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Onions from Seed

UK Garden Centre - How to grow Onions from seed

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Vegetable growing at home is not without its grumbles. The yield of pea pods is sometimes disappointing for the amount of work expended whereas broad beans present the opposite problem – a sudden glut which often goes to waste. Onions, however, present neither of these problems – few vegetables have more uses in the kitchen and so there is a constant demand. Nowadays we can obtain onions fresh from the garden or out of store almost all year round from just a couple of carefully-timed sowings. But we are creatures of habit – both peas and broad beans are two of our top-selling vegetable seed and onions are not. If onions are not on your list read this section carefully – the new Japanese varieties have filled the June-July gap of the old days, and the new close-spacing recommendation increases the yield.

Seed facts
Fungicide-treated and pelleted seeds are available. Germination and seedling growth are slow in spring and also erratic in hot weather.
Expected germination time: 21 days
Approximate number per ounce: 8000
Expected yield from a 10ft row: 8lb (4kg)
Life expectancy of stored seed: 1-2 years.
Approximate time between sowing and lifting: 46 weeks (August-sown varieties); 22 weeks (Spring-sown varieties).
Ease of cultivation: Easy – if a suitable seed bed is prepared.

Soil facts
· Many exhibitors grow their show onions in a permanent bed in order to build up fertility, but in the kitchen plot it is a much better idea to change the site annually.
· Choose an open, sunny site with good drainage. Dig thoroughly in autumn, incorporating a liberal quantity of manure or compost. Liming will be necessary if the soil is acid.
· Before sowing or planting it is necessary to prepare a traditional ‘onion bed’. Apply a general fertilizer and rake the surface when the soil is reasonably dry. Tread over the area and then rake again to produce a fine, even tilth.

Sowing and Planting
· Sow very thinly in drills 1/2in (1cm) deep and 9in (23cm) apart. Water very gently if the soil is dry, and cover with soil.
· Thin the spring-sown crop in 2 stages – first to 1-2in (2-5cm) when the seedlings have straightened up and then to 4in (10cm) apart. Lift the seedlings carefully – the soil should be moist and all thinnings removed to deter onion fly.
· Seedlings raised under glass should be transplanted 4in (10cm) apart, leaving 9in (23cm) between the rows. The roots must fall vertically in the planting hole and the bulb base should be about ½ in (1cm) below the surface. Plant firmly.
· Salad onions should be planted in rows which are only 4in (10cm) apart – thin the seedlings, if necessary, to 1in (2.5cm) spacings.
· Seeds of Japanese varieties should be sown at 1in (2.5cm) intervals in rows spaced 9in (23cm) apart. Thin seedlings to 4in (10cm) intervals in spring.

Calendar
· For an August or September crop sow as soon as the land is workable in the spring (late February-early April depending on the location of your garden).
· Sow in mid August for an earlier crop – Japanese varieties mature in late June – standard varieties such as Reliance and Ailsa Craig are less hardy, less reliable and later cropping (late July onwards), but they can be stored.
· In cold areas and for exhibition bulbs sow under glass in January, harden off in March and transplant outdoors in April.
· Salad onions should be sown in March-July for a June-October crop. Sow in August for onions in March-May.

Looking after the crop
· Hoe carefully or weed by hand – dense weed growth will seriously affect yield. Water if the weather is dry (not otherwise) and feed occasionally. Feed an autumn-sown crop with Instant Bio in March.
· Break off any flower stems which appear. Mulching is useful for cutting down the need for water and for suppressing weeds. Stop watering once the onions have swollen and pull back the covering earth or mulch to expose the bulb surface to the sun.

