Now’s the time to start onion seedlings

(Photo by Darwin Bell)

The official start for this year’s growing season, which I count as the day when I sow my first vegetable seeds, will begin momentarily. Actually, the season should have already been underway, as of February 1; but I put in my seed order a little late, so am tapping my foot and (im)patiently waiting for the seeds to arrive in the mail. That first sowing is, of course, indoors, and the seeds will be onions, leeks and celery. The most interesting of the three, as far as growing, is onion.

Sowing onion seeds indoors would not be a necessity, except that I want to grow onions that will keep until this time next year and that are reasonably large and that taste good. Onion sets – those mini-onion bulbs available everywhere in spring – would be the easiest way to grow onions, but you get little choice of varieties. The best-keeping onions are the so-called American types, which are relatively firm and pungent. European-type onions are large and sweet, but don’t keep as well.

I’ll soon be sowing seeds of New York Early and Varsity, two American types, and Sedona, a European type. New York Early is only mildly pungent (so is good in salads), medium-sized and stores well. Varsity has good storage and large size to recommend it. And Sedona, although a European type, stores pretty well; I’ll eat them first. You won’t find any of these varieties as sets in local or mail-order garden stores.

There’s one more wrinkle in my selection of an onion variety. Whether bulbs, seedlings or direct-sown seeds, the plants grow well, pumping out leaf after leaf, under cool, moist conditions. But as the growing season moves on and the sun stays above the horizon for a certain number of hours per day – just how long depends on the specific onion variety – a “switch” in the plant flips that tells the plant to stop making new leaves and start pumping energy to swelling the bulbs. In the South, onions are planted either in autumn or midwinter to mature in late winter or early spring. Varieties adapted there are “short-day” varieties that bulb up when days have only about 12 hours of sunlight. Here in New York’s Hudson Valley, that would happen sometime in March; so even if the plants were outdoors, they’d have grown so few leaves that the bulbs would be very puny.

Northern onion varieties are “long-day” types, not bulbing up until day length is 15 or 16 hours. Here those day lengths occur in June. The more leaves that my onions grow before then, the bigger the bulbs. I could sow the seed outdoors in April, and they’ll grow some leaves before that switch flips on. By planting now, more greenery has more time to develop; and the more greenery on the plant before June, the bigger the bulbs.

A Clementine tangerine box is just the right size for sowing six rows of onions seeds. Once those seeds arrive (tomorrow, I hope), I’ll fill the box with potting soil, make six furrows and drop seven seeds per inch into each furrow. Once the seeds are covered and the box watered, the box needs to be kept warm and moist until green sprouts poke through the surface.

Onions aren’t the only bulbs that should be getting under way around here. Two big fat amaryllis bulbs arrived as mail-order gifts a couple of weeks ago. I’m not a big fan of giant amaryllises, so they just sat in their opened box. They’ve been sprouting, and even showing signs of big fat flowerbuds. I couldn’t torture them anymore, so finally potted them up.

Down in my cold basement I dug last season’s begonia bulbs (actually, they are tubers, or thickened underground stems) out of storage. I tucked them in among some wood shavings in an old aquarium last autumn. In contrast to the big fat amaryllis bulbs, the begonia bulbs didn’t look like much more than rough brown clods of soil. Moved to warmth, with the sawdust kept moistened with a bit of water (too much and the tubers will rot), those lifeless-looking lumps should sprout leaves and then, by June, flowers.

The appeal of the begonias, which I grew from dustlike seeds a couple of years ago, is that the foliage is attractive and the fire-engine-red flowers are, in contrast to those of amaryllis, proportional to the size of the leaves and the plant. Another big plus: The begonia bears flowers nonstop right up until autumn.

Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at [email protected] and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at For more on local homes and gardens, go to Ulster Publishing’s



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