Don’t cry … Onion growing easy and delicious!

Clockwise top from left: Different types of table (large) onions, green onions (scallions), table onion ready for harvest, onion sets being planted.
Clockwise top from left: Different types of table (large) onions, green onions (scallions), table onion ready for harvest, onion sets being planted.

Besides asparagus, there is nothing that signals spring vegetable gardening to me more than growing some sweet, mild green onions (scallions). And paraphrasing the old Doublemint commercial, onions are “two, two, two plants in one!”

The amazing thing about growing onions from sets, which is what I will talk about in this column, is that the same set can produce the long, sweet, mild fresh green scallion or a regular large, robust flavored table onion (the round ones); it just depends on how deep and far apart you plant them. I tell you, nature is amazing every single day.

So, what is this “set” I am referring to? Aren’t most vegetables usually grown from seed? Well, yes. And onions, too, can be grown by seed, but I would have had to write that column, back in December, because growing onions from seed is a long process. You plant them in January for summer harvest.

Sets are onion bulbs that grew from seed for one season and then are harvested and dried. And most importantly, the easiest way to grow onions in Will County. The curious thing is that for a green onion, which is long and slender and more mild tasting at harvest, you choose the largest onion sets; to grow a “regular” table (round) onion, you choose the smaller sets. I always thought it would be the opposite.

The way you plant onions — both the depth and the spacing — also determine how the onion will grow. This is the most important step to remember. For growing scallions (green onions), you plant those largest sets one and a half (1 ½ “) inches deep and have the sets just touching each other.

It is easiest when planting green onions to dig a furrow and then lay the onion sets side by side. Since all onions grow straight up vertically, spacing between rows doesn’t have to be large, just enough foot space to walk between to harvest.

Harvesting green onions is easy. Pull them up as you need them. Recommendations are that green onions should be harvested when the leaves are 8”- 10” tall, but you can harvest a little sooner. It depends on how you like your green onions.

A note on that. When I was growing up, green onions were half wasted, it seemed to me. Mom and grandma would chop the white bottom half and discard the tops (into the compost, of course). And I remember a glass of green onions on the dinner table in the center of the relish tray, and again, people would just eat the white part. Now I am not here to judge, but why waste the green half? It is delicious!

Green onions are ready for harvest in three weeks to a month. But as with many vegetables, especially the early spring ones, the longer they are growing, the more chance they are to get bitter and strong, with a woody texture.

It is best to harvest and use green onions literally from the garden to the table. To store green onions (for up to a week) in the refrigerator, harvest, wash soil off and put in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel. Remove any shriveled or yellowed leaves.

Green onions can be repeatedly planted throughout the growing season so buy some extra onion sets, so you can have those fresh, green onions growing all garden-season long. Store them in a dry, dark cool space until needed. Humidity and warm temps will cause them to sprout.

For round onions, everything is the opposite as described above for green onions. For planting, you choose the smallest of the onion sets you have. Planting is different, too. Now you are going to plant the sets very shallow, only ½ – 1” deep, and space them apart 3 to 4 inches apart. Spacing rows 18” apart.

And, unlike green onions which seem to be ready as soon as you are done planting, table/storage onions will grow all summer, being ready for harvest, depending on the variety, in three to four months. The great thing about table onions is they actually tell you when they are ready to be harvested.

No, they don’t text you or send you an email. Even better, their tall green tops start to fall over. And the “shoulders” of the onions often rise above the soil. Harvest should be done only when two-thirds of the tops have fallen over.

And depending on the variety of onions you grow — some are better than others for long-term storage — you will want to “cure” your onions, so you get the longest possible storage time. Curing is simple. First do not wash the onions, just brush away surface soil. As they cure, the rest of the soil will fall away. Also keep their tops on. Then lay the onions out separately in a warm, dry area with excellent ventilation.

After two to three weeks the onions tops and necks will dry, and the outer skin will look like the onions you buy at the store. Then you can cut off the tops, being sure not to cut into the onion itself and trim back any remaining roots.

When it comes to storage, if you are old enough, you remember the ideal place — the root cellar, an unheated basement room that maintained everything from all the canned goods put up over the growing season and all of the root vegetables, including onions. In modern day, the goal is the same though — keeping onions cool, dark and dry. (Not refrigerated).

Purdue University has an excellent fact sheet on growing onions that has about 30 different recipes linked to it. Here is the link:, and if you don’t use computers, just call our office at 815-727-9296, and we will mail you a paper copy.

You can also grow onions and many other vegetables in containers. More on that in a future column.


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