Growing onions and spring onions from seed: a variety guide – Stuff.co.nz

growing-onions-and-spring-onions-from-seed:-a-variety-guide-–-stuffco.nz

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Gardening guru Lynda Hallinan sowed these onions from seed.An apple a day keeps the doctor away, but an onion a day? That improves almost every meal. Rare is the day in my house that an onion isn’t sliced, diced or pickled, as the majority of my favourite savoury recipes begin with “saute a finely chopped onion...” I buy more onions than any other vegetable. As a family of four, we eat at least 1kg of onions each week – more now that my 10-year-old son Lucas has developed a taste for raw red onion. READ MORE: Renters' market garden: best edibles to grow when it's not your garden How to grow onions Can a weekend in the garden deliver summer's worth of fresh food? Cash crops: money-saving edibles to grow SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/Stuff'Pukekohe Long Keeper' onions by the barrowload. As we live on the outskirts of ‘Pukekohe Long Keeper’ country, onions are sinfully cheap to buy in bulk, especially when commercial growers donate them to community fundraising events. When you can buy a 10kg sack of perfect onions for as little as $10, it seems ridiculous to waste your own time, energy and garden space growing your own. Except, of course, that by growing your own, you can harvest several sackfuls for the price of a packet of seed, and you can decide if you want to use fertilisers and sprays – organic or otherwise – to improve your yield. But let’s not pretend that onions are easy for everyone to grow. Not only do onions need a fair bit of soil, they hog this space for the entire growing season. I spent eight months fussing over the finicky specimens in this story, worrying about spring weed competition and summer drought and autumn fungal problems. I’m not convinced I want to ever voluntarily repeat the process, although I was surprised how easy spring onions were to grow in comparison to their fat-bottomed friends. (Plus, if you leave spring onions in the ground for long enough, they generally do eventually produce baby bulbs.)SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffA spray-free crop of bulb onions and spring onions. When I asked on Facebook if any gardening friends had had better luck with onions, most hadn’t. “Easier to buy them,” was the consensus. Sue Rackham nailed it when she told me that “good drainage and good luck are both essentials.” But my friend Emma, who once dated an onion farmer, piped up with useful (with the benefit of hindsight) advice. “Onions have a surprisingly deep root system, so you need to work the soil deep – at least 25cm – to ensure good drainage. Sorting the drainage is important as the soil will end up compacted due to them being in the ground for a long time. Onions are gross feeders and do well with regular fertilising with Nitrophoska Blue (N-P-K 12-10-10) and lime between seasons.” Oops. I barely dug my soil over. I weeded an area that had previously been home to a green manure crop, added fertiliser and mulched the rows after transplanting, but if I knew then what I know now, I’d have got the rotary hoe out – or at least put in a little more gruntwork with my spade – to improve the drainage.SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffHarvest onions when their tops brown off. I should have consulted my trusty 1926 Brett’s Gardening Guide. “The best onion soil is a deep rich loam of a somewhat sandy texture, but well-worked clay, with plenty of lime, bonedust and wood ashes added, will produce an excellent crop. The soil must be well-drained and prepared by deep digging.” In Alexandra, Lenore Townsend reckons onions are easy because “our soil is sandy and water contains lime. We grow sufficient to last all year, red and white. It’s important to dry them off properly and store in onion bags.” Sandy soil also benefits Philippa Edwards in her coastal garden near Bulls. “We plant onions on raised rows and, after two weeks, give them a weed and cover the soil with lawn clippings. We cover with bird netting as soon as they are planted or they need to be replanted daily.” Dig in general garden fertiliser prior to planting, and top up with monthly applications of liquid fertiliser or homemade sheep poo and seaweed concoctions. Watering, especially in early summer when the bulbs are swelling, is important.SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffOnion bulbs range in shape from round to elongated, with skins from brown to purple and flesh from white to pale yellow to pink. “The onion will succeed year after year on the same ground,” according, again, to the Brett’s Gardening Guide, though Wanganui gardener Graeme Musson’s vege-growing Dad had a better way of putting it. “Dad used to say, ‘Onions where they ever was and taties where they never was’.” When sowing direct, don’t bury the seeds any deeper than 5mm, and when transplanting, don’t drop them into planting holes as you would leeks, as this can cause onions to grow thick necks rather than fat bottoms. Thin seedlings to at least 5-10cm for small bulbs, or 15-20cm for large onions such as ‘Italian Long Keeper’ or ‘White Sweet Spanish’, which can grow huge (up to 1kg each) if the sun and soil conditions are to their liking. Depending on where you live, and whether the onions you want to grow are early or late maturing varieties, onions can be sown and planted from autumn until spring. But if you are yet to sow – let alone plant – onions this season, stick to the quicker, more compact varieties such as ‘Pearl Drop’ and ‘Purplette’, or just buy seedlings from garden centres this month. And remember to prepare the soil first! Onion sowing trial resultsSALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffOnions 30 days after germination. Of all