Why Are My Onions Falling Over and Drooping? (What it Means)


Are you worried about your onions with leaves that are falling over and drooping?  If so, you are probably wondering why your onion leaves are laying down on the job.

So, why are your onions falling over and drooping?  Onion leaves fall over when the plant is mature and the bulb is ready for harvest.  This happens after the leaves have sent their energy to the bulb to make it grow bigger.  Lack of water, pests, and diseases could also cause onion leaves to fall over.

Of course, different varieties of onions will mature at different times.  As a result, your onion leaves might fall over sooner than your neighbor’s if you are growing different types of onions.

In this article, we’ll look at why onions fall over, when it happens in mature onions, and what to do if there is a problem.

Let’s get going.

Why Are Your Onions Falling Over?

Often, the leaves on your onions will fall over simply because the plant has reached maturity and is done growing.  However, there are other reasons it can happen, including:

  • Shallow planting at transplant
  • Lack of water
  • Pests
  • Diseases

If it is late in the season, maturity of the onion bulb is the most likely reason that the leaves are falling over.  Let’s begin there.

onions
Maturity is one common reason that onions may fall over.

Onions Falling Over Due To Maturity

Sometimes, when your onions fall over, it is a sign of maturity.  In that case, it is no cause for concern.

After planting onion seeds or sets, green leaves will eventually appear.  Given enough time, onion leaves will grow taller and start to produce energy by photosynthesis.

The leaves then send their energy (carbohydrates or sugar) to the layers (scales or rings) of the onion to make the onion “bulb up” (get larger).  A “perfect” onion has 13 layers and 13 leaves – one leaf for each layer.

onions
A perfect onion has 13 leaves and 13 layers.

Once the onion bulbing process begins, no more leaves are made.  So, you want the plant to produce all 13 leaves before bulbing to get the largest onions possible.

You can learn just how big onions will get in my article here.

When Do Onions Start to Bulb?

Onions start to bulb once the days become long enough in summer.  According to the North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension:

“Onions form bulbs in response to day-length. When the number of daylight hours reaches a certain level, onion plants start bulbing, or forming bulbs.”

https://burke.ces.ncsu.edu/2016/11/the-secret-to-growing-great-onions/

Of course, the hours of daylight required for bulbs to form will vary depending on the type of onion. According to the North Carolina State University Extension, there are 3 types of onions:

  • Short day – these onions need 10 hours of daylight to produce bulbs.  They do best in Zones 7 and warmer (southern United States).
  • Long day – these onions need 14 to 15 hours of daylight to produce bulbs.  They do best in Zone 6 and colder (northern United States).  If the day length does not get long enough for long day onions, you will get green leaves with no bulbs at all!
  • Day neutral (intermediate day) – these onions produce bulbs regardless of day length, and produce bulbs anywhere.  They do best in Zones 5 and 6, and should be planted in early spring (northern regions) or in fall (southern regions).
yellow onions
You need to grow the right type of onion for your area: short-day, long-day, or day-neutral.

If you plant your onions too late, they won’t get a chance to produce the 13 leaves necessary for a “perfect” onion.  The leaves that are produced will not produce as much energy, and you will get smaller bulbs as a result.

However, if you plant too early, you expose your onions to the risk of late spring frost.  One good solution is to start your own onion seeds indoors and transplant them to the garden later.

When To Start Onion Seeds Indoors

According to the University of Minnesota Extension, you should start onion seeds indoors about 10 to 12 weeks before transplanting into the garden.

Transplant when temperatures reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius). Make sure the ground is thawed so that you can work the soil when digging hole for planting your onion seedlings.

onion seedling sprouts
Transplant onion seedlings outdoors once temperatures reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the soil is workable.

According to the University of Maryland Extension, cold exposure can cause onions to produce seed stalks.

To grow the biggest onions possible, be sure to choose the right variety (based on day length) for your area.

The seed package or website you buy from will indicate the type of onion (short-day, long-day, or day-neutral), along with the days to maturity (time until you get an onion bulb).

You can learn more about how to grow larger onions in my article here.

When Do Onion Leaves Fall Over?

Onion leaves fall over when the plant is mature and the bulb is ready for harvest. This happens because the leaves get weak and cannot hold up their own weight anymore.

onion falling ready for harvest
This onion’s leaves are starting to fall over, meaning the bulb is nearly mature.
Image Courtesy of: Ramjchandran via:
Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.
wikimedia.org/wiki/File:
Onion_plant_leaves.jpg

In mature onions, this means the end of the growing season, since the bulbs will not get any larger after this point.

At that point, the onion leaves have already sent their energy to the bulb to make it bigger.  The leaves then start to turn yellow, shrivel up, wilt, and droop because they have given everything they have to the bulb.

There is no reason to bend or knock over the leaves of onions before it happens naturally.  They will fall over by themselves when they are ready!

In fact, bending the onion leaves before they are ready may be detrimental to bulb formation.  According to the Texas A&M University Extension:

“Onion bulbs increase in size as sugars manufactured in the top are translocated to the bulb. If the tops are broken, this process stops, preventing further bulb enlargement.”

https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/vegetables/onion.html

Will Onions Continue To Grow After The Tops Die?

Onions will not continue to grow after the tops (leaves) die back. Once this happens, the onion leaves have sent all of their energy to the bulb.

When onion leaves fall over, the bulb is done growing.  At that point, it is time to harvest and cure the onions.

onion plants
Once onion leaves begin to fall over, the bulbs are ready for harvest.

