Onion sets resistant to late frost damage

March 27, 2013

Journalists, artists and actors often appear as gypsies or Bohemians. In the 1890s, a member of the San Francisco Bohemian Club created a cocktail of gin and vermouth garnished with a pickled onion. Named in honor of its creator, businessman Walter Gibson, the Gibson cocktail seems to have faded with the gay ‘90s. But the pickled onion remains a favorite in the United Kingdom, where larger yellow onions are served with fish and chips and as part of a plowman’s lunch. Here in the United States, large pickled onions make a cool summer side dish.

The easiest way to grow your own onions for pickling or otherwise is to plant small onion bulbs called sets.

Onion sets are resistant to late frost damage and grow better and easier than direct seed or transplants.

Onion seeds are infamously short-lived. Growers create onion sets by sowing seed very thickly, resulting in stunted plants that produce very small bulbs. These tiny, immature onion bulbs are harvested and stored over the winter to appear as onion sets for sale the following spring.

One nice thing about onion sets is that they are very easy to set out and grow into mature bulbs. Even a child’s tiny hand can handle these big “seeds,” making them a good part of a kid’s garden.

Usually you will find yellow, red and white onion sets. The yellow Ebeneezer onion set is the most popular onion set sold, with a mellow golden skin and sweet, mild flavor. The Ebeneezer grows into large bulbs with papery skin and crisp, pale-yellow flesh. Red and white onion sets will round out your onion garden.

A pound of onion sets will plant a 50-foot row. Choose a good sunny spot with well- drained soil for your onion patch. Plant the sets as early as possible so they develop roots quickly. Onions prefer a pH of between 6 and 7.5, so if your soil is too acidic, add lime. Plant your onion sets as soon as you can dig the soil.

Plant the onion sets four inches apart in rows about one foot apart. They also do well in pots or containers. Cover the sets with an inch or two of soil.

Because onions use such micronutrients as boron and zinc, they respond well to light feedings of liquid seaweed-based fertilizer. Most gardeners find their onion sets do just fine without any additional fertilizer.

Weeds can kill onions, so it is important to keep the onion patch well weeded or you will get a stunted crop.

Harvest your onions whenever the bulbs have formed; the longer they stay in the garden the larger they will grow.

Once the leaves turn yellow and begin to tip over, the onions are mature. Carefully dig up the onions by hand using a garden fork. You can eat them fresh from the garden or dry them for storage.

Onions contain vitamins B-6 and B-1, along with folic acid. They are rich in fiber and low in calories. Pickled, they make a low-calorie, nutritious side dish or the perfect garnish to a martini fit for a Bohemian.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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