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Something to Cry About

“A Rough Patch” Written By Teresa Howell |

Here’s what I knew about onions before last year: there are three types, red, white and yellow. If you want to grow onions, you get a bag of those little bulb things, and you push them in the ground. Usually, the onions you grow will be yellow.

Then I decided to grow my onions from seed.

Sure, there were still only the three basic colors–red, white and yellow. But then, it got complicated. The first thing I had to figure out if Winnemucca was north or south of the 36th parallel of latitude. Turns out in Nevada, if you live north of Henderson, you’re on the up side of it.

What has your address to do with growing onions? Plenty, actually. Onions come in two types–short day and long day. This does not, as I first thought, have anything to do with how long your bad breath will last after you eat an onion. Instead, it has to do with what amount of daylight will cue the onion to start forming a bulb.

Short day onions will begin forming a bulb when days are around twelve or fourteen hours long. If you grow those varieties in the North, the bulbs will be small.

Long day onions begin forming the bulb when days are fifteen or sixteen hours long.  Those are the type that does best for us here in Winnemucca, although we could get away with short day varieties as well.

After I ordered my long day variety, I had yet another choice to make: should I start them indoors then transplant them, or should I seed them directly in the garden? Fortunately, I had two packs of onions, so I could experiment. In fact, I had to experiment. Unlike many seeds, onion seeds don’t store well; they should all be used the first year.

Following directions, I sowed the first packet into flats early in March. It takes a long time for onions to grow; when I transplanted them out around the first of June, they were only four or five inches tall. If I had really been following directions, I would have kept the foliage trimmed at three or four inches tall.

I also should have potted the onions up into larger containers. I didn’t because I ran into a common spring phenomenon at my house: too many plants and not enough window. Next year, I may do as many garden books recommend and sow the seeds in those little six-packs, or in one of those 72-cell flats. You can put in three or four seeds in each cell. You don’t need to thin them, but give the individual cells plenty of room when you set them out. As the onions in each cluster grow, they will push each other apart.

Around the first of June, I transplanted the onions into an area well enriched with compost. Like many root crops, onions do best in rich, loose soil.

The other packet of seeds I planted directly in the garden around the middle of May. I ran into the problem I often have when I direct-seed here in Nevada, which is, it’s very difficult to keep seeds moist, especially when I have to be at work all day.

I’ve considered quitting my job in order to keep the garden watered, but I’d need to grow a lot of onions to replace my wages. So next spring, I’ll probably invest in a seed-misting system.

Although I thought my experiment would solve the “transplant or direct-seed” question, it really didn’t. True, the transplanted onions were larger, averaging around four inches in diameter as opposed to the two or three inches of the direct-seeded onions.  However, they were quite a bit more work.

Although I still haven’t decided whether I’ll bother to start onions ahead of time next year, I will raise them from seed. Seeds cost quite a bit less than onion sets, and if I plant them directly into the garden, they’re actually less work. I’ll have a greater variety to choose from.  And if the sources I’ve consulted are right, onions grown from seeds actually store better than those raised from sets.

Now that’s nothing to cry about.

When Teresa Howell isn’t trying to figure out what kind of onions to plant, she teaches English at Great Basin College.