The middle and end of Winter might not seem like the most ideal time to start to work in the Vegetable Garden. But this is an excellent time to turn the soil for the season fast approaching. Dig in Green Manure Crops like Buckwheat, Lupin, Mustard, Peas.
Plus Rye and Wheat where they will quickly rot down. Otherwise, add copious fertiliser at this time to all Vegetable beds where crops will soon be raised. Compost, Blood and Bone, well-aged Manure, Lime and commercial Fertilisers will all be very beneficial. Many Gardeners dig this in only lightly and let the Winter rains leach it down through the soil.
For those eagerly intent to start planting, try Onions. Onions have been grown around the world more than any other crop. Truly, they are the world’s Universal Crop! That’s because they are a rich and valuable food source, easily grown in most garden soils. The best Onions come off land that is light and very well draining but moist and quite enriched. But even poor soils in rather droughty aspects will produce something!
Onions thrive on soils enriched with well-aged Stable or Chicken Manure. Organic Gardeners often add Wood Ashes from untreated burnt wood and/or Phosphate Rock as well as Compost to the soil. Alternatively, spread 4-5 handfuls of a good quality General Garden fertilizer or one with a 4-8-10 ratio over the bed and dig in lightly. That is: 4% Nitrogen; 8% Phosphorous; 10% Potassium (Potash) either by percent or volume.
While Onions really prosper in enriched land, the ‘well-drained’ aspect cannot be over-emphasized. Onion roots will search and recover from the soil whatever they need. But overly enriched, peaty soils and heavy land that remain water-retentive will almost surely result in fungal infections, Onion Maggot or bulb and root rotting diseases!
Planting and sowing of Onions can start as early as the Autumn throughout Winter and into Early Spring. Bunching and Green Onions can be planted throughout the year. Seed can be started in drills or rows in the garden or in seed trays. Thin or transplant to 2.5-5cm/1-2 inches apart with 15-20cm between rows. Bunching or Green Onions are often successfully planted this close together.
Bulb onions like Pukekohe Long Keeper or California Red demand more space between each plant than do the bunching varieties like White Lisbon (Spring/Green Onions). Usually 10-15cm/4-6inches is adequate. A high quality exhibition Onion might well have 30cm/1ft between plants!
When transplanting small Onion seedlings cut back the top leaves to 10cm/4inches and plant only the roots in the hole, leaving the tiny bulb sitting on the surface. Make sure that the roots spread out evenly in all directions. Then firm the soil over the roots with the tiny bulb left exposed. If planting from “sets”, small, dried immature Onion bulbs, simply place or gently press these into the fluffy and light, well-prepared soil until the top is just covered.
Avoid pressing small Onion sets into heavy ground; otherwise this may result in a small solid pocket of soil developing underneath the small bulb. This is likely to collect and retain excessive water which will ultimately result in bulb basal rot and a ruined crop.
Avoid planting Onions too deeply as this will lead to thick-necked bulbs that are poor keepers. The bed must remain moist and free of weeds. Onions have very shallow roots so keep cultivation very light to avoid damage.
Once growth of Onion leaves advances later in the Spring, regularly side dress along each side of the rows with a Nitrogen-rich fertiliser. Organic Gardeners often use Blood and Bone or mature Compost or Aged Manure. Others prefer something like Ammonia Nitrate or even a commercial Lawn Fertilizer. The idea is to grow as many healthy and strong new leaves as possible. With each new leaf, the Onion bulb will naturally expand.
Scratch this fertilizer lightly into the soil and water in. This is best done on sunny, mild days and best earlier in the day rather than later as Onions are best kept dry after dark to avoid possible fungal or rot infections. It is important that this fertiliser should not directly come in contact the tender, young bulb shoots or burning and a ruined crop could be the result. Always remember as mentioned previously that Onions roots are spreading and shallow.
For this reason some Growers add and mix the fertilizer into aged Compost or Manure at the ratio of 1 Cup Fertilizer to one standard bucket of Compost or Manure. This is then spread between the rows and watered in; which eliminates the need for any cultivation near the rows that could damage tender Onion roots.
Onions that are started into growth earlier during the cooler months, are usually the fastest to grow and the bigger they become at maturity. They usually reach full maturity as the Early Summer arrives. But immature and young Onions can be used as fresh vegetables at any stage of development.
For mature Onions of good ‘keeping’ quality, wait until they have fully matured. Pinch out the flowering bud before it opens so that more energy goes into increasing the bulb size. Once the tops start to yellow, dry up and tall over they are ready to harvest. If the tops continue growing into Mid Summer simply bend them over carefully and they will start to die off.
If the Summer weather remains too wet for harvest, a simple tepee can be rigged with string tied to garden stakes placed along the row and covered with a sheet of black plastic staked at the edges. Make sure that good air flow continues along the covered rows and that any run-off water shed by the plastic drains away and does not seep back underneath the plastic or growth continue or even result in rots.
Caution! Never spray mature Onion foliage with any form of herbicide in an attempt to get the tops to die down faster. This has become an unacceptable practice among some less scrupulous commercial growers intent on bringing in an earlier harvest for the markets.
Once the tops have bent over and begun to wither, the Onion bulbs can be dug or pulled up. Allow the bulbs to sun dry for several days before removing the tops and old roots. Turn occasionally to maintain even drying of the bulbs. This can happen in the field if conditions remain suitably dry.
But wherever rain or heavy dew is likely, move the drying Onion bulbs to an under-cover spot which remains very airy and with at least some sunshine or natural light. Then they can be stored in mesh bags in a dry, dark, cool, well ventilated spot until ready to use in a wide variety of dishes.
An alternative form of storage is the leave the Onion leaves attached. Dry the bulbs as previously mentioned. Once the leaves appear dry but are still pliable rather than brittle, gather the Onions together and braid the foliage. Often twenty or more Onions can be braided together. These are them hung in an airy, cool, dry position out of direct sunlight.
Or brought directly into the kitchen or pantry where each bulb can be cut off the braid as it is needed. Braided Onions are an excellent alternative wherever damp and humid conditions prevail or Onion Maggot might cause rotting of the mature bulbs. By braiding the Onions there is much less chance of this damage or rot spreading through direct contact with other Onion bulbs.
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