My Most Frustrating Crop of 2021

I admit, I don't know everything about growing vegetables. I do have experience and experience helps a lot, but there's always something to learn. 

This year, I was exasperated by onions! Onions are supposed to be easy to grow, but I just didn't get it. My crop failed, and I was frustrated. 

What's happening to my onions?
(Onion tops in the foreground)

My Incorrect Growing Method

I planted my onions in the ground in early July thinking that they'd be a good crop to harvest at the end of the season. I planted onion sets - the tiny bulbs you can buy for your onions. 

They started out great and sent up healthy looking leaves. My hopes were high. As the summer progressed, though, one by one, the onion plants withered and dried up. I pulled the wilted ones out and discovered that they really hadn't grown. Some were barely larger than the sets I had planted, and some were just dried out nothing. 

By the end of summer, I'd pulled them all out and I didn't have much to show for it. They are still edible "pearl" onions I suppose.

Research Needed 

First I wanted to understand onions, in general. 

My biggest lesson about growing onions: onions are extremely sensitive to the length of daylight. They go through their growing phases based on the length of the day and they will grow according to the length of day, not when you plant them.  

Long Day, Short Day, and Day Neutral

Onions have been bred to grow in specific regions of the country. You won't succeed if you try to grow a variety of onion that doesn't grow in your area. 

The critical factor is how far north or south you are. Long day onions grow best in latitudes where the summer days are relatively long. These are usually northern latitudes. They only form the desired onion bulb when the days have 14 to 16 hours of daylight. 

Short day onions grow best in southern parts of the country, where summer days don't get quite as long. Their bulbs begin to form when daylight hours reach 10-12 hours. 

Day neutral onions, also known as intermediate day onions, grow well in most of the country. They don't do so well in extreme south Florida and Texas, though. Bulbs form when the daylight length is 12 to 14 hours. 

Three Lessons I Learned

Lesson #1: It's critical to select the right kind of onion for where you are planting them.

Kansas City unfortunately is located in the middle. Which kind of onion do I plant? Should I stick to day neutral only?

I don't know which kind I planted, honestly.

Lesson #2: Onions must be planted in the spring here in Kansas City for a good crop. As I said, I'd planted my onions in July, which is definitely not spring!

Lesson #3: In the Kansas City region, onion transplants tend to do better than onion sets (the little bulbs). 

More Research Needed - How To Grow Onions Here

You need to find specific instructions for growing onions in your location, because to succeed growing onions, local information is the only information that matters. In the age of the Internet, you can get advice from anyone, anywhere, so be sure to look for regional information for growing onions.

The best source of growing information when location is such an important factor is your County Cooperative Extension. Notice I said your county cooperative extension. You need experts on growing in your region. 

The second best source of local information is a local gardening expert of some kind, such as a local garden center (not Lowes or Home Depot), local community garden, or local master gardeners. 

Kansas City, Missouri has a strong community garden organization (Kansas City Community Gardens), and they are large enough to offer free information to the public. Last month, they advertised a free online webinar about how to grow onions, and it was just what I was looking for! In the webinar, they even recommended specific onion varieties. Turns out, day neutral onions thrive in my region.

So thank you, Kansas City Community Gardens. I now see where I went wrong in 2021, and I will do better in 2022.

Next Year's Plan

My plan is to grow the varieties they recommend, follow their planting calendar, and see how it goes. Around this time next year, I'll go through my end-of-season review process, hopefully while enjoying a bountiful crop of onions:

  • How did this crop do for me this season?
  • Do I want to grow this crop again? 
    • How will I grow it differently next year?
    • Maybe a different variety next year?
  • Were there things I couldn't control during the season that impacted my success? (like weather, scheduling, etc.)
  • What unexpected things happened?

Then I'll have a year's experience under my belt - I'll see how it went (using the questions above) and make adjustments to my plan. 

In Summary

When a crop doesn't produce as you expected, don't assume that you can't grow it. The first step is to research, which might lead to more research. The problem could be fixable (and it probably is!) Then modify your plan for next year as needed. 

You have started a plan for next year, right?

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