Q & A: Planting Onions

Did You Know:  Onions can be planted by tractor or by hand?

All onions start from a tiny seed, but may be grown from seed, sets (dry bulbs), or transplants.  Most onions grown commercially (versus in your garden), are grown from seeds (planted by tractor) or transplants (planted by hand).

When planted by tractor, onion seeds are placed in a special tractor attachment (aptly named a planter), which is pulled behind the tractor. This method of planting is also called direct seeding.

How direct seeded works: After the field is prepared for planting, the planter places a single seed in the ground spaced exactly the same distance apart. Pressurized air “puffs” the seed right into the soil and is instantly covered up. The tractor and planter will go up and down the field until the process is complete.

Hand planting is different because actual plants (or in some cases sets) are placed in the ground. The onion seed is started in seedbeds. Once they become seedlings, they’re moved into precise field rows where they’ll mature.

How transplanting works: First, a tractor will go over the field to make small, evenly spaced indentations in the ground.

Next, a crew of workers will take bundles of onion seedlings (these plants are about the size of a pencil) and place a single plant in each indention, and push the soil up around the plant. One-by-one, a row at a time, the crew works until the field is planted.

Fact: One person can plant one-half acre per work day.

Why hand plant? Transplanting requires more labor than directly planting seeds into field rows, but transplants are less susceptible to dangers like cold weather and weeds. A majority of transplanted onions will also be harvested by hand.

row of onions in the field

Onions typically take five to six months to grow from seed to maturity, and it all starts with a tiny seed!

Special credit and thanks to Steve McArthur for the wonderful photographs of transplanting in this article and to Champion Seed for the final photo of the onions, near harvest-time.

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