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How to Grow Onions – 10 Tips for Growing Onions

Although my blog is full of articles about “How to Grow” different types of fruits, flowers, herbs, and vegetables, I had not written a “How to Grow Onions” blog post . . . until now! 

Over the past 10 years, I’ve had varying levels of success growing onions. Some would grow well, but an overwhelming amount seemed to bolt, or “go to flower”. After seeking expert advice along with more trial and error, I finally had consistently good harvests and now feel confident writing this “How to Grow Onions” blog post. 


How to Grow Onions

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10 Tips for How to Grow Onions

How to Grow Onions

1. Start onions from seed or onion plants (not onion sets)

Tired of onions bolting? This first tip for how to grow onions will help you successfully grow onions more than any other tip I can share. If you remember nothing else in this article, remember to start onions from seed or onion plants (not onion sets)

Do not plant from onion sets. An onion set (looks like a miniature onion) has dried out and is already experiencing stress – it believes it needs to produce seeds or bolt. Once it begins growing, it often sends up a flowering stalk rather than bulbing and becoming a big beautiful onion. 

How to Grow Onions - 10 Tips for Growing Onions

Start onion seeds in the ground or in containers, densely sown. Once the onions have grown several inches, separate and plant them in the garden. 

Planting onion seeds or small onion plants (they look like miniature scallions) keep the onion from drying out and bolting before it is even planted. This gives the onion the best chance of success. Whether it gets stressed during the rest of the season is up to you.


2. Plant the correct type of onion for your location

Onion varieties come in 3 different types; the best one to use depends on where you live

  • Short-Day Onions: Begin bulbing when day-length is 10-12 hours; grow best in Southern States including the low desert of Arizona. Good types to try: Yellow Granex, Texas Sweet, and Red Creole.
  • Intermediate-Day Onions: Begin bulbing when day-length is 12-14 hours; grow best in middle regions of the United States. Good types to try: Yellow Candy and Super Star.
  • Long-Day Onions: Begin bulbing when day-length is 14-16 hours; grow best in Northern States. Good types to try: Walla Walla, Red River, and Highlander.

Not sure which day-length type to use? If you live in the continental United States this map from Dixondale Farms may help you decide. 


3. Plant onions at the correct time

Planting onions at the right time is a critical element of how to grow onions successfully. In most areas, the best time to plant onions is 4-6 weeks before the last frost date. Seeds should be started indoors about a month before this. 

Onion transplants
Onion transplants

In the low desert of Arizona, the best time to plant onions from seed is September. The best time to plant onion plants in the low desert of Arizona is in November. Onion plants can be planted through the middle of February, but the earlier you plant, the larger the onions will become. 

  • Start seeds indoors: October – December 15
  • Plant seeds outside: October – November
  • Plant transplants outside: December – February 15
Onion seeds
Onion seeds

4. How to plant onions correctly

  • Plant onions in an area that gets direct sun (at least 6-8 hours). 
  • The top foot of the soil must be loose and have good drainage. Add compost to compacted soil before planting to improve drainage and friability.
  • Onions grow best in soil with a pH between 6.2 and 6.8. Consider having your soil tested. (I use this soil testing kit ).  If your soil is too alkaline, amend the bed with peat moss. If your soil is too acidic, add limestone

  • Plant the onion plants 1” deep. If planted deeper, the onions may not bulb.
  • Space most onion plants 4” apart in rows 8” apart. 
  • If using square foot gardening, plant 5-9 onions per square depending on the variety.
How to plant onions

5. Feed onions regularly during the growing season

Onions are heavy feeders and benefit from regular additional fertilizer. Feed your onions right after planting with an organic fertilizer high in phosphorus (the middle number on a fertilizer). 

Feed onions again 3 weeks after planting with a high nitrogen organic fertilizer (blood meal, manure, etc.) 

Continue to feed your onions about every 3 weeks during the beginning of the growing season to encourage large leaves and onion tops. Once onions begin bulbing, do not fertilize. 

Once onions begin bulbing, do not fertilize
Once onions begin bulbing, do not fertilize

Water well after each fertilizer application. 


