January is a normal time for our customers in the South to reach out, worried that their plants from November have not started to bulb yet. Our response, “They are on the right track. No need to be concerned.”

The picture shows new growth but this time of year they don’t grow as fast as they will once it warms up.

Here’s a bit of background on the onion growing cycle.

Once you plant your onion plants, there is a roughly 2-week period where they are transitioning into their new environment and establishing a new root system. Some may know this as starting their “second life cycle”.

New Leaf Generation

All plants require a certain number of heat units to grow. Onions grow new leaves based on accumulated heat units. After the new root system has been generated, the plant will begin to take up those heat units. It takes 160-200 heat units for an onion to shoot a new leaf; this number is dependent on variety with short day onions generally requiring 160 and long day varieties requiring 200. The basis for onions is 45 degrees so each day the average temperature is above 45 degrees, the onion acquires that many heat units for that day. For example, if your high was 70 and your low was 50, the onions would acquire 15 heat units that particular day. This is determined from (70+50)/2-45=15. The process then repeats itself until bulbing begins.

The Carbohydrate Transfer

Bulbing shown by the ground cracking around the onion.

The bulb of the onion is formed from the transfer of carbohydrates from the leaves to the bulb of the plant. For the bulbing process to begin, the plant must accumulate a total of approximately 2200 heat units. When the right combination of daylength and total heat units are acquired, the onion begins the transfer of carbohydrates from the leaves to the rings of the bulb. Ideally, the heat units and daylength are met at the same time to help ensure maximum size potential for that onion.

Daylength in Onions

Short day varieties require 10-12 hours of daylength while long day varieties require 14-16 hours of daylength. This is why we stress planting your onion plants at the proper time; it is crucial for these two events to happen as close together as possible. Planting too early could result in frozen plants and planting too late will result in bulbs not reaching their full-size potential.

Once all those carbohydrates are transferred, the top can no longer support the weight of the leaves. This causes the top to fall over. Think of a drip hose that shrinks after you turn the water off. It finally crimps and no more water comes out.

Onions ready for harvest with the tops fallen over.

As always, if you have any questions regarding your onion plants, please don’t hesitate to contact Customer Service customerservice@dixondalefarms.com!