An onion crop depends on the attention and care given to it to a greater extent than most other vegetables. The roots will go down 2 ft. or more if given the chance, and with something good to live on will produce bulbs of first-rate quality – for current requirements straight from the ground in spring, summer and early autumn, for the rest of the year from store.
Crops are obtained by sowing outdoors in spring and autumn, sowing under glass during January to February for later planting out, planting purchased seedlings during March to April, planting onion sets during February to March.
Varieties are numerous, most seedsmen including in their lists their own specialties. The following are some of the most dependable: –
Good keepers, noted for their storing qualities: White Spanish, Rousham Park Hero, James’s Long Keeping, Bedfordshire Champion, A1, Selected Brown Globe, Improved Reading, Ailsa Craig, all suitable for spring or autumn sowing; Autumn Queen, Giant Zittau, specially for autumn sowing.
For pickling: Small Paris Silver-skin, Improved Queen, White Queen, Covent Garden Pearl.
Spring onions – for pulling green for salad purposes – are of no particular variety, though one of the most suitable is White Lisbon, sown outdoors in August. The thinnings of any variety can be used in this way.
About 2,000 plants are contained in 1 ounce of seed. Average germination period is about eight days.
Ready for Use. A crop sown outdoors in August is ripe and ready for storing the following late July or early August. Sown outdoors or under glass in early spring the crop is ripe for harvesting in August or September of the same year. Onions can, of course, be pulled for use before those dates; the crops reach maturity during those months. Sets, and purchased seedlings, ripen their crops during the current summer. Spring onions are available whenever there are seedlings to thin out.
From the open ground and from store onions can therefore be available all the year round.
In addition to rich soil and a sunny position a prime requirement is a firm root-run. For that reason any digging that needs to be done should be completed well in advance of sowing or planting. Deep digging is not essential if onions can follow on after celery or carrot, parsnip or peas, or beans or cabbage, which were provided for by a deep working of the soil and a certain amount of manuring, or enrichment with vegetable refuse.
Where no such previous attention has been given, digging to the depth of 2 ft. is very advisable, animal manure, or hop manure or decayed greenstuff being worked in deeply.
If manure is used it should come no nearer to the surface than 6 in.
Ground that is stony, chalky, heavy and wet, or shallow, will have to be dealt with as explained in the section ALL SORTS OF SOILS.
Final preparations before sowing or planting consist in treading or rolling the ground quite firm (when not wet) if there is a suspicion of sponginess or looseness under foot, and forking or raking the surface so that this is left as powdery as possible. During this forking or raking plenty of wood ash and soot should be worked in, or ounces sulphate of potash per square yard.
When and How to Sow Outdoors.
The early spring sowing is largely dependent on weather and soil conditions; the seed should be got in if possible at the end of bending or folding; and when the hole is filled in and the roots covered the merest portion only of the bulb end should be below the surface. If it can be managed, no part of the bulb end should be covered.
The tops will fall over at first. If the tops drag on the ground and worms pull them in the tips can be snipped off; this will prevent the root-hold being loosened.
Even if the ground is moist at the time it will help the young plants if they are watered in at once.
Seedlings for planting out in March to April can be purchased from nurserymen; these should show no signs of yellow in the leaves and should have plenty of long root.
Onions for Pickling.
The varieties specially suitable for this purpose should be sown very thinly in drills 7 in. apart, in early April, and the ground need not be specially manured for them. The seedlings are not thinned out, as the bulbs are intended to reach only useful pickling size.
The variety Sutton’s Improved Queen is a silver-skinned variety claimed to be the quickest-growing onion in cultivation, a March to April sowing producing an early summer crop of bulbs from 1 in. to 2 in. in diameter. It can also be sown in July, for a later crop in the same year. In addition to its qualifications for the pickle jar its delicate flavour makes it acceptable in summer salads.
If there is no room for a pickling-onion sowing, small bulbs suitable for the purpose can be selected from the main crop when this is lifted.
Planting Onion Sets.
