How To Choose And Grow The Best Onions For Pickling

Pickled onions are a staple in many countries and different cuisines. They are also another way for the self-sufficient gardener to preserve their harvest for the winter months. Let’s learn how to grow onions for pickling in your own garden.

There are three types of onions that are best grown for pickling: pearl onions, bulb onions, and multiplier sets. Pearl onions are grown from seeds in well fertilized soil, and are harvested as young onions or left to mature. Sow the seeds 1cm (1/2inch) deep and 2.5cm (1inch) apart, and keep them well weeded and watered. They are ready for harvest when they are about 2.5cm to 5cm (1-2inches) in diameter. Bulb onions can be harvested small, or the full-sized onion can be sliced and pickled. Multiplier sets produce copious amounts of small onions in the fall that are perfect for pickling.

There are many different recipes to pickle onions, and there are just as many different types of onions you can use. The first step to growing your own onions for pickling is choosing the variety you want, and then we’ll look at the different ways to grow them.

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How To Grow Onions For Pickling

The common type of onion for pickling is the small pearl onion. In truth, however, you can pickle pretty much any onion. Gardeners have different preferences for which onions they like best for pickling, but let’s look at the three most popular ways you can grow onions in your own garden for pickling.

  1. Pearl onions
  2. Large bulb onions
  3. Multiplier sets

1. Pearl Onions

Pearl onions are small onions that are also called creamers, button, baby, silverskin, or pickling onions. Some gardeners prefer to harvest them young and pickle them fresh or leave them in the ground to pickle them when they are mature and dry. They are typically always grown from seed. Pearl onions can be started indoors and transplanted outside, but they also grow very well when direct sown into the garden.

Be careful when ordering onion seeds online!

All onion varieties will not grow in every location. Long day onions will only grow in areas where the summer days are noticeable longer than winter days (northern areas). In contrast, short day varieties will only grow where summer days are roughly the same length as winter days. Make sure you check that the onion variety you are buying is suited for your area, especially if you are ordering onions online.
Pickled onions by Apionid
Image by Apionid

Onions need a sufficient amount of nutrients to grow. Since they are heavy feeders, they do well with lots of compost or well-rotten manure mixed into the soil. If you have a fast maturing variety, you can go a bit easier on the compost than if you were letting them grow into the fall. Onions like a neutral soil with a pH around 6.0, so it might be a good idea to check your soil acidity before planting.

You can sow your onions as early in the spring as you can. Most pearl onions are mature in 60 to 90 days, so you can often have a harvest ready in the summer depending on how early you can get your seeds out. Some gardeners have success sowing the seeds in July for a harvest in the early fall.

Sow the seeds about 1cm (1/2inch) deep, and space the seeds 2.5cm (1inch). There will be no need to thin the onions because you will be harvesting them when they are still quite small. They should germinate in about 10 to 14 days.

As your pearl onions grow, keep them weeded and well watered. Onions will be easily chocked out by competing weeds, especially when they are young. Onions do well with about 2.5cm (1inch) of water each week, and they do best when the soil is kept at a consistent moisture rather than a deluge every so often.

Begin harvesting your small onions when they are 2.5cm to 5cm (1-2inches) in diameter. If the whole crop is not ready, you can pull out the ones that are, and keep them until you have a sufficient amount to pickle. They will store for about a month in an airy location that is dry, dark, and cool.

Once you have harvested a good sized batch of pearl onions, you are ready to pickle them. Here is a good recipe to try.

2. Large Bulb Onions

You can also pickle large bulb onions. Though this is not your true “pickled” onion, this is becoming a very popular option for pickling onions at home. While any onion can be used, red onions are the most preferred. This is due to recent studies that suggest particular health benefits of red onions.

In another article, we discuss how to grow onions in a grow bag and the same guidelines can be followed for planting in your garden. There are two ways to use large bulb onions for pickling. The first way is to pick them early: as your onions are growing, you can thin them by harvesting smaller bulbs, and these immature bulbs can be pickled. The second way is to use the mature bulbs themselves, and slice them very thin for the pickle jar.

Onions Photo by Oxa Roxa on Unsplash
Photo by Oxa Roxa on Unsplash

3. Multiplier Sets

Another good way to grow onions for pickling is to grow multiplier sets, which are grown from immature onion bulbs rather than seeds. Each bulb planted will produce a whole bunch of onions (hence the name). The greens of these onions can be snipped off and eaten fresh all summer, and the multitude of bulbs can be harvested and dried in the fall. Even when mature, these onions will be nice and small and ideally suited for pickling.

Multiplier sets are grown similar to the large bulb onions mentioned above.

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