Written by featured author, Margaret Robinson

To many gardeners the sight in August of a bed of very large onions just reaching maturity is a treasured satisfaction of a job well done. This achievement can be reached by even the new gardener given the correct soil, preparation and of course the important, correct variety.

Preparation of the soil should be started as soon as the previous crop has been harvested, but never when the soil is too wet, for this breaks the soil structure, this work is best done before Christmas.

To achieve top results the onion bed should be a well open site with good drainage, trench approximately. 18in (45cm) deep, fork the bottom of each trench if solid. Into every four square yards of the bed work in the following: four forkfuls of pea, bean or pea haulms, one barrow of well rotted farmyard manure, 5oz (141gm) bone meal, 6oz (170gm) sulphate of potash.

First scatter the haulms in the bottom of the trench and mix the fertiliser and manure into the trench topsoil. It is very important that the greater amount of manure is within 4in (10cm) of the surface, to make sure that the roots contact this during the early stages of growth. After trenching it is an advantage to scatter 8oz (227gm) of basic slag on the top. The bed can then be left over winter.
During March when the topsoil starts to dry out add to the four square yards 2oz (57gm) superphosphate and 1oz (28gm) hydrated lime or we have found calcified seaweed at the rate of 0.7 kg to the area of great benefit.

January is a very important month, for this is the month for the sowing of the mammoth onions, they are, a long season onion therefore sowing should be done during January and February. Sow using a seed tray and a good seedling compost, we favour John Innes No. 1 for sowing, but if you are unable to obtain a good supply, one of the soil-less composts can be used.

Cover the seeds once sown with 0.6cm of the same compost which has been put through a fine sieve. At a temperature of 55F (12.8C) germination should take approximately two weeks. The compost should be kept moist during this period. Avoid germinating the seeds at a higher temperature or other than greenhouse conditions. If you have problems with keeping the temperature in the greenhouse, which during January can be quite difficult, we suggest that you delay sowing to late February.
Once the seedlings are approximately 1.75cm above the soil surface 'crook stage' transplant into a stronger potting compost John Innes No. 2 or soil-less type, pots or boxes can be used but the best results are obtained from single potted plants. This stage is very critical, especially if the weather is dull and dark, watering should be kept to a minimum during these times, a spray with Benlate fungicide after potting can prevent botrytis (damping off).

The seedlings should be kept in the greenhouse, ventilate as much as possible to help grow a strong plant rather than a soft one. Plants which were sown in January can be carried out of the greenhouse into a cold frame in early April to harden the plant prior to planting, later sown plants, during the middle of April. Planting time can vary from area to area, and from spring to spring, but by the first week in May the onion plants in almost every area can be planted.

Work the previously prepared ground into a fine tilth, the onions can then be planted at approximately. 12in x 16in (30cm x 41cm) apart, with the base of the plant 1in (2.5cm) below ground level. We have found a great advantage in covering the plants with cloches, or plastic tunnels for two to three weeks after planting.

Feeding, this is quite a talking point with keen gardeners. On established onion beds feeding is not necessary, in fact harm is done by feeding on such beds making the onions very soft with poor keeping qualities. If feeding is to be done this is best done early in the season and never after the end of June, nitrate of soda at the rate of one teaspoon per gallon (4.5L) of water to one square yard can be used as a feed.

When to harvest, here again much has been written on this subject, we have done many experiments into this and have found that best results for good store onions is to pull while still a little growth in the tops. This will be from mid August onwards but before second week in September.

For the show bench allow approximately ten days before the show day for the preparation. For kitchen or show take the top off approximately 6in (15cm) above the bulb, cut off the root and any split off decayed skin, wipe the bulbs with a soft damp cloth to remove any soil. Place the onions on a bench in a greenhouse or shed with plenty of ventilation and sunlight. For kitchen use leave on the bench for approximately two weeks to dry, then store in boxes, or string bags in a frost free, cool and dry area.

Exhibitors will, after seven days from harvesting, be able to bend the top of the onion over, this can be secured with a rubber band or raffia.

Beacon, Bunton's Showstopper, Mammoth, and Ailsa Craig will, if given good propagation and growing, give full satisfaction whether being grown for kitchen or show. No garden is quite complete without a bed of onions, we hope that we have helped a little to help you achieve the best possible results from your seed.

Margaret Robinson is one of the directors of W. Robinson and Son who specialise in large-sized vegetables.

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