Growing Onions At The Homestead

Home grown onions

The onion is a national crop; as widely though not quite as extensively grown as the potato. It is available as a money crop for the farm gardener.

Choice of Soil

Heavy, stiff clay land is to be avoided. Sand and gravel dry out too quickly. Stony land renders good culture difficult. The best soil for onions is a deep, rich, mellow loam. Soils which afford natural advantages for irrigation should not be overlooked, as the rainfall is often lacking when greatly needed.


Onion culture demands high manuring. No amount of rotted stable manure is likely to be excessive. A ton per acre of high-grade, complete fertilizer is not too much, if moisture can be supplied. Hen manure is a good top dressing for onion-beds, furnishing the needed nitrogen. Nitrate of soda is a good source of nitrogen, if nitrogen must be purchased. The clovers and other leguminous crops yield the cheapest nitrogen. Wood ashes, kainit, etc., furnish potash. Either ground bone or acid phosphate will give the needed phosphoric acid. An analysis of the onion shows that it carries away fertility in just about the proportions furnished by stable manure.

It is a singular fact that onions can be grown year after year on the same ground, if well manured. Rotation is necessary only in case of the occurrence of disease or insect attack. The onion loves cool weather.


To grow onion sets, the seed is sown in close rows, at the rate of from fifty to sixty pounds per acre. To grow large onions direct from seed, five pounds of seed per acre will be required. To plant a field with onion sets will require twelve to fifteen bushels per acre, according to size of the set.

An onion set is merely an immature bulb. Sets vary from the size of a large pea up to that of a walnut. When the seed is sown thickly the bulbs have no chance to grow, and the summer weather quickly ripens the tops, completely suspending the growth of the bulb. In some parts of the country onion sets cannot be grown with profit, as the tops refuse to die and the bulbs or sets do not ripen properly.

In nearly all parts of the United States onions can be grown direct from the seed the first year; especially from seed grown around Philadelphia, which is earlier than Western-grown. It is quite customary in the South to sow onion seed in late summer or autumn; in August or September. This will give early spring onions of marketable size. In the North, within quite recent years, it has become the practice to sow onion seed in frames, in fall or early spring, and transplant the young onions to the open ground. This is sometimes spoken of as the new onion culture.

Growing Onions

Onion sets or young plants should be placed 3 or 4 inches apart, in rows a foot apart, if to be cultivated by hand; the rows farther apart if for horse work.

The onion is hardy. Many varieties will live in the open ground over winter, if covered (at the North) with light litter. It is in this way that shoots for bunching are obtained early in the spring.

The seed should be sown for sets when the apple is in bloom. Sets may be put into the ground earlier; in fact, as soon as the ground can be worked. The set should not produce seed the first year, though it often does so. It should, on the contrary, grow to the size of say 3 inches, and then ripen for winter storage. Excessively large onions are not desirable. To hasten maturity, the tops may be broken down or the roots may be cut by running a knife or sharp plow or cultivator along one side of the row.

The onion, under favorable circumstances, will produce a crop of 800 bushels (fifty-six pounds to the bushel) per acre; though 500 bushels is nearer the average product.


The storage of onions and onion sets is simple. The bulbs should first be ripened on the ground, by a brief exposure to wind and sun. This completes the wilting of the tops. They should then be spread out on ventilated trays or racks, or a few inches in depth on a floor, in a dry, shady place, where the air is good, preferably a loft; not a damp cellar. Freezing will not injure them, but they must not be handled when they begin to thaw, or they will rot. They must not be bruised during the operation of gathering or during the process of storage.

A popular and excellent method of wintering onions in cold climates is to spread straw to the depth of 18 inches on a dry floor or scaffold, and put on a layer of onions from 6 inches to a foot deep, and cover with 2 feet of straw. This will not always prevent freezing, but it checks all sudden changes.

Onions not fully cured should never be kept in barrels, but spread out so as to be perfectly ventilated. Onion sets shrink greatly in storage; sometimes as much as one-half between fall and spring.


There are many varieties of onions, some of American and some of foreign origin. The former are better keepers, but the latter are of milder flavor. The American sorts (Danvers, Southport Globe varieties, Wethersfield, Extra Early Red, Silver Skin, Strasburg, etc.) are usually considered to be the most profitable; but the foreign kinds (Prize Taker, Prize Winner, Pearl, Bermuda, Giant Rocca, Victoria, etc.) are profitable in those parts of the country where soil and climate warrant their growth from seed in a single season.

The so-called tree onion is a perennial, of American origin, living out over winter. It is sometimes called Egyptian [Pg 107] or top onion. It produces bulbs or sets at the top of the seed-stalk.

The potato or multiplier onion divides its large bulb into numerous small ones, which in turn produce large onions the next year.


For farm gardeners’ purposes, we especially recommend Philadelphia Yellow Globe Danvers, Mammoth Yellow Prizetaker, White Prize Winner. Earliest Onions are—Extra Early Red Globe Danvers, American Extra Early White Pearl, Rhode Island Yellow Cracker.

The best for sets—Extra Early Red, Philadelphia Yellow Dutch and White Silver Skin. For descriptions of varieties, see “Johnson & Stokes’ Garden and Farm Manual.”

Diseases and Enemies

To prevent maggot, the use of kainit is recommended; 600 pounds per acre. For onion smut, which may in part be cured by the kainit, the best known remedy is a change of soil. Thrip, which causes the cuticle of the leaves to become covered with whitish or yellowish spots, is best treated by means of kerosene emulsion, used as a spray.

The onion fly may, in part, at least, be abated by the use of equal parts of wood ashes and land plaster dusted very thoroughly on the young plants. Stiff-necked onions, often called stags, are the result either of improper growth or poor stock. They are sometimes planted in autumn for use as scallions (scullions) the following spring.


Onions are sometimes sold in the open field; a good plan when a fair price can be secured. After curing, as already described, they are usually sold by the bushel or barrel. They are always in demand, as the onion is a standard article of human food.

In the green state they are sold either by measure, by the bunch, or by the rope. The latter method consists in tying the onions along wisps of straw.


No small amount of money is expended by housekeepers in the early spring markets for scallions (scullions), or bunched onion shoots. These tender shoots are washed, tied and sold for 3 to 5 cents per bunch, retail, or half those figures wholesale.

Scallions are produced from either sets or large onions planted the preceding autumn, and sheltered either by frames or litter, so as to encourage early spring growth.

This article was taken from:


Author: JOHNSON & STOKES, Seed Growers and Merchants

Published 1898