Grow Bigger, Sweeter Onions

I love growing onions.  They are so reliable and easy to grow.  Because of this they make a great crop for beginning gardeners.  If you are a new gardener and you have decent soil, just stick some quality sets in it at the right time of year and water them regularly.   That is basically all it takes to get a pretty decent onion harvest.  However, onions are not just for beginners.  For those of us that have more gardening experience, we can use all of our knowledge and skill to grow the biggest and sweetest onions possible.

20110513-053 A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from my friend Christi at “The Brown Shed”.  She bought several more onion sets than her garden could accommodate so she offered me her extras.  Since it is onion planting time in Washington County I gladly accepted her generous offer.   Christ gave me six different varieties;   Yellow Granex (Vidalia), 1015Y (Y is for yellow), 1015W (Texas Super Sweet), Texas Early White, Texas Legend and Belle Red.

While you can grow your onions from seeds, this article applies to those of us that grow them from sets.  Sets are simply immature onion plants.  These immature little onions are very tough.  The average onion set can live for three weeks without water.  Because of this, if your local nursery or feed store does not have the varieties you want, you can order directly from a number of reputable sources.  My favorite is Dixondale Farms.  Dixondale is a family owned business that has been growing and selling onion sets in the Rio Grande Valley for the past 100 years. (  In fact, if you live in Texas and you buy your sets from a local nursery or feed store, there is a very good chance that they got their sets from Dixondale’s (all of the onions Christi gave me came from Dixondale).

A young "Belle Red" set .

A young “Belle Red” set .

Onions come in three types (short day, intermediate and long day) based on the amount of daylight needed to initiate bulbing.  Because of our latitude, most Texans grow what are called short day onions.  Short day onions will begin the bulbing process when day lengths reach 10 to 12 hours.  Short day onions can be planted anytime between approximately November 15 (in the southern parts of the state) and the middle of February.  The earlier you plant them the bigger the bulbs will get.

Don’t worry about planting in November or December.  Onions are very cold hearty plants so they can easily survive temperatures into the twenties.  However, temperatures below twenty may kill them.  If it doesn’t kill them, it will force them bolt and set seeds.  So, if it is going to get really cold you should cover them with a tarp or blanket.

Yellow Granex are the  Dixondale hybrid that ulitimately become Vidalia onions.  However, they can't legally be called Vidalia unless they are grown in Vidalia County, Georgia.  I wonder how many of those folks in Georgia realize there most famous export came from Texas?

Yellow Granex are the Dixondale hybrid that ulitimately becameVidalia onions. However, they can’t legally be called Vidalia unless they are grown in Vidalia County, Georgia. I wonder how many of those folks in Georgia realize their most famous export came from Texas?

In addition to a long growing season, bigger, better and sweeter onions require full sun and well-draining, nutrient rich soil.  Onions are heavy feeders and they have a relatively small root structure so it is imperative that your soil has enough nutrition to support the growth of these big bulbs.  Most onions prefer a soil pH that is slightly acidic (6.2-6.8).  If your soil is too acidic you can till in ground limestone.  If it is too alkaline add peat moss to raise the pH.

Once your bed is prepared, use your finger or dibble to make 1” deep holes that are 2” to 4” apart.  Do not plant onion sets more than an inch deep as this can interfere with bulbing.  Drop your onion set into the hole and pull the soil snuggly up around the plant. Most short day onions need at least 4” between plants to develop a large bulb.   If you plant them 2” apart, you need to thin them during the growing season.  Many people over plant in this manner so they can use their “thins” as green onions.  If you don’t intend on making “green onions”, four to six inch spacing will provide plenty of room for your onions to grow into big, healthy bulbs.

Red short day onions like "Belle Red" and hotter and keep better than the sweeter yellow and white short day varieties

Red short day onions like “Belle Red” and hotter and keep better than the sweeter yellow and white short day varieties

If you are growing your onions organically, top dress your rows with a high quality, high nitrogen compost (like manures) every month.  If you are fertilizing your onions top dress the soil with ½ cup of fertilizer (ammonium sulfate (21-0-0) for alkaline soils and calcium nitrate (15.5-0-0) for acidic soils ) for every ten feet of row.  Apply every month until you see the soil beginning to be pushed back by the bulb.

