We’re now going to talk about growing the most versatile vegetable of them all – ONIONS! Not usually difficult, unless you live in a swamp, and lovely to have on hand at almost any time in the kitchen. So let’s get started……….
1. Seeds and sets, onions and shallots
You can grow onions from seed, which is a cheaper option, but many gardeners, and certainly beginners, prefer to grow them from immature bulbs, known as ‘sets’, being more likely to mature quickly especially if you live in chilly parts of the country, and frankly much less of a fuss than seeds.
Your choices include the big Spanish types of milder onion like ‘Ailsa Craig’, the smaller stronger ones like ‘Sturon’, or red ones like ‘Red Baron’. I usually go for shallots which are the easiest of the lot to grow, and have a mild, sweet almost garlicky taste. They grow differently – an onion set turns into a bigger onion, a shallot set turns into a cluster of small shallots attached to a base and each with its own papery skin. ‘Golden Gourmet’ is a well-known variety, but there are lots of others, just as nice.
I always plant my onions or shallots in late March or early April. It’s perfectly possible to plant onion sets in the autumn – you might get earlier and heavier crops that way. But what they really don’t like is the wet, and the UK is certainly very prone to wet winters.
You need a good sunny place – in pots or window-boxes, if that’s what you’ve got available, or a raised bed if you have such a thing (a good way of making sure they sit in well-drained soil). They are not at all fussed about having manure in the soil and all that shenanigans – in fact, they positively dislike it. They might be happy for a bit of general fertiliser sprinkled over, but definitely not one that’s high in Nitrogen. Put your sets into the soil along a nice neat row, 4-6″ (10-15cm) apart, and a foot (30 cm) between rows if you have more than one. Plant them with their little papery noses just showing above the soil.
Now we come to something that is very endearing but also rather annoying – our precious native birds see these tempting little straw-like bits poking up out of the soil and think “Hmm, perfect for my new nest”, and give each bit a good strong yank. Result – you come back to your beautifully-sown onion bed and find your babies scattered all over the shop by rather disappointed birds! Slinging a net over them until they are growing strongly, is one option.
There is another way to fool them – if you plant your sets in modules of compost first and keep them protected and moist for a week or so, they will develop green shoots and, more importantly, roots. Then you can plant them in your intended place outside, and the roots will anchor them more firmly in the ground when the blackbirds and pigeons come calling. Lovely!
3.Looking After Them
Caring for your growing onions is really very simple. Truly, even Caroline can manage this. They like things sunny and on the dry side, but do water them in hot spells. Their roots are shallow and easily damaged so be very careful with a hoe, or better still, hand-weed them.
There’s another reason for weeding them with care – if you do damage a root or two, the plant thinks it might die soon, and immediately starts trying to send up a flowering shoot! This is called ‘bolting’ and onions and shallots are rather prone to doing it, I’m afraid. Funny weather, a weed growing too close to them, the gardener looking too smug……and they think, ‘right, that’s it, I’m on the way out, I’d better propagate myself RIGHT NOW!’ This will cause your lovely onion to go all woody and inedible, so if you see it happening, whip off the flowering stem right away, and try and see what you can salvage of the plant. Some suppliers sell heat-treated sets which prevent them from bolting, but they are usually more expensive.
Other than that, onions are pretty easy. Yes, you MIGHT get a visitation from nasties like onion fly or white rot etc. just be vigilant and oik out any that are looking sickly. But by and large, onions and shallots are a piece of cake!
Onion and shallot sets planted about now, should be ready by the beginning of August roughly, but it does all depend on where you live, of course, how hot the summer is etc. They will tell you they’re okay for harvesting by drooping and browning their leaves, but you can also pick them earlier than that if you want to and they look big enough.
Scoop round them with a trowel and unearth them gently, and then they need a period of drying out in the sun, either on the top of the soil or some other sunny place, with all their roots and leaves still on, quietly withering away.
After a couple of weeks, tidy them up, and store them hanging in a string bag in an airy, dry, cool, place. They will be fine and ready for use in the kitchen for months and months. If you spot any that have grey mould growing on them, get them out straightaway, or the mould will spread to others.
What is even more fun, is to string them together, in the manner of what a classic beret-ed Frenchman wears when riding his bicycle. It’s easy to do, and this is what I do with mine every year..
If you want to know how, I did a quick video of the technique last year – it’s as difficult as falling off a plank! So there we have it – growing onions or shallots, top to bottom – have fun with it.
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If you missed the first three posts in our Beginners Veg series, you can read them here:
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