Why Is That Woman Still Going On About Onions?


Why am I still writing about onions?

Because at this time of year, when I'm grumpy about the seed-starting thing…Why won't those peppers and eggplants germinate?  Why am I spending all this time in my dank basement, where some previous owner covered over all the windows with plywood?  Why I am down here with the watering can day and night like an overzealous busboy?  …

…that's when I really appreciate how easy the allium family is to get going from seed.

I've been growing leeks from seed for years because the nurseries near me don't, and because my kids love potato-leek soup.  I start them in the house, just on a windowsill, at some point early, anywhere from late February to late March.  They are forgiving about the timing, forgiving about everything.  They germinate in a snap. They don't need to be thinned.  Even though they generally look spindly, crowded, and frail by the time I poke my index finger in the ground in late May to make room for them in the garden, they are always perfect by late summer.

Onions getting ready to do their thing

Scallions, I just direct-seed a few times a summer–again, easy, forgiving.

My onions on the other hand, I used to grow carelessly from sets, or small bulbs.  But in 2009, my local Agway stopped carrying onion sets, so beginning last year, I started them from seed, too.  I chose a flat Italian red variety called Piatta di Bergamo because I thought they looked cool. They also did so well that I wound up using them for everything, sauteeing them for dishes in which I'd ordinarily use a yellow onion.  And they were so sweet and profound in every dish I used them in, that this year, I've added another Italian red variety, Tropea Rossa Tondo.

I love the fact that onion seedlings keep me out of the basement.  These are long day varieties, which means that they wait to bulb up until the days get long.  So, according to the onion lore, you don't even want to set them in the basement along with the 16-hour-a-day fluorescent light hogs, or else they might bulb up as infants.

I understand that certain things represent compelling reasons to spend time in the basement: 'Pineapple' and 'Matt's Wild Cherry' tomatoes, and 'Rosa Bianca' eggplants.  But I think if I could get everything going above-grade, I'd be a cheerier person.


  1. I too start my vegetable/herb & some flower seeds underground. I have attempted to lightening the basement up by painting the walls white. With 7 sets of grow lights 5 which are currently used for all my overwintering annuals and timers for the lights my neighbors ask what is going on in the basement as sometimes the timers due to power outages or me forgetting to unplug are on 24 hours/day.
    My annual seed starting will commence today a 10 day departure from my self imposed March 15th start date. The 14+ inches of snow storm on Wednesday is not helping my motivation. But there is no better thrill every year to see those tomato seeds pop up out of the soil and have the satisfaction that everything will be all right this growing season.

  2. I had no luck. They sprouted, grew about 3″ tall and then turned brown on top and died. I don’t usually have problems starting seeds but this is the first time I’ve tried onions.

  3. Thanks for the nudge and encouragement; I’ve never started onions from seed before but think this will be the year.
    Yesterday while out preparing a long-forgotten vegetable bed for planting later this Spring, I found one forlorn onion, with about 3 inches of sprouted green already up, in amongst the weeds; a hidden treasure! The last time we grew onions in that bed must have been 6 or 7 years ago.

  4. How about sharing your potato-leek soup recipe? I’m just finishing the harvest of my overwintered leeks and my family would appreciate the change from French “onion” (really leek) soup.

    And I second your thumbs up for Matt’s Wild tomatoes…

  5. Wendy, the easiest thing in the world–and I learned it from Julia Child, who almost never made anything easy.

    Clean and chop 3 or 4 big leeks. Saute them in 3 Tbs. butter. (Don’t substitute for this. It must be butter!)

    Add 8 peeled potatoes and enough water to cover. Boil.

    When the potatoes are cooked, mash soup. Add salt, maybe a little white pepper, and 1 cup milk or cream. Serve!

  6. When I make potato leek soup I use chicken stock. I also take out about half of the potatoes, puree the soup and then add the potatoes back in.

  7. Down here in Florida we need short-day onions and grow them right through the winter. Ours are bulbing now. I also have perennial Egyption walking onions that are available all year and just about now they send up scapes with new bulblets so I can replace what we’ve eaten over the year.

    Maybe next winter I’ll try leeks. Thanks for the nudge.

  8. I love leeks. I no longer have to start them from seed I just let one or two flower and they self seed, I just thin them out and replant. My easiest crop (except for the perennial artichokes).

  9. Thank you for the inspiration! I have bunching onion seed this year…am going to plant them this week while I wait for the weather to improve for my tomatoes, basil and eggplants. You may have better luck with your tomatoes upstairs with a heating mat…I’m still working on the eggplants…its their germination period that gets me I think..almost three weeks of nothing:(

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