Always water your plants thoroughly after applying fertilizer.  Onions need at least an inch of water per week.  However, since they have such a shallow root system you need to ensure that the ground never completely dries out.  As temperatures rise, monitor your beds closely and adjust the amount of water you put out.  Be careful not to over water.  If you see your onion tops developing a yellow tinge, back off of the water.  Once the onion matures and the tops fall over, stop watering completely.

Because of their weak root structure, onions do not compete well with weeds.  Keep your beds as weed free as possible.  I generally mulch mine with straw.  However, if you use straw you need to pull it back once the plants start to bulb.  This will allow the onions to dry out naturally and will help you preserve them when they are mature.  If you are not a “mulcher” you can also control weeds organically by putting out corn gluten meal every six weeks.  For non-organic growers, Treflan does a great job controlling weeds and has no adverse effect on the onions.

Onions are ready to harvest when their tops fall over.  Stop watering at this point.

Onions are ready to harvest when their tops fall over. Stop watering at this point.

Onions are the second most grown vegetable in the home garden.  When you consider that the average American consumes 20 pounds of these spicy bulbs each year, it is not hard to imagine why so many people love to grow them.  With a little care and finesse, you can make your twenty pounds of onions the biggest and sweetest you have ever tasted.  Julia Child once said “It is hard to imagine civilization without onions”.  I have to agree.

BTW, your onion crop is ready to harvest when the tops fall over.  When that happens, be sure to come back and read “How to Harvest and Cure Onions” and “Harvesting and Curing Onions Part 2” by Patty Leander.

This post has been shared on the Homestead Barn Hop and the HomeAcre Hop.  These hops are a great way to connect with, and learn from, some of the best bloggers on the web.  Be sure to check it out!

Trowel and Error Symposium at Mayfield Park

This past week should have been one of the busiest weeks of the whole year in the garden.  However, instead of setting out plants, weeding, mulching and making blog posts about it all, I was laid up fighting/recovering from the flu.  If you have never had the flu, I don’t recommend you try it.  This one bout has been enough to make sure that I never ever miss a flu shot ever again.

The water gardens at Mayfield are lovely

The water gardens at Mayfield are lovely

At least something good happened “garden wise” this past week.  Last Saturday, Sally and I got to go Austin to give a presentation on organic weed control at the Mayfiled Park Trowel and Error symposium.  Mayfield Park ( is a 23 acre nature preserve deep in the heart of Austin.  However, what makes it outstanding (as far as I am concerned) are the two beautiful acres nestled behind rustic stone walls.

All of the beds at Mayfield are paid for and maintained by volunteers

All of the beds at Mayfield are paid for and maintained by volunteers

These two acres were once the pride and passion of two remarkable Texans.  Dr. Milton Gutsch (Chairman for the History Department at UT for many years) married Mary Mayfield in 1918.  In 1922, the young couple moved into the tiny board and batten cottage that had served as a weekend/summer home for the Mayfield family (Mr. Mayfield served as the Chairman of the Railroad Commission and Secretary of State of Texas).  Over the next 50 years, the Gutsch’s worked to turn two acres into a beautiful and restful garden dotted with beautiful water features, paved limestone patios and pigeonnier.

A white Banksia is stunning over a limestone archway that leads to a private seating area

A white Banksia is stunning over a limestone archway that leads to a private seating area

After the death of her husband, Mrs. Gutsch gave the property to the city to be used a park.  Unfortunately, there was no endowment.  So for the next several years the park began to suffer from neglect.  Then, in 1986, a group called the Mayfield Park/Community Project came together to return the Mayfield cottage and gardens back to their former glory. This group, headed by Karen Camannati has been at it ever since.  This group receives no money from the city of Austin.  All of the money for the upkeep of this beautiful and historic place comes from an occasional grant, an annual newsletter and the annual Trowel & Error Symposium.

