Time to scratch out your patch

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - HOME - Peter Cun­dall

THERE are about 450 species in the onion ( Al­lium cepa) tribe, al­though most are or­na­men­tals. The ed­i­ble va­ri­eties in­clude leeks, gar­lic, com­mon white, brown or red onions, shal­lots, potato onions, bunch­ing onions, spring onions, chives and even “tree” onions.

Most can be planted or sown in win­ter. In fact, onion seed will ger­mi­nate at tem­per­a­tures as low as 2C. Most pre­fer a cool start with an in­creas­ing day length, which is why June and July are per­fect months to start a crop.

Onions love a sweet, well- limed soil, so sprin­kle a good dou­ble hand­ful of lime­stone over ev­ery square me­tre of sur­face and rake it in.

Onions are great sources of vi­ta­min C, B6, potas­sium, cal­cium; traces of se­le­nium, zinc and folic acid.

They add flavour to most savoury foods yet con­tain lit­tle fat. Raw or cooked, onions are a nat­u­ral health food and in Tas­ma­nia they can be grown to perfection.

Long- keep­ing onion va­ri­eties for sowing or plant­ing now in­clude Aus­tralian brown, Cream­gold and red onions.

To cre­ate an onion bed, you need to cul­ti­vate and rake the soil, work­ing it to a fine tilth. Get rid of weeds and their roots, then walk over the bed to firm it and rake the sur­face gen­tly to leave a thin, even layer of loose soil. Onions love this firm base be­cause it pro­vides lever­age as the swelling bulbs grad­u­ally thrust them­selves from the soil. They need to be ex­posed to sun­light to fully ripen in late De­cem­ber.

Press a straight gar­den stake into the loose sur­face to make shal­low grooves or drills, spaced about 20cm apart.

Onion seed is small, black and an­gu­lar. For eas­ier sowing, place a cup of fine, dry sand into a screw- top jar with a fin­ger- sized hole in the lid and empty in a packet of onion seed. Shake to mix seed and sand so the mix­ture can be poured through the hole along the drill. The onion seeds should then be evenly spaced.

Don’t bother back­fill­ing. Give the bed a good wa­ter­ing and keep the soil moist un­til ger­mi­na­tion hap­pens in about two weeks.

Good onion seedlings are cheap. Don’t waste your money on lanky bun­dles of over­grown seedlings. Th­ese old seedlings tend to bolt use­lessly to seed around Novem­ber. Small seedlings in pun­nets are best – even tiny ones which still carry the black rem­nants of seed coats cling­ing to leaf tips.

To plant onion seedlings, make grooves deep enough to hold the roots. Care­fully re­move seedlings from pun­nets and wash off all soil to ex­pose masses of white roots. Dis­en­tan­gle in­di­vid­ual plants by gen­tly pulling them apart.

Th­ese seedlings must never be deeply planted. Only the roots should be buried and if they fall over it’s no big deal be­cause they soon pick up af­ter a week or so.

The eas­i­est way is to place out the seedlings flat on the ground 20cm apart so the roots dan­gle in the grooves. Then use a rake to care­fully cover all the roots with soil. Wa­ter gen­tly to avoid dis­turb­ing the seedlings.

Th­ese young plants grad­u­ally be­come up­right as the roots take hold and are usu­ally fully erect and grow­ing strongly in two weeks.

Sev­eral seedlings can also be planted to­gether in clus­ters, each group be­ing about 15- 20cm apart. This method is ideal for con­tainer grow­ing be­cause they take up lit­tle space. As the onion bulbs swell, they sim­ply push each other apart to al­low large clus­ters of ma­ture onions to be har­vested.

Shal­lots are small, mild onions. They can be sown as seed or bought as bulbs at gar­den cen­tres.

Don’t bother try­ing to grow im­ported su­per­mar­ket shal­lots be­cause they are usu­ally heat- treated so they can­not sprout.

Shal­lot bulbs are pushed into the soil so only the necks are show­ing. They quickly form roots and by har­vest time around Christ­mas, there can be as many as 10 to 15 new bulbs ready for eat­ing or stor­ing.

Onions grown in heav­ily fer­tilised soil grow too big and be­ing soft, they’re rel­a­tively taste­less.

They don’t store well and quickly turn mouldy. The best fer­tiliser in aver­age soil is sul­phate of po­tash, sprin­kled the rate of a tight fist­ful per square me­tre over the bed ev­ery month. This helps counter any ex­cess ni­tro­gen in the soil.

Onions are ready to be har­vested af­ter the leaves die and fall over nat­u­rally.

Never try to has­ten ripen­ing by bend­ing the leaves. Har­vested onions keep in good con­di­tion for months dur­ing sum­mer and au­tumn when tied into strings and hung un­der cover or placed on wire racks in an airy place.

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