Small bulbs up to the size of a hedge nut are sold as onion sets, by the pound, for planting out in February to March. These are specially raised for the purpose. They grow rapidly and are generally immune to attack by the onion fly. Rich and firm soil, with a crumbled surface, is necessary. The small bulbs are planted 6 in. apart in rows separated by the same distance, with only half their depth covered; if the soil is very light, however, and wind disturbs them, the bulbs may be completely covered. In the latter case soil should be drawn away with the hoe when the plants are growing strongly so that each bulb is well exposed – to allow of unhindered formation of the cluster of bulbs which each plant produces, in the same fashion as a shallot.
Watering, Weeding, Feeding.
Whatever water can be spared will be put to good use if applied to the onion rows. Weeding close up to and around the bulbs should be done by hand. Apart from possible injury to them due to the use of a hoe, deep disturbance of the soil must be avoided. A scattering of dried poultry manure between the rows, followed by a good watering, may be given once a week,- or 1 ounce of superphosphate of lime per yard run, or dried blood given in liquid form – a tablespoonful of the powder to each 2 gals, of water.
Feeding can start as soon as the plants are growing strongly. It should cease at the end of July, or keeping qualities may be impaired.
Running to Seed.
A good strong onion plant in flower is a rather imposing sight. But it means a wasted bulb – unless this is specially intended to produce seed. As soon as a thick, circular, central stem is seen to be rising, nip it right out. The bulb that produced this flower stem should be used as soon as large enough.
Tops sometimes come bull-necked, especially when the summer is a wet one, the foliage at the base being nearly as thick as the bulb. To check this coarse growth the tops should be bent over forcibly as low down as possible. Such bulbs are of no use for storing and should be pulled for use as soon as possible.
Onion Fly and Other Troubles.
For these see the chart ‘Remedies Against Enemies of Vegetable Crops’.
Harvesting the Crop.
To assist ripening of the bulbs soil should be scraped away from around them with the Dutch hoe (the blade turned over) so that they sit on the surface with only die roots covered. When the tops show signs of browning – in late July or August where sown the previous autumn, in August or early September where spring sown – ripening is hastened by bending all the tops over so that they lie flat. This is done quickly with the handle of rake or hoe held horizontally low down across the rows and moved along. Tops that bob up again should be firmly dealt with. Necks thus bent at right angles, the upward flow of sap ceases and a few days later lifting can start.
If quite ready for gathering, bulbs should come out of the ground with very little resistance, showing withered roots. The presence of obviously new (white) roots among the old and withered ones indicates that growth is about to start again. This renewed growth must not be allowed, the plants should be lifted as soon as possible and the bulbs dried off by exposure to sun – or to a free current of air under cover if rainy conditions prevail.
The quickest way to get the ripened bulbs up is to loosen the soil alongside the row with the fork, grasp the tops and pull. They are then laid out on the ground, if this is dry, or on a hard path, or on the top of a shed, for sun and wind to dry them off thoroughly – with some sort of covering by night in case of rain. If the weather is too bad for that they must be dried off under cover.
Storing for Winter.
Not until they are perfectly dry should the bulbs be placed in store – on shelves or a dry floor, not more than two or three deep, where they can be looked over occasionally. Bruised onions should not be stored, and any that later show-signs of decay should be removed at once. It is not conducive to good keeping to store onions in a pile or sack or deep box.
If neither shelf nor floor space is available in shed, cellar or attic, a convenient way of disposing of them is to tie them with string by the necks to 3-ft. stakes (starting from the bottom) so that each stake is covered from top to bottom with a single-layer band of onions. These can then be hung on a wall or from a roof beam, and the onions pulled from a stake as required.
Preparing for Table.
Remove outer skins of bulbs and cut off the tops and any remaining roots. The method of pickling onions is explained in the section EASY
HOME PRESERVATION OF VEGETABLES. Green spring onions should have the outer skin stripped off, roots cut off, and the tops tipped back beyond any discoloration or injury. Appetizing and easily digested, onions have considerable nutritive value. There is more actual nourishment in mild onions than there is in those of a stronger flavour.
Onion, Potato or Underground.
The potato or underground onion is of less interest to the home food producer than to the botanist. Small bulbs for planting in February to March are sometimes obtainable (sold by the pound) and their culture is the same as that of the shallot –