring when days are still short. Long day varieties are planted in early spring and bulb during the long days of summer.

Day-neutral varieties are a safe bet in almost any garden. Consequently, planting the proper type of onion at the proper time of year is essential to growing beautiful, round globes.

If you walk in a nursery and ask the day length of the onion sets you’ll probably receive a puzzled look. Retailers are more likely to classify the onions as either northern or southern. The Kansas-Oklahoma border is the accepted dividing line for choosing onions. Stillwater falls so close to the line; it is possible to successfully grow both.

Onions like to grow the green tops when the temperatures are cool and form bulbs when the weather warms. Adequate green growth is necessary for the foliage feeds the bulb. Whether starting from seed or sets, plant as early as possible in spring. Green tops will not be harmed by hard frosts. Sandy loam, a loose, friable soil is required. Prepare your bed by turning in composted cottonseed hulls. Hold the lime, for onions like their soil slightly acidic.

As the onions begin to bulb, I still like to remove the soil from around the neck of long day varieties. When the tops begin to die, drastically decrease the water.

Allowing the bulbs to mature in a dry environment will increase shelf life. Further drying or “curing” the onions after harvest is essential for long term storage.

Harvest time will vary with variety. Texas Supersweets (by far the most popular) will be ready in early summer. A parent of the Vidalia onion, its shelf-life is relatively short. Red Burgermaster (red hamburger) is a long day variety, harvesting later in the season. Copra is a northern yellow variety when properly stored will keep up to a year.  

LeeAnn Barton has worked with nurseries for more than 20 years. She digs in the dirt in Stillwater. Direct questions to her by emailing

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