Onions are usually the first thing gardeners plant in early spring, and garden centers have ample supplies of what are commonly called ''sets,'' or small, young onions that will later grow into large bulbs. These sets aren't usually labeled by variety, but are simply called red, yellow or white. As the popularity of home gardens grew, boxes of rubber-banded onion sets also started showing up in produce departments of local stores.
I love onions. Large, potent onions generally end up as the precursor to a number of things that come out of my kitchen. I chop them for garnish and toss them on a salad. I make batches of caramelized onions to use all week in various dishes, and French onion soup is one of my comfort foods.
Designating a patch of earth in the garden specifically for onions is a necessary part of my vegetable garden. But even though I am an onion fan, I am not a fan of onion sets, and I don't usually buy them unless for some reason, I'm not able to start my own plants from seeds. Otherwise, I prefer to know what variety of onion I'm growing each year and whether or not I want to grow it again. Not to mention, it is fun.
Why am I talking about onions and vegetable gardens at the very beginning of winter? Because this is the time to get those onion seeds ordered and planted. I always try to get my onions planted by Feb. 1.
Onion seeds don't store as well as other vegetables, and that's a shame because onion seeds are so tiny, seed packets usually contain hundreds of seeds. I can't possibly tend to hundreds of onion starts in my small greenhouse, but I can share seeds with friends who also like to start their plants early. Onions can take a bit of cold, but a hard frost will kill them. Starting them early indoors will give them a nice head start for the upcoming season.
It can take up to six or seven weeks before germination takes place. I like to sow my seeds in disposable containers, such as peat pots or pellets, or handmade paper pots I've molded around small cans or jars. While these are convenient, they can get wet and soggy unless crowded together in a large tray to help hold each other up. For a sturdier handmade container, I also sometimes use discarded toilet paper rolls. Simply cut a few one-inch slits along one end and fold and glue the edges to form a bottom for the container.
I use a sterile, soilless seed-starting mixture, which can be found in garden centers. These mixtures help ward off fungus diseases that can attack tender young seedlings and wipe out an entire batch of new plants in one night.
Fill up the container with moist seed starting medium. Sprinkle a few seeds and then with your fingertips, drop a bit of medium on top of the seeds. They should be covered, but just barely. Rather than water them from the top, place the containers in a shallow tray. Some people recommended covering the containers with sheets of clear plastic wrap to hold in moisture, but I don't like this idea. I think it provides too little air circulation and a better breeding ground for disease. Instead, I keep water in the tray at all times to wick up through the medium.
Once the seedlings germinate, thin to one plant per container and cut back a little on the water.
Onions like bright light. If you can't provide a bright enough window, and most people can't, install a fluorescent light fixture above your planting bed containing one cool and one regular light. Keep the light no more than two inches above the plants as they grow.
In early spring, harden off young plants by giving them brief periods of outdoor time, increasing the time each day for about two weeks. The plants can go directly into the garden as soon as the soil can be worked, usually by mid-April to early May in our area.
Even though the containers I use are disposable, I don't usually leave the seedlings in them when I put the onions into the garden. I tear away as much as I can without disturbing the roots and gently place each plant in its own planting hole. Garden soil should be loose and well amended with compost.
Straw mulch works well in an onion bed to hold in moisture and control weed growth. Weeds are major competitors and should be controlled.