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Starting Onions from Seed

March 1st, 2009

I have always had much better luck starting my onions from seed than growing them from sets. Last year, my red onions from seed grew much larger and stored much better than my yellow onions from sets. Many of my set onions failed to do anything at all. Because they do much better and you can get a much great variety, I decided I wanted to grow all of my onions from seed this year. Onions are easy to start from seed, and since you start them 8-10 weeks before frost they’re a great way to cure that gardening itch you get in January.
This year I started 2 flats of red onions in late January and I started 4 flats of onions the day before yesterday (they’re a little late but they should do alright). Everyone has their own method for starting seeds, this is how I do it.
First I start with some soilless mix that I mix up myself and an empty seed flat (I reuse mine from year to year making sure to wash them well between uses). I usually mix some Dr Earth Starter Fertilizer in my starting mix and this has given me great luck with my seedlings.
Soilless mix is often dry and if it contains peat moss it doesn’t moisten evenly unless you use warm water. So usually I warm some water to moisten the trays, I let it cool before I add the seeds.
I sow a few seeds per cell in my flat and then I dust lightly with some more seed starting mix and then mist lightly with water to moisten the top. Then on the covers go waiting for the seeds to germinate. Some seeds like it warm, and onions are one of those, I use an electric blanket on low wrapped around the other flats to warm them (make sure you use plastic so you don’t get your electric blanket wet). Keep an eye out for germinating seeds and then under the grow light they go.
These are both heirloom onions that I got from Baker’s Seeds, I chose them for their keeping abilities. I’m also planting the rest of my Burpee Red Delicious Hybrid seeds for my red onions this year (those are pictured already sprouted above).
Jaune Paille Des Vertus (onion) – Introduced about 1793, this old onion is now hard to find. It is also called Brown Spanish by French seed house Vilmorin; in 1885 they said, “The winter supply of Paris and of a great part of Europe consists chiefly of this variety, which may be often seen hanging up in dwelling-houses in long hanks formed by interlacing and plaiting the withered leaves together.” The roots are flattened and 3″-4″ across, the skin is a brownish yellow and the flesh is flavorful. This antique is known for its keeping qualities that made it a standard in Europe for over 200 years.
Yellow of Parma (onion) – Long-day type–Large, golden onions are oblong-globe shaped. This late onion makes an excellent keeper; a rare and hard-to-find Italian variety.

I’ll keep you posted on how these onions do. I’m looking forward to enjoying these all next winter in my soups and stews.

Do you start onions from seed or you do you prefer sets? Or do you prefer buying them in the supermarket?

20 Comments to “Starting Onions from Seed”
  1. Daphne on March 1, 2009 at 8:06 am

    I’ve never grown onions from sets. It always seemed like the wrong thing to do since they are biennials. Plant a biennial root that grew the year before and you get flowers. Then the onions won’t keep.

    Daphne’s last blog post.. Thaw

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  2. deborah on March 1, 2009 at 9:04 am

    Oh yes. I always grow onions from seed for the reasons you mention. They do better, taste better, and you have more choice of variety. I too am growing Jaune Paille des Vertus for the first time (and I also got my seeds from Baker). We’ll have to compare notes! I wish now, I would have started some red onion seed too…but I really don’t have room for even one more thing, so next year it is.

    deborah’s last blog post.. The Joys of Seed Trading

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  3. kristin on March 1, 2009 at 10:11 am

    We used to plant sets, but it’s usually too dry for the onions to grow big enough to be of any real use. So now we just buy the 50-pound bags at the Mennonite store. Works for me. More space for other stuff in the garden.

    kristin’s last blog post.. Saturday Fun: In Which Mr. Relentless Triumphs

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  4. Pages tagged "the cure" on March 1, 2009 at 12:15 pm

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  5. Dan on March 1, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Your french onion looks very nice! I am growing F1’s this year, one of the few hybrids I am growing. I think I might just try this one next year though, sounds very nice.

    I dropped my one pot of onions about a week ago, they are still alive but not looking to happy. I have started some more just in case. I should do an update on my onions, I don’t think I have shown them since they germinated.

    Dan’s last blog post.. More Seeds

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  6. Kelly on March 1, 2009 at 1:58 pm

    Both of those varieties sound delicious, I can’t wait to see how they do this year!

    I’ve never actually grown onions myself, which is strange because I’ve grown almost everything else. Maybe next year they’ll finally be on the list (and most likely from seed, as I’ve heard from almost everybody they just grow better this way!).

    Kelly’s last blog post.. Mr. Tung’s Beans

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  7. Mangochild on March 1, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    I’ve never started seeds like onions before, though I do enjoy onion greens…. Question: what soil-less product do you use? I’m starting seeds this weekend and worry about the potential mess.

