Saturday, March 02, 2013


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/2/2013)


          The onion is the second most popular vegetable in the entire world right after the tomato, but the pity is that most gardening courses short-change the onion while an excessive amount of time is devoted to the more glamorous tomato.  The indifference toward onions may be that they grow under ground and can’t be seen save for the tops.  The same can be said for beets, turnips, carrots, and rutabaga.  They, too, are passed over in favor of lettuce, spinach, kale, and Swiss chard, but more of them later.  Right now, it’s the onion.


          For starters, the onion is hardier than the tomato which will wilt at the slightest sign of adversity, such as freezes.  The onion needs daylight to thrive, not warmth, and in Flagstaff the first day in the year when there is enough sunlight (12-13-hours) to grow onions is March 15 or the Ides of March, the day Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.    Statistically, June 15 is the first day when it’s safe in Flagstaff to leave tomatoes unattended outdoors, and even then the gardener has to watch the weather report like a hawk.  By the time it’s safe to leave a tomato plant outside, the first onions are ready to pull.


Onions fall into three categories, short day, intermediate day, and long day.  Short day onions grow well in the southern latitudes and long day in the northern.  Flagstaff is intermediate day.  Daylight tells the onions when to start growing bulbs and when to stop.  The best planting times for Flagstaff are from the middle of March to the middle of April.

There are two ways to grow onions, from seed or from sets which are really immature, miniature onion bulbs.  Needless to say, sets are easier than seeds but offer less variety.  The sets are best for the slothful.  I use sets.


Onions grow best in raised beds.  They like a ph level between 6 and 7.  In preparing the bed, dig in a good, balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or 10-20-10.)  About one month after planting, it’s best to fertilize them on the side of the row with a high nitrogen fertilizer and repeat this every 3 to 4 weeks during the growing season. 


After fertilizing them, water them.  Onions crave water but don’t keep them wet and soggy.  Onions do best in a well-drained soil.  Wet tops will lead to disease.  So during the monsoon keep an eye out for blight (leaves begin to turn yellowish) and purple blotch (purple spots on leaves.)  In order to save water, it’s smart to plant the sets in a trench and in an area with good drainage and air circulation.  Our dry climate is one of the blessings of growing onions.

Sets should be planted about an inch deep and 5 inches apart.  They can be planted three inches apart if some of them are going to be used for green onions.  This way they can be plucked right along as they grow.  An onion plant is mature when the tops fall over, and then they should be pulled from the soil and be allowed to dry.  When dried, they are best stored in a cool place where they do not touch one another, such as wrapping each onion in newspaper or small paper bags.


There are three surefire varieties of sweet onion that will do well in Flagstaff: Superstar, Red Candy Apple, and Hybrid Candy.  There are two that are iffy but worth the risk.  The Walla Walla is bred more for long day zones in the north, but it can’t be beat.  Another worth the risk is the TX 1015 Supersweet which does best in the short days of the south, but as a relative of the famous Vidalia of Georgia, it, too, is worth it.


Freddy Wong at the Grand Canyon Café grows thousands of sweet onions at his spread down in Camp Verde, but he didn’t tell me where he gets his sets.  I get mine from Brown’s Omaha Plant Farm in Texas (  Remember: second is often better.

Dana Prom Smith © 2013

Dana Prom Smith and Freddi Steele edit GARDENING ETCETERA in the Arizona Daily Sun where this article appeared on March 2, 2013.  Smith emails at and blogs at


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