What would your favorite stew be without onions? These tasty little bulbs (Allium cepa and other species) are a key ingredient in many dishes, and cooking would be less exciting (and less flavorful) without them. But did you know that onions are easy to grow in your own kitchen garden?

Individual onion plants

Divide onion plants and discard any that have brown mushy parts or holes.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Bunch of onion plants

When buying sets, look for onions with firm white, yellow or red bulbs, and avoid those that feel slimy or mushy.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Summer squash with onions

Consider planting your onions between other vegetables – the smell of the onions can confuse some pests.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Tie first onion

To hang a bunch of onions, start by tying the end of a yard-long piece of twine to an onion stem.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Tying onions for hanging

Using the same twine, tie the second onion stem to the first.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Hanging onions

After tying together about a dozen onions into a braid, cut off the extra stems and hang in a cool, dry place.

Photo Credit: Mary Moore

Onion seeds are planted in fall to start small plants known as “sets,” or you can buy sets from many garden centers or mail-order catalogs in spring. (Some gardeners prefer to work with sets because they’ll usually produce large bulbs by midsummer.) As you probably know from any trip to the grocery store’s produce section, there are all kinds of onions out there: red, white and yellow varieties, as well as sweet onion types like Walla Walla.

The key to successfully growing this vegetable is to have well-amended soil that’s light, friable and has good drainage. Preparing your soil in fall with chicken manure, compost and other amendments will give it plenty of time to “mellow” before planting sets in spring. To encourage root growth and bulb development, use a fertilizer with lower nitrogen (N) and higher phosphorus (P) numbers. (High-nitrogen fertilizers can encourage root rot – as can poor drainage, which leaves roots to stand in water.)

If this is your first time planting onions, consider using sets instead of seeds, and prepare your soil in fall. (I find the quick results encourage me to keep planting onions.) Plant your onions 3 inches apart in full sun. Make sure the top of the onion is just below or slightly above the surface of the soil. This encourages the bulb to form as the plant matures.

One of the really nice things about growing onions is that they have very few pests or diseases, so they’re great for planting around other crops (like squash or tomatoes) to confuse pests. The one big pest to watch out for is onion maggot – a small, gray fly that lays eggs in the soil around the onion. After hatching, the young larvae drill into the vegetable. If you see rotting holes around your onions, pull the infested veggies out and dispose of them in the trash – don’t compost them, as the larvae can mature into more flies.

To help fend off this unwelcome invader, hang some yellow sticky sheets or flypaper around your onions. (You can buy them at garden centers or hardware stores.) If you’ve got a serious infestation, spray the onions with a pyrethroid insecticide to kill the adult fly, or contact your local Cooperative Extension for information on other appropriate insecticides.

You can harvest and use your onions (as well as the green stems) in cooking any time during the growing season. But when the stems dry, the onions have stopped growing and they need to be harvested. Just pull them out of the ground, gently wipe of the dirt and store them in a cool, dry place.

One traditional way of keeping onions is to hang them. This can be done simply by tying a dozen or so together and suspending them from a clothes hanger. Don’t remove the long stems (which you’ll use for tying) or the dry skin (which protects the onion). Just gently brush off the soil after harvesting, leaving the skin intact. Then take a yard-long piece of garden twine and tie it to the top of the largest onion. Place the stem of the second onion next to the first, and tie the stems together.

Continue this process until you’ve tied about a dozen or so together. Wrap the twine several times around the stems of the onions, then knot it. Attach the onion bunch to a hook or hanger and keep the “braid” in a cool, dry place with plenty of air circulation. Then just cut off the onions as you need them, checking them periodically to make sure none have rotted.

Once you feel comfortable with growing onions, you might want to try growing garlic, shallots or leeks. All the alliums are a great addition to the garden, as well as the kitchen, and are very rewarding to grow – and eat!