Gardening: Know your onions - my experience is littered with failure and heartache

Joseph Bulmer

Looking out of the windows at the monochrome backdrop has given me thinking time about what I might do differently this year.

I’ve been toying with the prospect of devoting the entire allotment to herbs and nothing else.

However romantic this might be, it's just not practical.

It's not practical because I have a secret agreement with myself about making the best use of space on the allotment.

By that, I mean eating all-year round not just in the mercurial summer.

I'm sure it's merely a knee-jerk response to reading Mark Diacono’s book on herbs, an unusually innovative Christmas present from my daughter - OK, I did show her my list.

Now the mountain of cheese and chocolate at home has reduced to just above sea level, I've been made more familiar with everyday ingredients.

It’s this that has made me rethink the crazy herb idea.

One thing I, and assume everyone else, uses most days is the onion.

My own history with this king of the allium family is littered with failure and heartache.

I've only just started to get a crop that could loosely be described as something resembling culinary decent.

Past efforts have withered, been dug up by mice, pecked out by what Tony Hancock might call ‘great feathered heads’ and even undermined by clumsy moles.

Finding solutions to all these has required a remedy as well as wider reading around the subject.

If I stood on all my onion literature end to end I could reach the ceiling.

January isn’t a barren month for sowing seeds and its perfect to start the slow burning growth of an onion. The world record onion was sown in January!

Alternatively you could buy ‘sets’ to plant but it’s not as much fun as growing your own remarkable bulbs from seed.

An onion seed weighs 0.0035 grams and could transform itself into a bulb around the 8lb/17.5kg mark.

That’s an increase of over five million times it's own size. If that’s not remarkable, I don t know what is.

This mind-blowing piece of information will tell you that in order for it to achieve optimum growth the conditions need to be pretty much perfect.

Seeds need warmth, moisture and air to germinate.

Germination will take around 12 days if you place the tiny angular black seeds in quarter of an inch/6mm of potting compost at a constant 10-13ºC.

Use a deep seed tray as the roots will need the space.

Transplant them when they resemble a loop above ground into 3in/75mm pots and after two days, they will start to grow upright.

After three weeks in the pot they will need feeding with a balanced liquid feed.

They like to kept moist at this point so a good tip is to use a misting spray daily.

When you have just started to develop an attachment with your babies, it will be time to plant them outdoors. this is usually mid-April

To stop those hungry great feathered heads stealing your precious cache, dig a shallow trench to counter sink the onions so the blackbirds can’t reach, then net them to keep the rodents out at least until they quickly become established.

As I'm not growing champion onions, I plant then 12in/30cm apart and an inch deeper than the pot they are in.

Watering, ventilation and weeding need to be maintained.

By late summer you will be able to expose their shoulders to expose the familiar papery skin for a few days before pulling them and leaving to dry on the surface during a dry spell.

I find this one of the most satisfying and indeed showy points of the allotment calendar.

Displaying your perfectly layered orbs baking above ground for everyone to note the expertise and love you’ve given then since January.

It’s the gardening equivalent of dropping the microphone.

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