150 Tips: Growing Onions, Celery and Leeks in the North

Nothing rounds out the flavor of a soup or stew like onions, celery and leeks. Northern gardeners have always grown these flavorful crops, which have long growing seasons, using a number of tips and tricks. Here are five from the archives of MSHS and its gardening publications.

Buy onion sets to save trouble. In a 1993 book the hort society published called The Good Gardener, authors suggested gardeners buy onions as sets—small onion bulbs grown from seeds in greenhouses in fall and winter—rather than starting from seed. They also recommended harvesting most onions early for salad use and summer cooking. “Pull the onions and use, tops and all, when young and nicely green.”

teenage girl with pumpkins

Irene Johnson was a champion gardener in 1920, offering advice on growing onions and other crops.

Make the most of your garden by planting onions between tomatoes. Garden clubs for teenagers were very popular around World War I and the 1918 pandemic era, and one of the  top teen gardeners in Minnesota was Irene Johnson of Blooming Prairie. After being named a champion gardener in 1920, her article on “Trying to Beat the High Cost of Living,” recommended that gardeners plant their onion sets between tomatoes to make the most of a small garden space. The onions will be harvested before the tomatoes need the room to grow, she said.

Start seeds in winter and choose cultivars carefully for flavor. In a 2001 article in Northern Gardener, Wisconsin vegetable gardener Erika Jensen recommended gardeners choose onion cultivars carefully for flavor. For a sweeter taste, she grew ‘Walla Walla’ successfully, starting seeds indoors in February. Avoid adding too much nitrogen to the soil, as overly rich soil may decrease the amount of time an onion can be kept in storage, she notes.

onions in vegetable garden

A thick row of onions are ready for thinning and use in cooking.

Shade celery in hot weather. Way back in 1876, William Brimhall grew celery in Minnesota. He started seeds in a hot bed—an outdoor cold-frame with a layer of fresh manure below the soil that kept it warm. Soil in the hot bed and in the plant’s eventual garden home should be a very light, rich, sandy loam. Soak seeds in hot water before mixing them with sand and sowing in the hot bed (or inside, if you prefer). When plants are 2 inches in height, transplant to the garden. You’ll have a better crop if they are partially shaded in hot weather.

‘Blanch’ leeks for a tender taste. In a 1909 article on unusual vegetables (others listed included kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and broccoli), J. Vincent Bailey of Newport recommended gardeners plant and grow leeks much like onions. Start seeds in a hotbed, then transplant them to open ground and thin to 6 inches per row. Pile soil up around the leeks as they grow to blanch them and increase the tender part of the leek. “We are cosmopolitan in our diet in America as well as in other things,” Bailey noted.

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