When To Harvest Onions

When the leaves turn yellow and start to fall over, it’s time to harvest your onion bulbs.

onions
Onions need to be cured after harvest so they will store longer.

According to the University of Michigan Extension, you should harvest your onions when about half of the leaves have dried out and fallen over.

The University of Maryland suggests this will happen when the leaves are about 6 inches long.

Before putting onions away for storage, be sure to cure them!  According to the Texas A&M University Extension:

“Maturity is indicated by the fall of the top of the onion plant. After the tops have fallen, pull and dry the onions in the garden for several days. Some gardeners prefer to pull the onions up partially which allows the onions to dry while still in the ground. After drying, remove the roots and the top, leaving about 3/4 to 1 inch of the neck to seal and prevent entrance of decay organisms.”

https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/vegetables/onion.html

Remember that onions will sprout if kept above 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius).  Do not freeze onions (below 32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius).

red onions
Store onions in cool temperatures, but do not freeze them.

According to South Dakota State University, if your onions “bolt” (send up stalks with flowers and seeds), harvest them right away.  Use these bolted onions first, since they won’t store as long as onions that have not bolted.

If you find that any of your stored onions sprout, you can plant them and let them grow anew!  You can learn more about planting sprouted onions in my article here.

What Happens If You Leave Onions In The Ground?

Onions left in the ground too long may start to rot. According to the University of Massachusetts, harvesting onions after rainfall increases the chance of disease.

onion rot
An onion left in the ground too long will rot, especially in wet soil.

The longer onions stay in the ground, the more likely they will succumb to pests or diseases.

Onions Falling Over Due To Shallow Planting at Transplant

Are your onions falling over long before maturity?  If so, then one possibility is that they were planted too shallow at transplant.

According to the Texas A&M University Extension, onion transplants should be planted at least 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) deep.  This leaves enough soil to anchor the plant and keep it from falling over.

onion leaves growing
Onion transplants should be planted at least 1 inch deep.

Remember that onion bulbs do naturally emerge from the soil as they get larger. However, according to the University of Maryland Extension, you should not “hill” onions (pile up soil around the sides of the bulbs).

Otherwise, the stems are more likely to rot. Hilling may work for potatoes, but it does not for onions!

Onions Falling Over Due To Lack of Water

Dry conditions will cause early bulbing in onions.  Once the bulb starts to form, leaf growth will stop, and the leaves will fall over.

According to Oregon State University:

“Onions are shallow rooted. If allowed to dry out, they bulb early and small size is the result.”

https://today.oregonstate.edu/news/no-need-tears-if-you-plant-onions-soon

Onions need lots of water early in the season.  Water onions often (even more so if your soil is sandy and drains fast).

garden hose
Onions need lots of water early in the season, but let up as harvest time approaches.

If dry soil is a problem, you can learn more about how to treat it in my article here.

Putting a thin layer of mulch over the soil helps to retain moisture by preventing evaporation. Mulch can also smother existing weeds or prevent the growth of new ones.

You can learn more about mulching around onions in my article here.

straw bale
Straw is one possible mulching material to use around onions.

When To Stop Watering Onions

For best results, reduce water to your onions towards the end of the season (when the bulbs are fairly large and start to work their way above the soil).

According to the Penn State University Extension, you should stop watering onions when the tops begin to turn yellow and fall over. At that point, the bulbs are close to maturity.

Watering too late in the season will increase the risk of rot. According to the Utah State University Extension, it also delays onion curing and makes them more difficult to store.

Onions Falling Over Due To Pests

There are some pests that feed on raw onions, as unappealing as it may seem to us.  One such pest is the onion maggot.

According to the University of Massachusetts, onion maggots are gray-brown hump-backed flies. When their eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the roots of onions to cause massive damage.

Onion maggots also bore into the stems of onion plants.  Their feeding will cause the leaves of onions to turn yellow and wilt (possibly long before bulb maturity).

According to the University of Vermont, you can prevent onion maggots by using row covers.  Put them over your onions for the first few weeks of the season to discourage flies from laying their eggs on your plants.

You can also use sticky cards (or fly paper) to trap onion maggots. The flies are attracted to bright colors, so yellow sticky cards will work to trap them.

You can find sticky cards at garden centers or online, such as these yellow sticky traps from Park Seed.

Onions Falling Over Due To Diseases

There are several diseases that can affect onions to give their leaves a wilted or drooping appearance.  One such disease is downy mildew.

downy mildew on onion
Downy mildew on an onion leaf.
Image Courtesy of:
Howard F. Schwartz,
Colorado State University,
Bugwood.org via
Wikimedia Commons:
https://commons.wikimedia.
org/wiki/File:
Peronospora_destructor.JPG

According to Wikipedia, downy mildew is caused by fungus-like microbes that are parasites to plants.  Downy mildew causes yellow areas on the leaves of plants, including onions and others such as crucifers (broccoli, etc.)

Downy mildew is more common in the southern United States, since it cannot survive the cold northern winters.

Your best bet for avoiding disease in your onions is to choose disease resistant varieties.  Print and online seed catalogs will indicate disease resistance in the description.

Conclusion

Now you know why your onion leaves are falling over and when to expect this in mature onions.  You also know how to deal with other common problems that can cause onions to fall over.

If you are looking for heat tolerant onion varieties, you can find some in my article here.

You might also enjoy this article on what to do with extra onions.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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