Transplanting Onions and Leeks

And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and I do not doubt to hear them say, it is a sweet comedy.

~A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 4, scene 2


With any luck, our family of actors will not be following Bottom's advice this summer. This past weekend we transplanted our onions and leeks, adding them to a C-shaped bed where they join the garlic we planted last fall. In the photo above you can see the garlic in the distance and the onion seedlings in the foreground.

These are the Copra onions that we grew from seed we started indoors back in February. Having learned a lesson from the near-death experience of our broccoli and cabbages seedlings, I was much more careful with hardening off our onion flat. Here's how I did it:

Day 1: 1 hour outside in the shelter of our screened-in porch
Day 2: 2 hours outside in shelter
Day 3: 4 hours outside in shelter
Day 4: 8 hours outside in shelter
Day 5: 11 hours outside in shelter, 1 hour outside in full sun
Day 6: 14 hours outside in shelter, 2 hours outside in full sun
Day 7: outside in shelter over night (meaning they don't come inside anymore), 4 hours in full sun
Day 8: in shelter except for 8 hours in full sun
Day 9: leave flat in area where it will be planted for full day, water if necessary
Day 10: plant them out

Although they look tiny right now, they are about the recommended size for transplanting — half as big around as a pencil. They seem to be doing well, although I have been giving them more water than I normally would since it has been so droughty here this spring. 

Transplanting onions is a big pain. We set ours out at 6 inches apart, and for each one you have to tease it out of its little cup in the seed tray, trim back any extra-long roots (okay, so I did this by pinching them off with my fingernails), and poke each one into the soil only an inch deep. The easiest way is just to poke a hole with your finger and slide the onion in along said finger, then cover it up with dirt. I had trimmed our onions a couple weeks before, so they weren't too top-heavy upon transplanting.

A few days later our leeks were hardened and ready to plant as well. These guys are much smaller than the onions--they grow very, very slowly. You have to look closely to see the tiny green threads poking out of the earth:


Leeks are very similar to onions, but they get planted deeper to start the blanching process. When leeks are big, you want a good portion of its long, straight bulb to be white, like the bottom of scallions. To make that happen, you have to hill dirt up around them to keep the sun off. We won't be at that stage for quite some time, but you get the process started by planting them deep enough so that only a couple inches of leaf is showing. To do this, I held the dirt back with a trowel plunged to the hilt (instead of my finger) and slid the leek in behind it.

Despite the fact that we have over 100 onions, 100 leeks, and about 150 garlic bulbs planted now, that bed is not finished. I am waiting for our Red Zeppelin onions to add to the mix. I thought I had ordered those as sets (tiny starter bulbs), but according to the nice man at Johnny's, I messed up and ordered plants. My original plan was to compare the growth and success of starting onions from seed vs. sets, but it looks like we will have all seed-started transplants in this bed.

Except, that is, for the extra yellow onion sets my in-laws brought up from Pennsylvania. We planted about a half-pound's worth of them in a double row behind our cold frame of early salad veggies:


There's nothing to see here yet, because all you do is push the tiny bulb (think of a garlic clove) into the earth and water it. In a few days green onion shoots will push up, and eventually you will have an onion. Like all of the onions we planted, you can pick them early for scallions, or wait until they bulb out into mature onions in the summer. We don't have many from sets, but it should be enough to make a comparison and decide for the future the best way to start onions.

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