Harvesting
· The salad varieties should be pulled when the bulbs are ½ - 1in (1-2.5cm) across. The harvesting season is March-October.
· When the bulb is mature the foliage turns yellow and topples over. Leave them for about 2 weeks and then carefully lift with a fork on a dry day.
· The onions which are not for immediate use must be dried. Spread out the bulbs on sacking or in trays – outdoors if the weather is warm and sunny or indoors if the weather is rainy.
· Drying will take 7-21 days, depending on the size of the bulbs and the air temperature. Inspect the bulbs carefully – all damaged, soft, spotted and thick-necked onions should be set aside for kitchen use or freezing. The rest can be stored – the exceptions are the Japanese varieties which are not suitable for storage.
· Store in trays, net bags, tights or tie to a length of cord as onion ropes. Choose a cool and well-lit place; they will keep until late spring.

Varieties
Bulb varieties
The standard varieties are grown for their large bulbs which can be stored throughout the winter months. Some have a flattened shape, others are globular. Skin colours vary from almost pure white to bright red and flavours range from mild to strong. Most of them are only suitable for spring sowing but some can be sown in August for a late July crop. The Japanese varieties make late summer sowing a much more reliable routine but their midsummer crop cannot be stored.
Ailsa Craig: Look no further, according to some experts. A great favourite – very large, globe-shaped, and excellent for exhibiting but its keeping qualities are not good.
Bedfordshire Champion: Very popular – scored over Ailsa Craig by being a good keeper. Large and globular, but very susceptible to downy mildew.
Rijnsburger: The catalogues list many strains – Balstora, Wijbo, Bola, etc. Large, globular, white-fleshed – earliness and keeping qualities depend on the strain you choose.
White Spanish: A large, flat bulb with excellent keeping qualities.
Hygro: An F1 hybrid which is increasing in popularity. No faults – heavy, globular, and suitable for storage.
North Holland Blood Red: A red-skinned onion – a good choice if you want a colourful onion for exhibition.
Buffalo: A new F1 hybrid which produces a very early crop from a spring or late summer sowing. Onions in June, claim the catalogues, but you won’t be able to store them.
Autumn Queen: Flattish bulbs for autumn sowing – recommended for exhibition.
Reliance: Perhaps the best of the standard varieties for sowing in August. The flat bulbs are large and the keeping qualities are outstanding.
Express Yellow: The most popular and earliest of the Japanese varieties. The flattish bulbs are yellow-skinned. Choose one of the other Japanese type if you want maximum yields.
Kaizuka Extra Early: Like Express Yellow the bulbs are flattish, but the skins are paler and they mature a little later.
Imai Yellow: A Japanese variety which is globe-shaped and early.
Senshyu: Rather similar to Imai Yellow, but a little flatter and later cropping.

Salad varieties
Thinnings of the bulb varieties can be used as salad or ‘spring’ onions, but there are several varieties which are grown specifically for salad use. These salad varieties, also known as scallions or bunching onions, are white-skinned and mild-flavoured.
White Lisbon: By far the most popular of the salad varieties. Quick-growing and silvery-skinned, a small patch of ground can provide salad onions for six months of the year.
Ishikura: Something new in salad onions. The long, straight stems do not form bulbs – simply pull out a few at a time and let the rest of the pencil-like plants grow on for harvesting later.

Pickling varieties
Several onion varieties are grown for their small silverskin bulbs (button onions) which are lifted in July or August and pickled for use as cocktail onions. These varieties should be sown in April in sandy soil – do not feed. The seedlings should not be thinned.
Paris Silver Skin: The favourite pickling onion; lift when the bulb is the size of a marble.
Barletta: Another popular variety for making cocktail onions – no particular advantage or disadvantage compared with Paris Silver Skin.

Troubles
Although many plant disorders can attack onions, only four are likely to seriously trouble the gardener. They are onion fly, stem and bulb eelworm, neck rot and white rot. Plants grown from seed are more susceptible to onion fly, so raise onions from sets if you have been disappointed in the past. Leeks are much less prone to attack than onions.
Onion Fly
Drooping Leaves
Bolting
Stem and Bulb Eelworm
Saddleback
Set Division
Smut
Rust
White Tip
Bull Neck (Thick Neck)
Downy Mildew
Leek Moth
White Rot (Mouldy Nose)
Shanking
Neck Rot


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