Sunday, 3 February 2013



Everyone who grows vegetables for the home will include some members of the onion family. The range includes bulb onions, exhibition onions, pickling onions, spring onions, chives, shallots, garlic and leeks.
They can be available all year round as fresh during the growing season, with leeks all winter, or stored up till early summer. Small pickling onions can be pickled to keep in jars from one year to the next. Spring onions can be used in salads or lightly cooked in numerous recipes. They have been cultivated for culinary and medicinal uses for centuries originating in Central Asia in India, Egypt, China and surrounding countries.
Studies on the health benefits of the allium family are only just starting but already results indicate they could reach superfood status. They are rich in soluble dietary fibre, the minerals calcium, iron, potassium, chromium, and vitamins A, B6, C and K. Scientists have found about 150 phytonutrients in the onion family many of which are beneficial in treating inflammatory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, arthritis and fibromyalgia. Garlic is also high in selenium and manganese and contains beneficial thiosulfinates which assists cardiovascular health.
Eating onions regularly helps reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol. To obtain the most benefit do not overcook, as they only need a few minutes to soften on a low heat, especially with garlic. Spring onion, chives and sweet types of bulb onion can be eaten raw.

Soil and growing conditions

They all like free draining rich soil, so prepare the ground in autumn by digging in plenty of organic matter and leaving the surface rough over winter so the frost can break it down to a fine tilth. To get large bulb onions I sow seed in mid to late February indoors in cellular trays and grow on in a glasshouse. Plants are ready to plant out at the end of April. If two or three plants grow in each cell I do not thin them out as root disturbance would harm them, but adjust spacing to allow for singles, doubles and more. Bulbs end up touching each other as they swell, but this is ok. My favourite variety is Hytech as it grows quite large, keeps for ages and the onion is very sweet. If you are growing for exhibition, you are more likely to use the variety Kelsae, or other giant growing type, sow a lot earlier and feed regularly. If you get the exhibiting bug in a serious way your onions will most likely be kept in the greenhouse with artificial heat, artificial illumination, individual pots and staked to keep the foliage upright. Growing from sets is a bit simpler, but the varieties available do not compete with Hytech. Onions from sets are also more prone to bolting and white rot in these wet years. Remove any diseased bulbs as soon as you see them to prevent it spreading.
The best variety for pickling is Paris Silverskins. These can be grown in a two to three inch wide row in very good soil where they will grow thickly and bulb up in a fast but short growing season.
Shallots are grown very similarly as onions from sets, but each bulb will spilt into several smaller bulbs then swell up. They don’t store for as long as bulb onions as their smaller size tends to dry up easier.
Garlic is best grown from bulbs purchased from garden centres or seed merchants specialising in varieties for our soils and climate. Don’t use supermarket bulbs. They need a long growing season so plant the bulbs in late autumn on good soil in an open sunny aspect. Some varieties can be planted in modules and overwintered in a cold frame for spring planting and others planted in early spring outdoors. Plant with the pointed end upwards, spacing at 6 inches apart.
All onions need to ripen up at the end of summer, then get dried off thoroughly before roping or cleaning and netting for storage in a cool airy but frost free shed.
Chives are grown as a perennial herb and cut as required throughout the growing season. They are very easy to grow and quickly multiply.
Spring onions are mostly grown for adding to salads, but can be chopped up for stir frying and used in a similar way to chives. I start my first ones as seed sown in early March indoors in cells then harden off for planting in a prepared bed under a low polythene tunnel. Further sowings are made about every six weeks to give me successional crops from late spring to mid winter.
Leeks are my autumn and winter vegetable sown in a bed in spring then lifted and transplanted into rows when about six inches tall. The transplants get topped and tailed and dropped onto dibble holes six inches deep then watered in to firm up the roots. The first ones are ready in late autumn, but harvesting continues till spring. I find it hard to beat the old, but reliable variety Musselburgh.

Plant of the week

Choisya Sundance is an evergreen shrub growing to about 4 to 6 feet tall. The variety Sundance is the golden leaved form of the Mexican Orange blossom whose bright colour is very welcome in winter. It is winter hardy and will grow on any well drained soil but prefers a sheltered position in full sun. It looks good in courtyards, cottage gardens and I have a specimen in a large tub. The white spring flowers as well as the foliage are slightly scented. Sometimes the tips can suffer a bit of frost damage, but these can be pruned back to healthy wood and will grow again.


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