the home garden trials I‘ve carried out for NZ Gardener over the years, sowing dozens of carrots and courgettes to radishes and strawberries, I have to say that this onion sowing experiment took the most effort for the least reward! In late August, I sowed 10 varieties of bulbing onion, 10 types of spring onion, four Italian heirloom varieties and two varieties of shallot. The seeds were sown in recycled punnets filled with potting mix, with a sprinkle of vermiculite on top. I kept the pots indoors, on our sunny north-facing stableblock window, and was careful not to let the mix dry out. Onions are reliable germinators. Most varieties had an excellent strike rate with ‘Red Brunswick’ close to 100 per cent. Keep this in mind when sowing or you’ll end up, as I did, with far more seedlings than space to plant them. From seed to harvest took a full eight months and yet most of my onions were smaller than a ping-pong ball! Some varieties refused to bulb up at all – I’m looking at you ‘California Red’ – while others took their sweet time and had only just begun to swell by the end of April, when our photos were taken just before the first frosts hit my low-lying vege patch. I’ve learned my lesson: soil preparation, soil preparation, soil preparation! I clearly didn’t cultivate my soil deeply enough prior to transplanting as, despite regular watering, feeding and mulching to reduce weed competition, most of the varieties grew lovely green tops but these weren’t matched with fat bulbs down below.SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffSeedlings ready to transplant. More ruthless thinning earlier in the season would also have helped, as by the time I got around to thinning, it was hard to dislodge surplus seedlings without disturbing the ones I wanted to keep. It wasn’t a complete disaster. The classic brown-skinned variety ‘Pukekohe Long Keeper’ grew as it was supposed to, and ‘Red Rambo’ produced good-sized bulbs in between the scrawnier specimens. For gourmet onions, I was chuffed with both ‘Tropea Rossa Lunga’ and ‘Rossa Lunga di Firenze’. Both grew appealing medium-sized onions with a shallot flavour (delicious roasted and stewed whole). I had zero luck with the flat Italian button onion or cipollini ‘Borettana’, which failed to germinate, while the miniature white ‘Barletta’ produced just seven seedlings, none of which, despite all my love and attention, made it to maturity. My sowing of heirloom ‘Tropea Rossa Tonda’ produced precisely one onion, which I savoured, finely sliced, in a Clevedon Valley Buffalo Gouda toasted sandwich. All I can say is that it’s lucky that my husband and I both love pickled onions, because I bottled several jars of cocktail-sized ‘Purplette’ (they ended up a pretty shade of pink once pickled), cute white ‘Pearl Drop’, ‘Italian Long Keeper’ and ‘Yellow Sweet Spanish’. Despite their size, they were crisp and tasty and I’d sow all of them again. ‘Yellow Sweet Spanish’ and ‘White Sweet Spanish’ were first to die down (they take roughly 120 days), but they don’t store as well. My ‘Zebrune’ shallots didn’t survive transplanting and ‘Ambition’ showed a distinct lack of its namesake trait, though at least small shallots can be recycled as seed for a second season. Incidentally, for these photographs, I peeled the outer skins off (with the exception of ‘Pukekohe Long Keeper’, to show the diversity of flesh colours. But don’t peel onions post-harvest unless you are about to eat them, as de-skinning is detrimental to their keeping ability. Spring onion sowing trial: a raging successSALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffAll the spring onion varieties were child’s play to grow, says gardening guru Lynda Hallinan. Almost all the spring onion seeds I sowed in pots germinated like grass, grew into healthy seedlings and never looked back. The fastest and thickest germinators were ‘Crimson Forest’, ‘Long White’, and ‘White Welsh’. My first sowing of ‘Red Bunching’ proved a dead loss (it happens) so I bought a second packet of seed and had another go. Despite being a month later hitting the soil, that batch soon caught up and, like their darker red-stemmed cousin ‘Crimson Forest’, ended up among my favourites to pick.SALLY TAGG/NZ GARDENER/StuffSpring onions, from left, 'White Welsh', 'Ippon Negi', 'Crimson', 'Red Bunching', 'Tokyo Long White', 'Long White', 'Crimson Rain', 'Galloper' and 'White Spring Bunching. This was the first time I’d ever bothered to raise spring onions from seed (usually I just grab a couple of punnets from the garden centre) and I was taken aback at how easy they were to grow. Twelve months later, a few clumps are starting to look a bit raggy, and some have run to seed, but I’ve still got plenty left to pull. My trial has shown me that spring onions are a fairly foolproof crop but if I had to choose a top variety, it would be ‘Galloper’, an F1 hybrid from Egmont Seeds. Funnily enough, their catalogue describes it as “the most vigorous dependable and adaptable variety on the market with long shanks.” ‘White Welsh’, ‘Ippon Negi’ and ‘Tokyo Long White’ also did very well. I didn’t see any need to thin or space out my seedlings either; I just transplanted – and later harvested – them in clumps. You can also buy spring onion seed tapes, though I’m not sure why anyone would think this an advantage, as my careful burying of a row of ‘Lisbon’ seed tape produced a solitary spring onion! These tapes are possibly better suited to raised beds than open ground, or soil that has been sprayed off with organic herbicide prior to sowing, as by the time the seeds germinated mine were swamped by weed growth in the bare soil around them. Yates has a seed tape variety called ‘Straight Leaf’, which is said to “hold its stem and leaves straight upwards for tidier plants less prone to disease.”
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