The onion sets you
buy are immature bulbs which have been specially
grown for planting. There are several advantages
in using sets rather than seed. They are quick
maturing, succeed in northern areas where seed-sown
crops may disappoint and they are not attacked
by onion fly or mildew. Less skill and less soil
fertility are required, but against these advantages
must be set the extra cost and the extra risk
of running to seed (‘bolting’). Modern
varieties are much less prone to bolting –
another safeguard is to buy sets which are no
larger than ¾ in (2cm) across. The shallots
you buy are already full-sized – when planted
in early spring they quickly start to grow and
eventually produce a cluster of 8 to 12 similar-sized
bulbs in summer.
‘Heat-treated’ onions sets: flower
embryo has been killed to prevent bolting.
‘Virus-free’ shallots: stock is free
from virus yellows.
Expected sprouting time: 11-14 days
Approximate number per lb (onion sets): 80
Approximate number per lb (shallots): 30
Expected yield from a 10ft row: 7lb (3.5kg)
Life expectancy of stored seed: 3 years.
Approximate time between sowing and lifting: 20
weeks (onion sets); 18 weeks (shallots)
Ease of cultivation: Easy
· All onions require good soil and free
drainage, but sets need neither the fine texture
nor the high organic content demanded by seed-sown
· Dig in early winter and incorporate compost
if available. Lime if necessary. Firm the surface
before planting and rake in a general fertilizer
such as Growmore.
· Push gently into soft earth that is in
slight dips 4in (10cm) apart, with dip rows 9in
(23cm) apart. The tip should be just showing.
Firm around the sets.
· If planting is delayed, open package
and spread out sets in a cool well-lit place to
prevent premature sprouting.
· Plant onion sets 4in (10cm) apart in
mid March-mid April. Shallots require wider (6in
(15cm) apart) and earlier (mid February-mid March)
Planting time: As above
Lifting time: August; can extend from July to
Looking after the crop
· Protect from birds with black thread
or netting if they are a nuisance in your area.
· Keep weed-free by hoeing and hand pulling.
Push back any sets which have been lifted by frost
or birds. Once the sets are established and shoots
have appeared then treat as for seed-sown onions.
· Shallots: In July the leaves will turn
yellow. Lift the bulb clusters and separate them,
allowing each shallot to dry thoroughly. Remove
dirt and brittle stems, and store in net bags
or nylon tights in a cool, dry place. They will
keep for about 8 months.
· Onions: See Onion from seed.
Stuttgarter Giant: This is the variety you are
most likely to be offered. The bulbs are flattened,
not round, and the flavour is mild. It has good
keeping qualities and is slow to bolt.
Sturon: Many experts will tell you that this variety
is a better choice than the old favourites. The
straw-coloured bulbs are round and extremely large.
Bolt resistance is excellent.
Ailsa Craig: An old favourite – round, large
and straw-coloured with white, mild-flavoured
Rijnsburger: Large, pale yellow and round. There
are other large, round onions but this one (also
listed as Giant Fen Globe) has outstanding keeping
qualities. Stays fresh in store till May, according
to the catalogues.
These small bulbs are milder in flavour than onions
and are harvested in July or August. Use for cooking,
garnishing or pickling – keep a few in a
cool, well-lit place for planting next spring.
Dutch Yellow: One of the basic varieties –
depending on the catalogue you will be offered
Giant Yellow, Long Keeping Yellow, etc. Like Dutch
Red, a popular choice for kitchen use.
Hative De Niort: The usual choice by exhibitors
– the bulbs are perfectly shaped with deep
See Onion from Seed