Onions. One of the great frustrations of gardening. You plant seeds and they turn out puny. You plant sets and they bolt to flower or rot or something. Not worth it, people say.
But really, it's not rocket science, or magic. It's just knowing two things:
So, Tip #1:
You always hear that rich soil, manure, nitrogen, etc isn't good for root crops like carrots or beets. Remember that onions aren't roots. The bulb is made from the bases of the leaves. The roots grow out of the base of the bulb. So, think of them as a leafy green and fertilize accordingly. I've seen even very experienced gardeners starve their onions (and potatoes, too) because of the word "root". Bulbs and tubers LOVE nitrogen.
and, Tip #2:
An onion grows and makes leaves until the day length reaches a certain number of hours. Then, it stops making leaves. The existing leaves start to swell up. The bottom of each leaf eventually swells so much it becomes a ring of the onion. Each onion variety has a specific number of daylight hours that will cue this process.
So, if you sow onion seed now, it has time to make a big plant before the days get long. It can make lots of leaves. Lots of leaves = lots of onion rings. If you start them later, they will be still small when the magic date arrives. And, if the soil gets really warm before they get those long days, they will forget bulbing entirely and make a flower instead.
Short-day varieties, start to bulb when they get 10-12 hours of sunlight. For intermediates it's 12-15, for long-day varieties it's 14-16 hours of light per day. The line between short and long day varieties runs from Washington DC to San Francisco, with intermediate areas being close to that line.
Grains like Wheat and Barley are day-length-sensitive too. The plants will grow bigger and make more leaves and stems while the days are short. As the days lengthen, the plants get ready to bloom and then to mature seeds (grain). Harvest is just after the longest days of the year.
Do you have to understand all this? No. Just understand that you need to start onions now. They can be indoors or in a greenhouse, but they need soil that is 60 degrees or so. They are little bitty things for the first couple of months, so if you sow a couple of pots with onion seed, about 1/2" apart in the pots, you can add them to your tomato and pepper starts without much trouble. Grains should be started directly in the garden--they love cold mud--as soon as the soil can be worked and planted.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin and commercial fishing. She wrote the Bountiful Gardens catalog from 2009 to 2017, and now is proprietor of Quail Seeds.