Planting Superb Onions

If you attended last year's First Friday at the Providence Garden, then you were probably one of many who was admiring Patrick's onions. They were big and beautiful and planted in sets instead of in rows....Many asked, "how do you plant onions like that?" 

Since it's time to plant onions, here are some secrets:

Step one: Pick a variety

There are TONS of onion varieties from red to white to yellow, from scallions to shallots, and from fresh eating to storage varieties. At the Providence Garden and at most of our neighborhood farms, we grow Dakota Tears, Ailsa Craig, Red Wing, and Patterson onions. You probably have already seen boxes of these types of onions appearing at the gardens. They are leftover starts from Garden City Harvest's neighborhood farms, and you are welcome to plant them in your garden plot!

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Step 2: Prepare the Planting Bed

A nice clean planting bed is ideal to set you up for success.  Prepping your beds will allow you to start with a weed free space and soft soil that is easy to plant into. Aerate and loosen up the soil with a digging fork or shovel. This makes it easier to pull up weeds while also facilitating better root development for young plants and increasing water infiltration. Weed your bed, spread any manure or compost evenly over the bed, turn the soil, and rake smooth.

Since we're planting out onions in sets, use the handle end of a rake or shovel to mark holes in the soil where you will plant your onions. Space the holes in your bed in a grid pattern, about 9 inches apart on all sides if planting multiple onions in a bunch or 4-6 inches if planting individually. (Bunching onions will generally give you a greater quantity of smaller onions.) Whether it's an indent or a line drawn in the soil, mapping out where you will be planting your seeds or starts is a good idea to make sure your spacing is correct.

Step 3: Transplanting onion starts

Once the bed is prepped, it's time to plant the onion starts. Begin by sticking a hand or trowel into the box of onions to pop up a clump into your hand. Then, break apart the big clump into individual or smaller sets (3 or 4) of baby onions. Lay out the onion sets where you made the holes in your bed as shown below. This helps you know if you have enough onions and/or holes in your bed.

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Holding the bunch of individual onions in one hand, use two fingers of the other hand (or a small trowel) to pull the soil back and plop the onion set in the hole. Onions should be planted a little deep--set the onion in the hole up to where the onion plant begins to divide into leaves, but not above. Also avoid bending the onion roots as much as possible by digging a deeper hole or trimming the roots to about 1 inch long. (Note: if you end up snipping the roots, make sure to snip 1/3 off the top of the onion too.)

Press the soil around the onions so they stand up right.

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Step 4: Watering and fertilizing your onions

Before you go, make sure to water your baby onions well. It's natural for young plants to go through a little shock when first transplanted out into the garden, but the best way to mitigate shock is by watering your plants well. Also, if you can, choose to plant in the morning or evening or on a cloudy day when temperatures are cooler. 

Onions are also considered "heavy feeders" in the vegetable kingdom, which means they respond well to fertilizers high in nitrogen. While not necessary, applying liquid fish emulsion fertilizer once a week will help your onions grow big and strong.

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Happy onion planting!

P.S. As your onion clumps mature, go ahead and harvest the big ones for your next dinner. Whichever ones you pick will only help the others in the clump grow bigger as well.

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