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by Ruth Colville
Growing onions has always been a very rewarding experience for gardeners both large and small. At Coldspring Farm we find the onion to be a reliable vegetable for year-round availability. Just as we are finishing our storage onions in May, the green onions we planted in April are beginning to reach the stage where we can sneak a few for that first early salad of the year. Not only do onions have a long list of culinary uses; for home gardeners, they can be planted in every nook and cranny throughout the garden. They are excellent to fill in between widely spaced plants such as brassicas, and if they get in the way, pull them green and enjoy.
I find that for the home gardener who wants onion greens from early spring to summer and good storage onions to last well into next spring, a yellow globe type or a standard stuttgarter variety is most rewarding. For greater variety, add a red globe onion and a Spanish onion. There are so many varieties that one could let onions take over the garden if not careful. Just remember that onions have day-length requirements: long-day types need the 13 to 16 hours of summer daylight found in northern climates.
Once you decide on the variety of onion you want to plant, you must next decide whether to plant seeds or sets (immature bulbs grown the previous year). Seeds offer a wider selection of cultivars, but they must be started indoors from late February to early March in flats and transplanted outdoors in May. Sets are easy to handle; they can be planted out as early as the soil can be worked and in succession to late spring for greens. We have done both seeds and sets and find that they produce equally well. Seeds are more time-consuming for the gardener than sets.
Onions enjoy rich, loamy soil with full sun and plenty of moisture during their early growth. Their nitrogen needs can best be met by spreading a heavy layer of well-composted manure in the rows prior to planting. Never use fresh manure. If seeds were started, transplant the plants into the garden in May once the weather has settled. The seedlings should be planted 4" apart and just a little deeper than they grew in the flats. Plant sets one inch deep and 3-4 inches apart if you plant to thin them by using the greens, or 5-6 inches if they are for storage. Keep them well watered and well weeded in the beginning and they will yield a good harvest.
Rotating the onion crop each year and keeping onions from crowding each other will help prevent damage to the bulb from onion maggots. Diatomaceous earth or wood ashes, sprinkled on the soil around the plants, can discourage onion maggot adults from laying their eggs near your crop. This pest is not a problem here at Coldspring Farm.
To harvest onions, watch for the tops to start drying and falling over. You may have to gently step on some of the onion tops to help them bend over; this process will speed the drying of the top and neck. When the tops and necks are dried and the weather has been dry, pull up the onions and lay them out for a week or so in a dry, warm, airy place (a fan may come in handy). When they are perfectly dry, cut off the tops at the neck and store them in onion bags in a cool, dry, dark place. If weather conditions have slowed the drying process out in the garden, pull the onions and put them upside down on a rack with their tops pointing downwards. Set the rack in a dry, warm place with good air flow and let them dry for several weeks until tops, necks and skins are absolutely dry. Then store as above. Racks can be placed in a greenhouse, loft, garage, barn or any other dry spot you can think of. We have tried all the above and found them to work equally well.
Ruth Colville is an organic market gardener at Coldspring Farm near Middleton, N.S.
Copyright © 1997. Ruth Colville.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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