Questions on: Onion

Ron Smith, Horticulturist, NDSU Extension Service


Q: Someone in your column was looking to buy winter onion sets. I have some to give away from last fall, so please let them know. My address is Marlene Kouba, 6160 105th Ave. S.W., Regent, ND 58650. (e-mail reference)

A: Will do. The person making the request will get in touch with you with in a week or so. Thanks for your generosity.


Q: Someone wanted to know where they could buy winter onion sets. That's what we called them on the farm where I was growing up. I have a seed catalog that sells them. They are called Egyptian Top-Sets or "walking onions." The price is 10 sets for $4.75, 20 sets for $7.95 and 30 sets for $11.49. The address is R.H.S. Catalog Fulfillment Center, 334 W. Stroud St., Randolph, WI 53956-1274. (Jamestown, N.D.)

A: Thanks for the information. It will be passed along!


Q: My garlic and sweet red onions are always very hot! I don't mind the heat in my garlic, but would like to grow a sweet onion. Is it my soil or am I missing something? (e-mail reference)

A: It could be your soil, cultural practices, wrong cultivar of onion or location.


Q: I read your column with interest and appreciate the advice and suggestions. I have a rather large plot in a Fargo community garden. This garden was flooded in June and my particular area was under Red River water for a day and a half. I had about 500 onion plants that, on average, were about the size of a pencil at the time of the flood. Most of the plants survived. In addition, I have been hearing some warning about the water possibly contaminating plants that were flooded, so I have avoided eating the onions. My question is whether there might be concern for eating the onion bulbs after they reached maturity, dried and were readied for storage. Would the two months time in the sun and rain eliminate any contamination? Some people irrigate their gardens with water straight out of the river and I havenít heard of any problems. I realize that during a flood certain barnyard or other contaminants might have entered the river water. I suppose that cooking the onions would give more protection than eating them raw. Finally, if contamination might be an issue, is there any service where I could have the onions tested? (e-mail reference)

A: Not a problem. The worst time would be right after the flooding waters receded. Follow common sense. If something doesnít taste right, stop eating it. Testing is possible, but for what? Besides, it is very expensive to do, even if you knew what you were looking for.


Q: I enjoy your column. Iíve had winter onions for as long as I can remember. We do not have e-mail, but would share a start and any other information at your expense. My address is Dolly Jorgensen, 47211 228th St., Flandreau, SD 57028. I also can be reached at (605) 997-3493. (Flandreau, S.D.)

A: Thank you for the nice comments and offer, which I will keep in mind.


Q: My mother, Joan Beach, would be glad to share her winter onion sets. You can write her at P.O. Box 1161, Baker, Mont. 59313, or phone (406) 778-2148. (e-mail reference)

A: Thank you. Letís see if we get a response for you.


Q: Where can I get winter onions? I think they also are known as Egyptian onions or spreading onions. My neighbors grew them and I was a most appreciative recipient of that early spring treat. The new owners of the property are not gardeners and have destroyed the parent plants. I can recall my neighbor giving me some while there still was snow on the ground. They seem to come up about the same time as tulips, crocuses, etc. (e-mail reference)

A: Iím sorry, but I donít know! Perhaps a reader will know and inform me so I can pass the information on to you.


Q: I know a homeowner that has onion plants that have a lot of top growth, but are not producing any onions. Is there anything that would reduce the top growth and get the onions to produce? Is all of this top growth due to high levels of nitrogen? (Linton, N.D.)

A: The problem is caused by high levels of nitrogen. There is little to nothing they can do, unless they replant in another area that has not been so highly fertilized and gets plenty of direct sunlight.


Q: What is the difference between long- and short-day onions? Is one better for storage than the other? Does it have something to do with day length? Can you recommend some varieties? Also, do you know if peaches will grow this far north? (Aberdeen, S.D.)

