Onions planted Fall 2018, Harvested Fall 2019

ONIONS

I can’t really do without onions. Onions for everything: soups, stews, casseroles, sauces, salads, eggs & quiches, you name it. The onions I had grown in our previous garden all did wonderfully. I had no reason to believe they would not do well here at 9,000 feet. I’d read on a local county resource list that other gardeners had success with some of the same varieties I’d grown before, and I still had some seeds, so I tried those my first year in this garden. I expected success. Well…the leeks and scallions did well, but the bulb onions did not. I planted around 40-50 of them. Dang. Wimpy little things that didn’t make much of a bulb.

 

FIRST YEAR’S EXPERIENCE

August 2017 Onion

I thought I did what was right. I did what was successful at lower elevation. I have always started my onions from seed, and have always had good success. Here, I started onion seedlings 10 weeks prior to the last frost date and expected to be able to plant them outside at that time or sooner. These were all started in soil blocks, and I transplanted them outside at about 7 weeks after starting. The weather had been so nice, I planted them out, kept them covered at night, and I thought they would do fine. Not. Too cold? Too soon? I didn’t think so; I know onions can handle the cold and can be planted out before last frost. They didn’t die, but did the colder weather stunt their growth? By the end of the season, a few of them had small bulbs that were maybe 2-3″ across. The rest were smaller, some with no bulbs. The stalks never really fell over. I ended up bending them over myself. I kept them mulched well and in the garden until finally, in October, before it seriously froze (but after several nights below 32), I pulled them all out of the ground to cure on racks in the greenhouse. Very few of them cured as usual–the tops never dried up. The thick stalks remained green and some continued to grow. I was able to cook with them–since they were so small it didn’t take long to use them up before they spoiled.

As I mentioned earlier, the leeks and scallions all did well. I was very glad to have them! I used the leeks until I was afraid they might go rotten, and before they did I froze the remainder and used them later. Most of the scallions I planted were “Evergreen Hardy”, a multiplier onion. I left most of them in the ground all season, and they really multiplied! I ended up with too many all at once. I left some in the ground over the winter, and they all came back in the spring to multiply even more.

I also attempted to grow a few onions in the greenhouse. They took a very long time to grow and never really made bulbs. Leeks grew slowly and were ok, but since it took almost an entire year to get to normal leek size I will probably only grow them outdoors from now on. Leeks will be another page, another day.

 

DAY LENGTH

Some words about day length. The best “day length” here for onions is apparently “Intermediate Day.” We are at latitude 38.77. Many sources suggest that we can successfully grow either Intermediate-Day or Long-Day onions in this region. Our former location in Wellington was latitude 40.73, where I grew both long-day and intermediate-day onions which bulbed up nicely. According to Dixondale Farms, all of Colorado should be growing intermediate-day onions, and suggests that both daylength and temperature trigger the transfer of forming leaves to bulbing. Garden.org suggests that anywhere above latitude 35 degrees should grow long-day onions, and that “day neutral” or “intermediate day” onions are bred to be less sensitive to day length. Other sources suggest that anything north of either the 37th or 38th parallel should be “long day”. For the most part, I try to stick with “Intermediate Day” varieties.

 

CONTINUING EDUCATION: ONIONS 202

As for my “continuing education”, every year I try a few new onion experiments. I’ve had mixed results, with a couple of new things I’m trying for 2020.

SEEDS PLANTED IN THE GROUND IN THE FALL

In the fall of 2017, I put just a few “Clear Dawn” (Long Day) onion seeds in the ground, topped with mulch over the winter. Sure enough, in spring they sprouted, and I waited to see how well they would grow. I’d also started seeds indoors, as usual, so I planted those in different locations as well. At the end of summer 2018, the seeds planted the previous fall had done better than those started indoors and transplanted. The bulbs were still somewhat small, but they were more “bulb-ish” and the tops fell over and dried better than the others.

