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Starting Onions from Seed

submitted by Sarah Browning, UNL Extension Educator

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Planting onions from small bulbs or "sets" is not the best way to grow large onions for storage. Plants grown from sets often begin blooming in mid-summer and stubbornly refuse to stop. Once that happens, onion bulbs don't increase much in size. This happens because onions are biennials. They grow foliage and a bulb the first season, then bloom and set seed in their second growing season. Growing the sets counts as one growing season, although it was definitely a short one, and the plants are primed to reproduce by setting flowers after you plant them in the garden. This makes onion sets a great way to grow green onions, but not the best way to grow onions for long term storage.

Because of onions biennial nature, plants grown from seed or transplants don't bloom the first year and can develop larger bulbs. Many mail-order companies and garden centers now carry onion transplants in spring, but you can also grow your own.

Growing Onion Transplants

Onion transplants can be grown in approximately 10-12 weeks. Sow seeds in late February or early March for planting outdoors in early May. Plant seeds ¾ inches deep in a seed-starting soil blend and keep them evenly moist. Once they sprout, provide the seedlings with bright light from a sunny, south-facing window, or better yet, provide supplemental light with fluorescent fixtures placed a few inches above them for 12-14 hours each day.

Transplant the little, grass-like seedlings outdoors as soon as garden soil is dry enough to work thoroughly and daytime temperatures reach 50° F. Onion transplants will tolerate light frosts. Place them 4 inches apart in wide row plantings. When using "wide" rows plants are not placed single file on one long row, but spaced through a row ranging from 6 to 36 inches across. Use a row width that is convenient for you to reach fro both sides, to make harvesting and weed control easier.

Direct Seeding

Onions can also be direct seeded. This is a good option if you can't find your favorite cultivar as a transplant. Plant seeds as soon as the soil can be worked, usually from mid to late March. Wide row spacing also works well when planting onion seeds. Plant the seeds 1/4 - 1/2 inch deep in the soil. Space rows 12-18 inches apart. Once the plants have 5-10 leaves, they can be thinned so the remaining plants are spaced 3-4 inches apart, and the harvested plants used as green onions.

Growing Onions

Onions grow best in well-drained soil, 6.5 pH, with a high level of organic matter. Raised beds, 4-6 inches high, work well to provide good soil drainage if the native soil is heavy. They also need plenty of sunlight, and regular watering. The installation of drip irrigation the length of the rows makes watering easier and more uniform. Don't be concerned if a large portion of the bulb develops above ground; that's normal for onions.

This resource was added February 2014 and appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star Newspaper Sunday edition. For information on reproducing this article or using any photographs or graphics, read the Terms of Use statement

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office

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