The flock of peafowl that roam the grounds are all descendants from the first peacocks that came to the property in 1935

The flock of peafowl that roam the grounds are all descendants from the first peacocks that came to the property in 1935

I attend a lot of gardening presentations each year.  While I usually enjoy all of them, this year’s Trial and Error was one of the most special events that I have ever attended.  The welcoming and dedicated spirit of Karen, the generosity of the volunteers and the sheer beauty and history of the place made it the perfect place for a spring gardening event. If you did not make it out to this year’s Trial and Error, please make a point to attend next year.  For the past several years Karen and the other members of the board have brought together an impressive array of horticultural speakers.  For a $5 donation, you can support an historic Austin gem, learn from talented and passionate gardeners and buy starts from some of the hundreds of antique plants that bloom in the Mayfield gardens.  And, if growing plants is not your thing, you can still come. The gardens and the flock of peacocks (that have descended from the original birds gifted to the Gutsch’s in 1935) provide a great opportunity and backdrop for all of you shutterbugs out there.

Pigeonneirs were once common throughout the rural south.  today, they are harder and harder to find.  The one at Mayfield is outstanding

Pigeonneirs were once common throughout the rural south. Today, they are harder and harder to find. The one at Mayfield is outstanding

I seldom do personal stuff on the blog, but today I am making an exception.  Our oldest daughter Kate, is in the hospital.  She is suffering from an autoimmune disease called polymyositis.  If you are the praying kind, I ask that you remember her and her husband in your prayers.  She is in constant pain and there is no quick fix.  If you are Catholic and you are participating in the Chaplet of Divine Mercy ( right now, please offer one up for her!

Ellen Bosanquet and the CobraHead Hoe

Yesterday, while returning from lunch, I found what I believe to be an Ellen Bosanquet crinum bulb laying on top of the ground.  Now I am not certain it is an Ellen Bosanquet but it was laying in a place where a large clump of them had once stood. 

Ellen Bosanquet from

I found this bulb while walking through a garden that I go through quite regularly.  While strolling through it, I discovered that a large bed had been dug up and all of the plant material had been removed.  While surveying this, I noticed the bulb.  It was laying on top of the soil and had just a few roots still in the ground.  I decided that it had been left there to die so I rescued it.

I love crinums and I have several varieties in my beds.  Since Ellen Bosanquet is one I do not have, I was very glad to find this bulb.  In my opinion, Ellen Bosanquet is one of the prettiest.  It rosey pink flowers and slightly rippled foliage makes it an attractive plant whether it is blooming or not.

What I hope is a healthy Ellen Bosanquet bulb

Since I didn’t know how long the bulb had been out of the soil, I planted it as quickly as possible.  This gave me the opportunity to try out a new garden gadget that my wife gave me for Christmas.  The CobraHead Hand Hoe is a marvelous little garden tool that is produced right here in the USA by a small family owned business.  My wife ordered it for me from another family owned business that we often shop with; Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

  I am not a big buyer of garden gadgets.  However, when I saw the CobraHead in the Baker Creek magazine I knew it was something worth having.  The CobraHead is a 13″ long, curved weeder, cultivator, planter, etc.  It has a thin, curved, football shaped head that allows it to work in even the heaviest clays.  In my own garden, the tools I most often use are an old 12′ long Craftsman screwdriver and the claws of an old 20 ounce framing hammer.  The thin and gracefully curving shape of this tool, combined with the overall length and large handle made me realize that I could finally put my hammer and screwdriver back in the tool box.

After using it to plant my new crinum in a fairly heavy clay, I give the tool two big green thumbs up!  The tool performed just as advertised.  I was able to quickly dig a hole with out wearing myself out.  I was very pleased.  (I make this next statement in a very light hearted manner)  Thanks to my new CobraHead, I am actually looking forward to all of those weeds that will soon be popping up in my beds!

