The Joy of Onions (or Hana Has A Lot To Say About Onions)

White Onions Curing in the Greenhouse

…grown without herbicides or pesticides or chemical fertilizers

By Hana Newcomb

We are breaking our own records with our onion crop this year – they have never been so consistent, so large, so healthy, and there have never been so many!  The secret this year was probably in the super wet April we had.  Onions love water, so once we got them into the muddy ground, they just took off and kept going.

Onions Fill the Back Half of the Greenhouse
Onions fill the back half of the greenhouse

It took us a few years to develop our current onion growing techniques.  Back in the olden days we used to buy “onion sets” and plant the tiny little bulbs in wobbly rows that we marked with a hoe.  This made it very hard to keep them weeded, and onions grow so slowly that weeds are always a problem.  We learned through trial and error that mulching onions with hay is a bad idea (the onions died) but mulching with leaf mulch is a great idea.

After talking to other more successful onion growers, we began to grow our own onion plants, starting them in the greenhouse in the middle of February.  Onions grow slowly from the very beginning.  The seedlings are ready to plant after about two months, and they require several haircuts to help the plants grow to be sturdy and stubby rather than long and wispy.

When the seedlings are big enough to plant, they are about the size of a good blade of grass with lots of roots.   Five years ago we planted these little blades into bare ground, four rows on a bed, waited a few weeks for them to get a good grip on life, hoed out the inevitable carpet of weeds, and then painstakingly mulched around the onions with leaf mulch.

Plastic Mulch and Onion Planting
Plastic mulch and onion planting

There is no easy way to move leaf mulch.  We loaded it into a trailer with a front end loader, straddled the onion bed with a tractor that towed the trailer, and then we shoveled the mulch into the aisles between the beds of onions.  It was backbreaking.  Then we moved down the aisles on our hands and knees, carefully tucking the wet, slimy leaves around the little onion blades.  When we were done, it looked beautiful…for about three weeks, and then the weeds began to sneak up through the mulch.

I knew there had to be a better way, so I started to look around.  Right about when we had reached our limit with shoveling heavy leaves, a new biodegradable version of black plastic was becoming more commonplace.  It was made out of corn oil and the manufacturer claimed that it would break down and disappear into the soil in one season.  Biodegradable plastic costs at least twice as much as regular plastic and it is extremely delicate (because it’s meant to break down, not last forever).

Freshly Planted Onions
Freshly planted onions

Here at PVF-East, we haven’t used regular black plastic in about 25 years.  Our farm is small enough that we can use other methods to manage the weeds, and we are willing to wait a few more days or weeks for our plants to grow, rather than using the warming properties of black plastic.  I personally do not like pulling up black plastic at the end of the season – and taking it to the dump – so we have made the choice to take the more labor intensive route by transplanting into bare ground, lots of cultivating and hoeing and weeding, and lots of mulching.

But biodegradable plastic seemed like the best of all possible worlds, and we decided to try it out.  This is our fourth season using it, and we have worked out the kinks.  The label on the plastic is amusing: as soon as you put the plastic on the ground, start planting.  This product breaks down as soon as it gets wet, touches soil, or is exposed to sunlight.  So we lay about four beds at a time, plant the four beds, and then lay four more.  In between the plastic strips we mulch the aisles with hay.

Onions, Almost Ready for Harvest
Onions, almost ready for harvest

It takes us about a month to complete the process, but it’s the month of April when there is not a huge amount of other planting to do yet so we just putter along, planting onions whenever it’s warm and dry.  This April we had small windows of opportunity and we used them all.

Other farmers ride on transplanting machines to plant their onions, but our farm is too tightly packed to use those machines.  We plant to the ends of the fields, leaving little room for turning around.  And most of our fields seem to have ditches or steep slopes on the edges.  So we use a short piece of rebar to poke holes in the plastic, and then we get down on our hands and knees and push those plants into the holes.

This year we planted more than usual, somehow. 16,000 sweet onions, 10,000 red onions, and 10,000 spicy onions.  It was going so well that we planted all the extra plants that Mom had seeded in case of emergency.  And now we have been harvesting onions with green tops for five weeks and we still have the storage onions left to go.

Onions, harvested and ready to be cured
Onions, harvested and ready to be cured

Today we finally pulled and cleaned the last of the fresh onions.  All the rest of the onions will be cured in the greenhouse and then stored in a cool space.  It is an awesome sight, a 100’ greenhouse filled with onions and garlic, end to end.

By the time the onions are ready to harvest, the biodegradable plastic is already breaking up into small pieces but the weeds have been suppressed just enough to let the onions grow big and strong.   This year the onions are the biggest and strongest we have ever seen.

As soon we get the onions out of the field, we roll up the irrigation tape and run the spader over the disintegrating plastic so that it can break down even faster.  It takes moisture and lots of microbes to get the plastic to disappear, and it takes a while.  If we waited until the fall, the microbes would not have time to do their work.

White Onions Curing in the Greenhouse
White onions curing in the greenhouse

There are many other onion-related topics which could be discussed later:  why it’s really important to eat organically grown onions, why biodegradable plastic is not permitted for organic certification and what that means for organic farmers, and what you can do with all your onions if you just feel like you have had enough already.

If you have specific questions or comments, please send them along so I’ll know what you want to hear about next.

6 thoughts on “The Joy of Onions (or Hana Has A Lot To Say About Onions)

  1. hello, my name is paul wellard,i live in the Cevennes, France. Wee have been farming sweet onions for twelve years. Seven years ago we decided to go organic, after three years in convertion,we still remained on top of the weeding problem.In the forth year our onion fields were being invaided by an alien grass to these parts.We devoted more hours to hand weeding,other crops being left to fend for themselves. All those man hours wasted! Each year has past with increased spread of these(now three ) grasses completely new to this area. Result we have lost time and money raising or buying seed only to lose the greater part of each years crop.THINGS have to change!A few years ago we watched with interest another organic farmer plant onions through conventional black plastic. Disaster, rot of all kinds, he lost the lot. Now we looking to try biodegradable plastic, so i”m out to get as much helpful hints etc; as possible, HELP ME!

    1. I would not plant any more onions in that ground until you get control of the grass. Cover crops, tillage, cover crops. No onions. The biodegradable plastic is not a miracle product. It works really well for us but we still have to weed the holes once. It will not control grass. How many onions do you grow?

  2. Paul, fence it in and turn pigs loose. They will eradicate the grass and weeds, roots and all. Keep in mind, you will have some cultivating to do to get the ground smoothed back out. Good luck.

  3. I’m looking at trying plastic mulch on onions for the first time. I was doing 3″ in-row spacing on bare ground, and am wondering whether to keep that same spacing in black plastic or try planting 3 plants together at 9″ spacing. Has anyone tried this? I would imagine it would make hand weeding the holes easier.

    1. Yes, we have planted multiple plants in the same hole. It makes planting so much faster! The onions do not get as big as when they are planted individually but they are not that much smaller, so we plant our storage onions in multiples and our sweet onions as singles (because we sell them as fresh onions and the bigger the better). It does make weeding the holes easier.

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