Know your onions

March and April are the great planting months – especially for those, like me, who plant straight into the garden rather than bring on lots of seedlings in the greenhouse (I’m always going to but never quite get round to it in time).

Unless the ground has warmed up nicely I find that the effort of early planting is almost always wasted, unless you have cloches or use fleece.

There are very few seedlings that enjoy cold wet conditions and, although we are always longing for the new seasons vegetables, as long as it’s not left too late, most plants are not far behind their early, carefully nursed counterparts.

Having said that, don’t leave it much later to plant onion sets. I always cover the onion bed (best in an open, sunny position and just wide enough to be able to reach the middle from either side without treading on it) with fleece as soon as it’s planted to avoid the problem of birds pulling them out as soon as my back’s turned and leave it in place until the shoots are well through.

It doesn’t matter if the green shoots get a bit crinkled – they straighten up as soon as the fleece comes off. Or you can clip the tips off the sets before planting so they don’t show.

Just be gentle with the sets when you plant them – make sure the soil is soft so the root end doesn’t get damaged when you put them into the ground.

Unless you want show sized onions, plant them fairly close together – 3″ each way apart, with their tips just showing, in a double row with 12″ between each pair of rows is plenty – and once they start to swell put your hoe away and hand weed – the roots are very near the surface and hoeing will almost certainly break some of them off – Bob Flowerdew says a few weeds later in the season will help to take up spare moisture and nutrients, particularly nitrogen and the onions will keep better.

If the odd one or two start to flower pull up and use straight away. I used to think that onions had to be ripe before they could be used until I used my common sense and thought about spring onions.

There is new thinking on whether the tops should be turned down when the onions have finished growing – mid August or early September depending on where you are and what sort of summer you’ve had – and it’s time to encourage them to ripen.

Since the tops will fall over anyway I like to tidy up the bed and have nice orderly rows. When the tops have wilted well just pull the bulbs up so that air can circulate underneath them for a few days and on a nice dry day bring them in to finish drying.

I used to make strings which look very nice but now I keep them on a sunny bench in the greenhouse (since not much else is occupying the space in mine during the winter) and I find they keep much better. If that isn’t an option then keep them in nets or strings in the garage or potting shed.

I started growing autumn sets a couple of years ago and am pleased with those. They mature in June, though I use a few straight from the ground when the previous years’ main crop has come to an end, and now almost never have to buy an onion.

This gives me a great deal of pleasure when I see onions in the supermarket that have been flown in from South America though I also feel dismayed. I can’t remember us being onionless years ago before we started jetting in vegetables from all round the world and I’m sure we could be self sufficient again.

Shallots can be treated in the same way, though of course more space needs to be left for them to spread – about 9″ between plants. I find it quite curious that although I grow good onions I never manage to start them off from seed, and find spring onions very difficult. They just don’t want to germinate in my ground at any time of the year.

Leeks are no problem though. I usually leave some to flower and find by now that I have a nice little patch of seedlings, often in a gravel path, waiting to be transplanted for a summer crop, harvested when they are still quite thin and the flavor gentle. Just cook whole in butter. Next winters crop will be started off in a pot, (a 4″ square one will give enough seedlings for most needs) and be ready to be planted out in June.

Though I really think autumn planting is best it’s not too late to plant garlic. The bulbs will be smaller but still worth having. If you are short of space, or even if you’re not, tuck them in near the roses where they will help to ward off aphids.

And finally chives, which no garden should be without. Clumps can be divided now and make an attractive edge for a border, especially if they are allowed to flower. They also grow very happily in pots.

By the way, don’t try growing anything in the onion family near beans and peas. They hate each other but they’ll be fine with brassicas, beetroot, tomatoes and lettuce and may help to protect these against slugs and snails.


About the Author

With the endless passion for organic living, I - Ann Sanders has come up with the idea of creating A Green Hand. Being the founder and editor of A Green Hand, my goal is to provide everyone with a wide range of tips about healthy lifestyle with multiform categories including gardening, health & beauty, food recipe,...

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