Based on this experience, I dedicated an entire bed in the fall of 2018 to plant onion seeds for 2019. Those did not all do well, but far better than my experience of starting seeds indoors for transplant. Less work, less space taken up under lights or in the greenhouse for the seedlings. This was my new preferred method.

 

ANOTHER EXPERIMENT

I also tried THIS METHOD of starting seeds for transplant, taking advantage of natural light and the warming of the season to grow onions more “naturally”. In the end, it was still a little more effort and the results were no better than just planting the seeds in the ground in the fall. I’m not really sure of the advantage of this method, unless for some reason the space is just not available in the fall.

NEW FOR 2020

After reading about the concept of “overwintering” onions, I decided to try that. I received an email from Territorial Seed explaining briefly that, “Onions that are started in late summer will yield mild, succulent harvests in spring if properly grown. Timing is everything for overwintered onions, which can be a little tricky and depends on your particular climate. The goal is to start your seeds in trays, allow the plants to reach the approximate size of a pencil prior to transplanting in fall. The plants will then go dormant through the coldest months and resume growing when the days warm up.” They go on to explain that in their area in Oregon, they sow their seed in late July or August, allowing the plants to size up to about ¼” wide by Sept/Oct. I could not locate this information on their website.

I’m not sure why they start these seeds indoors to transplant out later, unless it’s due to space availability outdoors at that time. I also wasn’t sure when I’d need to start these seeds in my area. I went ahead and purchased some onion seeds that are supposed to be good for overwintering, Gate Keeper F1, Desert Sunrise F1, and some shallots, Ambition F1. I also had some Walla Walla seeds on hand, so tried those as well. The end of July, I planted one bed in my garden with these seeds. By the end of October, they were less than pencil-sized, but growing nicely. These were mulched heavily by mid-October prior to expected low temperatures and snow. I also planted a few seeds in another bed at that time, also mulched well. I’ll be able to compare and see how all of these do in 2020.

ONE MORE EXPERIMENT FOR 2020

I just can’t stop trying to grow better onions! Now that we have cold frames outdoors, I will also try planting a few seeds in the cold frame for transplant outdoors in the spring. These will have the benefit of natural light, cold temperatures overnight in the winter, and added warmth in both winter and spring during the day.

 

ONIONS GROWN (OR ATTEMPTED)
These are the varieties I’ve grown (or attempted) here in Guffey.

2017:
All started indoors, transplanted spring, harvested fall. None did very well.
Clear Dawn – 104 Days – Long Day – One of the better onions I’ve tried.
Copra – 104 Days – Long Day – Similar to Clear Dawn.
Sedona F1 – 108 Days – Long Day
Walla Walla – 100-150 days – Long Day
Red Torpedo – 110 Days – Intermediate Day
 

2018:
All started indoors, transplanted Spring, harvested Fall
Clear Dawn | 104 Days | Long Day – One of the best. Some sown Fall 2017 did better.
Expression F1 | 98 Days | Intermediate to Long Day – One of the best
New York Early | 98 Days | Long Day – Did not do well at all.
Cabernet Red | 90 Days | Intermediate Day – One of the best
Rossa Lunga di Tropea OP | 110 Days | Intermediate to Long Day – Did not do well

2019:
Most started outdoors Fall 2018, Harvested Fall 2019
Clear Dawn | 104 Days | Long Day – One of the best.
Expression F1 | 98 Days | Intermediate to Long Day – One of the best
Cabernet Red | 90 Days | Intermediate Day – One of the best
Rossa Lunga di Tropea OP | 110 Days | Intermediate to Long Day – Better this year, but still not worth doing again.

2020:
Sown August 1, 2019 for overwintering
Gate Keeper F1 | 250 Days | Intermediate Day 
Desert Sunrise F1 | 100 Days (if spring sown) | Intermediate Day
Walla Walla | 125 Days (if spring sown) | Long Day
Ambition F1 Shallot | 120 Days

Sown Fall 2019
Expression F1 | 98 Days | Intermediate to Long Day