Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Growing onions and garlic in North Florida

Onion planting day: November 26

Onions and garlics

Both onions and garlics are in the genus Allium, which contains several crops that are divided into two groups:
1) Onions, which have hollow leaves and 
2) Garlics, which have flat, solid leaves. (*See note below on the family.)

Onions (Allium cepa) are treated as a long-season annual in Florida. Botanically, they are biennials, where in a natural habitat, they would grow leaves and form a bulb the first year, go into dormancy, and the second year they would use the stored energy in the bulb to form flowers, which are borne on a specialized stem called a scape. We interrupt this cycle by harvesting as the plant goes dormant and when the bulb is at its maximum size. 

Use short-day onions in Florida

Since we grow our onions right through the winter, we need short-day onion varieties. I've seen long-day onions for sale in local stores, but those onions will not form bulbs before the heat of summer sets in--they are guaranteed to fail.

I used to rely on local garden centers for my onions, both seeds and sets. But now I buy onion plants from Dixondale Onion Farm where they know their onions so I can be assured of getting appropriate plants just in time for planting. They say that each bunch contains 50 to 75 plants. Those that I've received over the years have always been on the generous side of this estimate. This year I bought two bunches one was yellow granex sweet onions and the other was a short-day sampler. I had a lot(!) of onions to plant and did so on Nov. 26th.

I plant onions in well-prepared soil that has been enriched with compost in a 4 to 5-inch grid pattern in raised, wide rows. I add a 2 or 3-inch layer of pine needles on top of the planting surface and even more in the spaces between the wide rows. You want those spaces between the rows for good drainage and for space between crops. We grow onions during our dry season, so regular irrigation is a must for a good onion harvest. Regular weeding is also advised, but I must admit that I'm not as diligent as I should be. In addition, I tend to allow dill, which self-seeds in our beds, to remain among the onions.

The granex onion bunch includes lots of plants.Planting onions in a 4-to 5-inch grid.

When growing perennial onion crops such as chives and scallions, blooming is part of the life cycle, and the flowers are decorative and highly edible. But when we grow onions for the bulbs, we don't want flowers because the production of the flowering stalk will reduce the size of the bulbs. Here in Florida where the weather is inconsistent through the winter and into spring, it's not unusual for some of our onions to bloom during the first year. I harvest these rogue onions as soon as I see the scape and use the whole plant for salads, soups, and such within the next week or two. Drying them for storage doesn't work, because they skipped their dormant stage.

I harvest bulb-onions that have developed buds 
and use all parts of the plant (except the roots)
in salads, soups, and more.
Cutting onions (Allium fistulosumblooming. 
The flowers are edible, too.

This year's onion harvest

You're supposed to harvest onions when more than half of the leaves have fallen over, and the soil is bone dry. Well, this year we ended up with a two-stage harvest: one on May 2 when about a third of the leaves had collapsed--mostly on the granex onions. I left the rest of the onions in the ground while we were traveling for a couple of weeks.
On May 2, about a third of the leaves
had fallen over.
The first onion harvest was on May 2.
The second harvest was on May 20th when I pulled the rest of the onions. We tie the onions in bunches with a soft cloth to dry over a line in the garage. We dry them for several weeks there. For those onions without leaves or those with weakened leaves, we brush off the soil, cut away their leaves, and put them in the refrigerator for use in the next few weeks. 

The second onion harvest was on May 20th. Onions with weak stems will be used first.

Tying the bunches with strips of soft cloth.

This year's onions and garlic drying in the garage.

Other crops on the onion side of this genus (with hollow leaves) include:
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum
Scallion, Welsh onion, cutting onion, or bunching onion (Allium fistulosum)
Walking onion or Egyptian walking onion (Allium x proliferum)


Garlic (Allium sativum) is a long-season annual; use the softneck varieties in Florida, which means that most of the grocery-store garlic will probably not work well for you since it's mostly hardneck varieties. Garlic produces no seeds, so only the bulbs are sold. Each compound bulb consists of a dozen or more cloves separated by layers of thin, papery skin. We plant it in the fall here in Florida and it grows through the winter, much like onions and often I plant and harvest garlic and onions at about the same times.
Planting garlic cloves in a 4-to 5-inch grid pattern. About half of this year's garlic harvest.

Several years ago, I braided the garlic leaves 
to make a garlic wreath for drying.
Much like onions, I plant garlic cloves in a 4- to 5-inch grid pattern in well-prepared soil that has been enriched with compost in my wide rows. The wide row configuration provides good drainage is particularly important for garlic. Link to this article for more information on planting garlic and wide-row planting.  

You can use the harvested garlic right away, but you'll want to dry most of the garlic so that it can be stored for several months. 

Other crops on the garlic side of this genus (with flat, solid leaves) include:
Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum
Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum), including elephant garlic, a cultivar of this species (A. ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum)
Meadow garlic (Allium canadense), which is native in Central and North Florida

Storing dried onions and garlic

After several weeks in the garage, we store ours in paper bags with tops folded and pinned shut on the floor of our pantry. We check once a month or so to pull out bulbs which may have sprouted or gone soft. 

*Onion and garlic plant family:
The Florida Plant Atlas says they are in their own family: Alliaceae. This is my go-to botanical authority. But, when first described more than a hundred years ago, early botanists put them in the lily family because of their 6 tepals (a combination of 3 petals and 3 sepals of equal size). Later botanists said that they didn't belong with the lilies and created the Alliaceae family. More recently, some authorities (including my old college professor and mentor, Jim Reveal) put them in the amaryllis family Amaryllidaceae, in a tribe known as Allioideae. Click this link for history and details

I hope you're growing these wonderful crops in your winter gardens no matter which plant family the taxonomists place them in. 

Green Gardening Matters,
Ginny Stibolt


  1. This is my first year trying onions. I am so curious in observing them. I planted seed last Fall and now on June 22, I have bulbs but the green stalks are still nice and green. I keep watching and observing to see what happens (northeast Florida)

  2. Interesting and informative, thanks!