Nut Sedge-The Worst Weed in the World!

Nut Sedge (Cyperus rotundus), or nut grass as it is often called around here, is one of the most invasive weeds in the entire world.   I am not making that up.  It is currently listed as invasive in over 90 countries across the globe.  Since there are only about 196 countries out there, that means that nut sedge is a major problem for 46% of the entire world.

The origins of nut sedge are most commonly attributed to Africa.  However, there are varieties that are native to southern and central Europe and southern Asia.  Where ever it came from, everyone that I know wishes it would have stayed home.

In my mind, nut sedge is the quintessential weed.  It grows where it is not wanted, it spreads incredibly quickly and it is almost impossible to control.  In fact, it is one of the very few weeds that will not be stopped by rubber mulch or plastic sheating.  My botanical brother Morgan McBride loves to tell the story of his above ground pool.  Before installing it, he stripped the site of vegetation, sprayed with round up and brought in sand to level the site.  He worked all of two days to get it all assembled and then he left it alone until the next weekend.  When he went out to fill it, 5 DAYS LATER, the bottom of his brand new pool had 50+ nut sedge sprouts sticking right up through the rubber bottom.  Needless to say, he hates nut sedge too.

I am writing this post because, once again, I am faced with a major outbreak in one of my beds.  Three weeks ago, I cleaned out a large bed.  I pulled all of the weeds that I could see, laid down eight layers of newspaper and then covered it all with about 6” of hard wood mulch.  Imagine my surprise when I was watering just two weeks later and discovered approximately 100 of these little green devils all over my freshly mulched bed!

Until this last bit of mulching I thought I had eradicated most of it in my beds.  I am certain that most nut sedge comes into my yard concealed in the materials that I am applying.  There is just so much nut grass in my newly mulched bed that it had to be in the mulch I used.  And here in lies one of the major problems with this green devil.   You can mulch it, you can dig it, you can compost it and you can run it through a shredder and it will still come back.

Biology of a Pest – Why is nut sedge such an effective weed?  Well, the answer lies in its biology.  First of all, it’s a sedge.  All sedges have a very thick cuticle covering them so many topically applied herbicides do not even get into the plant.  And, even if it did, it wouldn’t solve your problem.  You might kill the parts of the plant that are showing but the tuber (or “nut”) of this plant is what allows it to come back time after time.  This tuber lies deep in the soil and it is connected to the plants by very fragile roots.  That’s why pulling it does very little good.  You may get what you think is the plant and all of its roots, but in reality, you most likely left the nutlet behind.  This nutlet can lie dormant for up to two years.

Another problem with nut sedge is that in addition to the tubers, it also spreads by rhizomes.  These underground roots shoot out sideways from the nutlet and create another tuber that will, in turn, sprout another plant.  These rhizomes and tubers can be as deep as 14” in your soil.  Digging, and I mean deep digging, is really the only way to get rid of this pest in an organic manner.

If you are not of the organic mindset, then there are a couple of chemical products out there that have been shown to be fairly effective against nut sedge.  First is a product called Sedge Hammer (which I think is a really cute name).  Sedge Hammer contains a chemical called halosulfuron and it is the very best thing out there.  It requires you to coat the plant with it through a spray or a direct application.  I have used it both ways (in a previous garden, before I tried to be an organic grower) and for me, it was most effective when I used a brush like applicator and actually “painted” each plant with it.  Another trade name for halosulfuron is Manage.  This product is readily available at most garden centers.

Another effective product is imazaquin.  Imazaquin is sold under the brand name of of Image.  Both of these products are designed to be absorbed by the roots so you should water soon after application.  Also, for best results, treat your nut sedge when it is young.  The bigger it gets , the harder it is to kill.  Also, don’t be surprised if you have to apply several treatments to get the control desired.

P.S. Round Up (Glyphosate) also works somewhat against this scurge.  If using Round Up, make sure to spray when the plants are young, spray often and make sure there is nothing that you care about growing anywhere close to nut sedge.