A: Day length refers to the bulbing initiation. In the north, ours are long-day varieties, while the south has short-day types. They canít be successfully grown in other regions. Lack of bulbing or an undersized bulb is caused by planting too late. In our part of the country, onions should be planted as soon as the soil can be worked. There are probably dozens of varieties, but some to consider that have been around a long time are Sweet Spanish, Early Yellow Globe and Southport White Globe. Peaches will not grow in our part of the country without an awful lot of manipulation on the part of the gardener. It simply gets too cold! The minus 30 degree temperatures do them in. Even if it should survive an unheard of mild winter, the swinging spring frosts we live through would take out the blossoms.


Q: I bought a bag of onions a few months ago. The few I didnít use have started to sprout. Can I plant them? Do I plant the whole onion or cut out the center and plant that? Can I plant them inside? (E-mail reference)

A: You can plant them, but do it outside. How much of the onion you plant depends on where you live. They need full sunlight in order to thrive. I would throw the onions away if you don't plant them soon.


Q: I have a question about onions. The onions are still in the ground and have lots of little onion sets on the green tops. Do these sets contain seeds? Can the seeds be planted? (Lakota, N.D.)

A: Those "seeds" will grow into nice onions next year. I have had them volunteer in my garden with no help at all. Planting them about 2 inches deep should get them easily through the winter.


Q: What kind of soil do you need to grow medium to large-sized onions in the northeastern part of South Dakota? Iím only able to grow small onions. Iíd appreciate an educated answer on how I can improve on these plants. My garden spot is raised and gets plenty of water and sunshine. (E-mail reference)

A: Onions grow best on sandy or loose soil. Being shallow-rooted, they are sensitive to any nutrient deficiencies in the upper six inches of soil. In the absence of a soil test, you might want to add about 10 pounds of 5-10-5 to every 1,000 square feet of gardening area. The looseness of the soil can be increased with generous amounts of sphagnum peat moss being worked into the upper six to nine inches of soil prior to planting. Finally, don't allow the bulbs to become moisture stressed during the growing season. They need an even delivery of water.


Q: My spring onions have gone to seed. I'd like to keep the seeds to plant next year but I'm not sure when to harvest the seeds. They currently look like big balls of dandelion. Could you tell me what they should look like when Iím ready to seed them? (E-mail reference)

A: If you are in the Northern part of the states, you should have harvested the seeds some time ago. Simply break the seed balls apart and plant the individual seeds that you find about one inch deep.


Q: Can you tell me what ate my onion tops? They were fine one day and the next they were all cut off. Rabbits, Squirrels, something else? (Kulm, N.D.)

A: Rabbits will not go after onions ( petunias, pepper leaves, dianthus, etc., yes). My guess it is squirrels, and likely the red ones. They are the obnoxious of the two breeds, trimming evergreens, cutting down daylilies, gnawing through wire -- anything! I doubt it would be cutworms. Itís too late in the season for them.


Q: My onions are quite weedy and I would like to clip them just to keep some seed from setting. Itís too late to spray and thought it may help some to clip the weeds. I have heard of stepping onions down and was wondering if I could just mow the onions off at about 6 inches, thus clipping the weeds too. I guess my only thought is, would the hollow stem collect excess moisture if it would rain, tending to rot them quicker? (Mohall, N.D.)

A: You need to allow the onions to stay as they are, until the tops bend over themselves. Your idea of clipping the weeds back before they flower is good, but you need to leave the onion tops alone, or you'll be asking for trouble.


Q: Iíve had a garden in my back yard now for 57 years. Each year I plant everything in a different place, onions, tomatoes, etc. Every year the onions get worms in them, and it doesnít seem to matter where in the garden I plant them. (Barnesville, Minn.)

A: It sounds like you are being plagued by onion maggots. You can increase spacing between the onions which, will help limit their damage, and/or you can sprinkle diazinon in the furrow when planting.


Q: My onions are starting to sprout. Can I use the sprouts just like you would green onions? Are potato sprouts poisonous? Can you eat them like any other type of sprout? (Stanley, N.D., e-mail)

A: Yes, the onion sprouts will be OK, but you can't eat the potato sprouts.


Q: I like trying new things in my garden, so I let some of the tops of my onions go to seed. Can I plant that seed and will it produce regular large onions or not? (Emery, S.D.)