    Mangochild’s last blog post.. Spotlight: Dark Days Challenge Week 15

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  8. Susy on March 1, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Soilless mix is the same as seed starting mix and it is considered sterile. The theory behind sterile seeds starting mix is that there may be microbes in the soil that attack the seedlings and it may contain diseases as well. Also it usually doesn’t contain any fertilizers which may be too strong and burn the seedlings. This is why you can buy peat pellets (which are just peat) and seed starting mix as opposed to using potting soil which often contains compost and fertilizer’s mixed in.

    I make my own with a mix of 2/3 peat moss or coconut coir and 1/3 vermiculite (I prefer vermiculite to perlite personally). I also add in Dr Earth Starter Fertilizer and sometimes I add in some screened compost. If you have a good greenhouse or nursery in the area they might sell bags of their own mix for a decent price (I have one such place around here, and when in a pinch I buy theirs).

    I am buying a soil blocker this year and this require a bit of a different mix. It includes both soil and compost. Elliot Coleman’s books he talks about this. This is his recipe from his book The Organic Grower:

    * 3 buckets peat moss
    * 1/2 cup lime
    * 2 buckets course sand or perlite (I prefer vermiculite)
    * 1 cup colloidal phosphate
    * 1 cup greensand
    * 1 cup blood meal
    * 2 buckets compost
    * 1 bucket soil

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  9. MrBrownThumb on March 1, 2009 at 3:36 pm


    I just saw your comment on my blog and think it would be great for you to get your readers to do the same. If you end up doing it let me know so I can keep track of your progress.

    MrBrownThumb’s last blog post.. One Seed Chicago 2009

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  10. dig this chick on March 3, 2009 at 11:06 am

    I have always started from sets mostly because I never get around to starting from seed until it is too late. But our last frost isn’t until end of May so I just might give it a go this year! Thanks for the beautiful pics.

    dig this chick’s last blog post.. 31

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  11. Katlynne Spriggs on January 19, 2010 at 9:22 am

    i think mine are dying. They’ve sprouted into green things with the black bit on top. like in your pic. but now they’re lying flat instead of upright. they dont look to be crispy, still green and healthy looking, just that they’re lying down instead of standing up like they used to be. What have i done wrong?

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    • Susy on January 19, 2010 at 11:57 am

      The most common problem for indoor plants dying is over watering. I’d keep them for a bit and watch them. They may perk back up. It could be a virus from the potting soil as well, it’s hard to tell with seedlings sometimes.

      Reply to Susy's comment

  12. the inadvertent farmer on February 4, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Both…just started mine too! They are tucked into their flats atop the heating pads!

    Happy Seed Sewing…Kim
    .-= the inadvertent farmer´s last blog ..Blue Skies Shining on Me nothing but Blue Skies do I see! =-.

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  13. Ron McDonald on April 12, 2010 at 3:03 am

    Great website! Lots of information and great pictures.
    I’ve been growing onions from seed for years now. Here in Fair Oaks California I start my seed right in the garden in Aug, then transplant in Oct, any extras are left in place for scalions through the winter. The winters are mild so the onions put out roots all winter and really take off the following spring. Late June or so when they start drying out and falling over, its time to harvest.
    Keep up the good work!

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    • Jan Allium on June 12, 2010 at 1:41 am


      I am in Sonoma County and would like to try your schedule. What varieties have you had success with on this schedule?


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    • Penny Coleman on September 16, 2011 at 7:11 am

      That is a great time line for me as I live in FL. Great photos & info on starting onions. Thanks.

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  14. Gilda on February 13, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    Do you remove the heating pad from underneath the tray when the seeds germinate? At the same time you move into light?

    Reply to Gilda's comment

    • Susy on February 13, 2011 at 2:05 pm

      Yes I usually do, if you don’t have the seed trays under grow lights make sure you check for germination 2x a day. I usually put mine on a heating mat with a grow light on, then I simply move them to another shelf with grow lights and put new trays on the heating mat. I usually wait until I have about 50% germination before moving the trays away from the heat.

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  15. Austin on March 18, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Do you pot-on into potting soil, or can you grow them to transplant-to-the-garden size in the soilless mix? Thanks!

    Reply to Austin's comment

  16. Ashley Danault on January 2, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    I’m growing onions from seed this year too. I ordered mine from Baker’s Heirloom. Bianca di Maggio and Southport Red. I’m getting ready to start them this weekend. If anyone has grown these varieties before I would love to hear your feedback. Good growing!

    Reply to Ashley Danault's comment


This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.

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