The Essential Vegetable
Every recipe seems to call for one medium Onion.
Just what is a medium Onion? There is probably more choice when growing Onions than in any other vegetable. Green Onions, Spanish Onions, Storage Onions and several other types and each type seems to come in a range of sizes and shapes. Long and thin, round, fat or flat; red, yellow or white and we haven’t even started to look at the essential Onion cousins such as Leeks and Shallots. Onion afficionados will bore you with the delicate differences in taste and sweetness and there truly is some but most of us just want an Onion that adds flavour and aroma to our meals. Luckily the growing instructions are very similar, no matter what Onion you decie to grow.
How To Choose? What are you going to do with your Onions. I'm growing onions of several types for a variety of uses. The quickest and most obvious are the thin immature plants we know as green or spring or bunching Onions. There are non-bunching types Allium fistulosum that persist as non bulbed plants but space in the garden is always a consideration. I use a sweet Spanish type for green Onions and just thin the row for several weeks as I need them. Eventually they develop into large bulbs and I no longer have bunching Onions to use. You can always start a later batch if you are particularly fond of green Onions. Allium cepa varieties are the many types of bulbing Onions. My garden usually has some red sweet and mild ones that are used raw in salads and some good yellow storage types that will keep in my cold cellar well into the winter. I also like a few of the Cipollini types that are quite flat in shape. They are quite sweet when cooked. Every seed catalogue has at least twenty different varieties; just read the descriptions and choose one that seems to appeal to you.
Where Do You Live? Strange question but an Onion’s ability to produce bulbs is day length sensitive. Most catalogues will give the range of latitudes that a particular variety is suited for. Long day types in the North and short day types will bulb up in the South.
How Do I Grow Them? There are many different types but growing onions of most types utilizes similar cultural requirements. They are rather long season crops with some of the storage Onions taking in excess of 100 days to mature. In long season areas they will produce quite fine when direct seeded to the garden but I always start the majority of mine indoors because I don’t want to wait until late summer to enjoy my fresh Onions. They also take up minimal space under my lights compared to most other crops. Sometime in early February, I start growing onions by seeding them fairly thickly on a deep container filled with soiless mix and make sure they are thoroughly covered. A 15 cm tray will accommodate between 100 - 200 seeds and that’s probably more Onions than you need.
Onion seed keeps quite well until next year if stored properly. Keep well moistened until they germinate and then slowly increase the time between waterings so that the soil surface just dries out. If they get too long and floppy I just give them a haircut and reduce their length by almost half.
When Do They Go Outside? Onions are cool weather crops so as early as the ground can be worked, I give them another haircut, gently separate the seedlings and plant them at a spacing that is appropriate for the size of the bulbs they will produce. The sweet spanish are planted much closer together to allow me to thin them by pulling green onions. They like a loose friable soil that is fairly rich in compost. They are quite shallow rooted plants and therefore do well when watered quite regularly. A couple of cm. per week would be ideal.
When Do We Eat? As soon as the first ones look thick enough to make decent green Onions start enjoying them. The bulbing types will slowly develop bigger and bigger bulbs and you just start eating them as soon as they are big enough. They can stay in the ground for as long as the weather holds. By mid autumn, if the leaves are not shrivelling,stop your growing onions by bending them over to break them and eventually pull the bulbs out of the soil and leave in the sun to dry for a few days. Store them in net bags in your cold cellar and enjoy your bounty well into the winter.
Growing Onions is easy, fairly fool proof and you can produce an amazing amount of tangy tasty bulbs in a very small space. They even do reasonably well in containers if they don’t get too hot and dry. When your recipe calls for one medium Onion just choose an average sized one from your garden or cellar and enjoy.
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