Monday, February 20, 2012

Planting Onion Seeds ネギの種まき

When we lived in Japan, the common greeting among the gardening/farming folk right before New Years was, "Did you plant your onions yet?" With all the stress of getting ready for New Years (much like Christmas in the western world), planting onions was just one more thing on my ever expanding To-Do list. I really didn't see the difference in waiting just one week longer and then plant them after the celebrations died down, but even O-tousan (Father) insisted that onions are best when planted just before New Years. I hear in England, Boxing Day is considered the best day for planting onions. Well, here it is February, and I'm just now planting my onion seeds (good thing O-tousan is still back in Japan and can't see my American laziness!)

But seriously, why the rush to plant onions? Well, onions are daylight sensitive and they know when the summer solstice is. Each variety is pre-programmed to stop top growth and start bulb growth at a certain day length. Here in the north,  storage onions (also called long-day variety) need to be planted after the winter solstice (December 21--they know when that is, too) in order for them to have enough time to grow upwards. Once the days start getting shorter, top leaf growth stops and bulb growth begins. The leaves send nutrients to the bulb, then wither away when bulb growth is mostly done. The taller the leaves grow, the larger the bulb will be.

(Territorial Seed Co. photo)
Sweet onions (intermediate-day-length) are a little harder to grow here and do better in norther California and Utah. But if planted indoors early enough, they will grow enough leaves once transplanted outside to have a decent bulb.

On February 11, I planted the following:
Copra--a good basic onion that is supposed to keep longer than the rest.
WallaWalla--who can be from Washington and not plant these sweet beauties?
Negi--Japanese long onions.
Ne-Shi-Ko--a new one for us, another Asian long onion.
Purplettes--a small-bulbed onion that I'll use for pickles.
Pacific Pearl--another small-bulbed white onion.
Shimonita--a short, stocky Japanese salad onion.


Since it is too wet and cold to plant them outside, I planted them in 4" (9cm) pots with sterile potting soil. I say "planted", but onion seeds are so small that I just sprinkle about 10 tiny seeds on top of the well-watered soil, then water again and barely cover them with a thin layer of soil. I keep the soil moist, but not water logged or even very wet. Just moist. There is no need to put a heat mat under them and as long as they are near the window, they don't need a grow light either. Easy!

 I noticed yesterday that the Negi were just beginning to pop up. Since onions can take up to two weeks to germinate, I'm sure the others will soon follow suit.

So why plant seeds when one can buy onion sets? One, you're in control of the quality and you know you won't be getting three week old sets that will just dry up and die in your garden. Two, there is so many more varieties of seeds than there are sets!  I have yet to find sets of Negi or Shimonita, farmers only grow the varieties with the most demand to sell as sets. We like our Asian onions, so we grow them from seed. And three, it's vastly cheaper to buy seed than it is to buy sets.

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