A: You certainly can! It will take a couple of years, but it is fun to do. Enjoy!


Q: In your last column I read about someone who was having trouble with their winter onions being soft. I have never had trouble, but I dig them up instead of pulling them, usually in May. (Wimbledon, N.D.)

A: Thank you for the information! We will look through our file of letters and inform that person of your experiences. I'm sure our other column readers will gain from your information as well!


Q: I have a patch of winter onions that never amount to much. Each spring they come up thick and green, but when I pull them up, they are soft and not edible. Are you supposed to transplant that brown seed in the fall or what do you do with them? (Verona, N.D.)

A: The onions you are growing are probably the top multipliers. Plant the sets produced at the top of the flower stalk of multiplier onions in the fall. Then harvest the green onion in early spring. I hope this helps to improve your enjoyment of onions.


Q: I really enjoy reading you column every week in the paper, so I am hoping you can help me with my onion problem. Can you tell me why my onions have developed black spots that lead to the onion rotting? I am enclosing some of my onion skins to help you determine what my problem is. (Fertile, Minn.)

A: Thanks for the nice words about the column and the good samples. Your onions appear to have a fungal disease known as Smudge—an anthracnose. The black, concentric rings are the clue. You can peel off the outer layers that are affected, and still eat the onion.

The disease thrives in high-humidity situations and is transmitted by contaminated onion bulbs kept for planting. I would suggest not using any of your present stock for planting next spring, and be sure to practice crop rotation. Don't plant onions in the same location for three years.


Q: Can you tell me what products contain Dacthal, Betasan and Tupersan? I am looking for these to treat foxtail next spring. When is the best time to fertilize my lawn in the fall? I also would like to know why my onions didn't get very big this year and were soft? I have also enclosed a weed I would like identified. (Winner, S.D.)

A: The weed is broadleaf plantain. This, and other broadleaves, can be controlled with 2, 4-D type products, such as Weed-B-Gone, Trimex etc.

You likely had the wrong cultivar of onion. In our climatic region, select only long-day types. Sweet onions are the Spanish or Walla-Walla types. Sweet pickling types are `Silver Queen' and `White Portugal.' Onions need full sun, well-drained soil and ample moisture. The best onions I've ever seen (and tasted) came from a grower near Williston, ND.

The best time to fertilize the lawn is in the fall, with a slow-release material. You can still do it, as long as the soil isn't frozen.

Tupersan is sold as "Crabgrass Preventer and Weed Killer" by Bonide. Betasan can be sold as is or under the name Bensulide, by Green Light; and Dacthal is sold as DCPA by many companies.


Q: I'm a neighbor from South Dakota and have read your article many times in the Farm Forum. I'm very interested in weed control for winter onions and asparagus patches. I would like to know what to use on these two vegies and also where you can get "Poast." I've asked about it at different places and they don't seem to know anything about it.

A: Hi neighbor! Glad to help out! Here is an abbreviated list of herbicides to use on your two crops: Devrinol, Karmex, Poast, Roundup, Sinbar, Treflan, and 2,4-D can be used on asparagus. On onions, Buctril, Dacthal, Fusilade, Goal and Roundup are cleared. Always be sure to follow label instructions in using these herbicides. As far as being able to find Poast goes, I checked with Tessman Seed here in Fargo and they do carry it. They are wholesale distributors for the Upper Great Plains region and could likely give a source for purchasing. Contact them at (701) 232-7238 and ask for Doug or Liz.


Q.Every year our onions rot in the ground while maturing or while they are stored. We have sprinkled different powders in the row when we plant them, but they don t help. Thank you for any help you can give. (Cathay, N.D.)

A.Onions rotting in place or in storage could be caused by the following:

1. A soil-inhabiting fungus known as fusarium. The only way this disease can be controlled is through soil fumigation. It can enter the bulb through mechanical wounds at planting or harvesting. When it is the latter, the rot shows up in storage. 

2.Onion maggots directly destroy or damage the bulb which can then lead to the invasion of the fusarium fungus. The solution is to avoid planting susceptible crops in this soil.


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