6. Water onions correctly

  • After planting, water onions well.
  • Water deeply after each application of fertilizer.
  • Between fertilizing, water onions once top inch or so of dirt is dry.
  • Yellow-tinged leaves are a sign of overwatering; cut back on water. 
  • When the onion tops begin to fall over, stop watering

7. Harvest onions at the right time

As the onion nears harvest time, the lower leaves on the onion plant will begin to wither and dry up, and then the stems will fall over. This means the onion bulbs have finished developing and are almost ready to harvest. 

Once the tops of most of the onions have fallen over, stop watering and leave the onions in the ground for another week or so. To harvest onions, pull gently on stems (but if they don’t come out easily, use a shovel to dig them out). 

In the low desert of Arizona, onions are usually harvested in early May. Watch for signs of readiness to harvest as early as late April or up until the end of May. 


8. Cure onions after harvesting

It’s important to cure onions before storing for longer storage life. 

  • Choose a shady, protected location that is around 75-80°F.  Provide a slight breeze with a fan if possible if it is indoors. (I cure mine on a wire rack in my laundry room).
  • Lay the onions out in a single layer on a rack or floor
  • Allow the onion stems to wither and the papery skins will tighten around the onion. 
  • Trim roots and trim stems to about 1″ when the necks are moisture free and completely tight and dry. 
  • Discard (or use right away) damaged, bruised or still green onions.


9. Use bolted onions right away

If the center stalk of the onion becomes thick and tall, and then develops a flower stalk, the onion is bolting. 

During the growing season, onions will occasionally bolt as a reaction to stress (cold, heat, lack of water, etc.) Bolted onions must be eaten right away; they will not store well. If onions bolt or flower during the season, harvest and use them as soon as possible.

Bolted onion flower

Looking for more information about what to do when onions bolt? Read this blog post.


10. Store and preserve harvested onions

Store onions in a dry cool place, ideally not touching each other. A great way to store onions is in mesh net bags (I use these mesh bags from Amazon) hung up in a cool place. I store my onions in a hall closet.

Store sweet onions for up to 3 months. Other types of onions store longer depending on storage conditions. Check stored onions occasionally for soft spots or decay, removing affected onions before it spreads to others.

Preserve harvested onions by dehydrating and freeze drying.

Freeze Drying Tips for Beginners

If you would like to learn more about freeze drying, read Freeze Drying Tips for Beginners.


If this post about how to grow onions was helpful, please share it:


Cheryl Schneider

Sunday 18th of September 2022

Hi Angela! I’d like to plant scallions and wondering what type you recommend? I planted Burpee bunching onion seeds about two weeks ago and only one sprout came up. Wrong timing or bad seeds? Thanks so much, I always value your advice!

Angela Judd

Monday 19th of September 2022

It may be too hot yet - give it some time and try yours again.

Melissa

Sunday 13th of June 2021

Angela - This may be a truly stupid questions - but what exactly does a 'cool dry place' mean? I mean, obviously not sitting in water, but here in Phoenix, the coolest place I have in the summer is between 70 and 75 degrees. I feel like no matter where I store onions or garlic, it sprouts. What am I doing wrong?

Angela Judd

Tuesday 15th of June 2021

It's tough. I have the same issue. In a perfect world we have a root cellar or basement that is nice and cool. I keep mine in an inside closet and they last several months.

Heidi

Sunday 13th of June 2021

Thanks for the great info! I have an onion that started to sprout in the pantry so I came here to find out how to plant it. But it is now June in Phoenix, while you said to plant in November. Is there any hope for these little onion plants? Is it too hot to plant them now, or can they grow indoors?

Angela Judd

Tuesday 15th of June 2021

It's too hot right now. I haven't tried growing onions indoors, you could give it a try!

Aaron

Saturday 12th of June 2021

Hi Angela! Thank you again for another great article. I do have one question. The green tops take up a great deal of space during curing. Is there any harm to trimming off the green tops after harvesting and before the onion is completely cured? Thank you so much!

Liz

Saturday 15th of May 2021

Thank you for the post, I’m getting ready to harvest my onions any day now but don’t know how long to let them cure for for long storage. I don’t have a place to put them out of the sun so I’m bringing them indoors with a fan. Any idea how long they will take to cure? Thanks again!

Angela Judd

Tuesday 18th of May 2021

2-4 weeks depending on the inside conditions and how much they need to dry out.