Archive for onions

Overwintering onions and garlic

103 planting onions 17 nov 13It’s been a difficult autumn to get the overwintering onions in. Whenever we’ve planned to get to the plot and do the job, it’s rained!

Finally, last week, we got the job done. This year we’re growing one lot of red onions, one lot of white and two different varieties of garlic: Solent Wight and Provence Wight. Overwintering onion are purchased as sets, not seeds, which get planted with the point at the top and the (miniscule and difficult to spot) roots at the bottom. Every year I say this, but I’ll say it again – don’t just push them into the ground; they easily get damaged by stones or even grit in the soil and that causes them to rot. Dib a hole and drop them in.

Remember that smaller sets can be more productive than bigger ones as the larger they are the more prone they are to bolt.

103 allotment haul 17 nov 13We have to cover our onions and garlic, as the birds always pull them up. It’s a backbreaking task but it’s great to have it all done at last!

A fairly meagre haul – a red cabbage and a head of Chinese leaves …

Comments (2) »

October workshopping and allotment harvest

allotment haul 28 sept 13We managed to dodge the weather today! While there was torrential rain in the morning, and torrential rain in the afternoon, our two-hour workshop in the middle of the day passed completely unscathed.

Today we looked at three key topics: winterising greenhouses, curing and storing squashes for winter use, and planting overwintering onions and garlic.

There’s a lot of useful information on the web covering preparing a cold greenhouse for winter so I’m not going to go into all again here.

Harvesting squashes and pumpkins is less well covered though. A lot of people use the fingernail test – if you cannot penetrate the skin of the pumpkin with your fingernail, it’s ready to harvest. The real problem with this test, in my opinion, is that if you can make a hole in the skin with your fingernail, you probably just did, and that immature but nearly ripe pumpkin is now going to be left to face any bacteria, mould or pests that might find said little crevice and crawl inside to proliferate/multiply/feed. This sounds like a risky way of pumpkin testing to me!

103 allotment haul 20 oct 13I prefer a three-fold assessment.

1 – is the vine (the main plant) still supplying nutrients to the pumpkin? So check if it’s green, leafy and verdant (if you’ve already had an air frost it might not be any of those things) and if so, whether the stem where the plant joins the fruit is still plump and moist. As a squash ripens, this stem becomes pale, shrivelled and cracked and it’s easy to see that the fruit isn’t getting ‘fed’ by the plant.

2 – can you (carefully) insert your thumbnail into the stem and make any impression on it? Stems are often prickly so be careful. If you can’t, it’s probable your fruit is mature.

3 – does the skin sound solid when you knock on it and does it feel hard to your fingers? Experienced growers can often tell by weight too, but you need to have been growing pumpkins a few years to be able to assess this – they do actually get a bit lighter when they’re mature, but it really does take years of growing pumpkins to notice!

If you get No to 1 and 2 and Yes to 3 it’s a good time to harvest. If you say no to 1 because the leaves have died away/gone black, it might be you’ve had an air frost already – in which chase you might want to lift your squashes and get them into a frost free environment to cure. Frosts will attack the skin of a pumpkin, causing it to soften and collapse. Rain can also harm mature pumpkins, by forming puddles under the fruit or pools on top of it, which then causes rot to develop.

Curing is the process that allows a squash to be stored for weeks or months. Ripe or mature is not cured, it’s just ready to cure!

A cured squash has a dense, impermeable skin and a fully dried stem. Simply place your pumpkin in a cool, dry place with good air circulation for 7-10 days, turning it every couple of days so that each part is exposed to the air. This means any tiny cuts on the pumpkin skin can heal, the stem can desiccate fully and so no rot, mould or mildew can get in to shorten the life of the squash.

We also cut lots of herbs: thyme, lemon verbena, parsley and pulled some lemongrass for growing on. Harvest today was: a huge butternut squash, red kale, salad onions, lemongrass, Brussels sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli and golden raspberries!

I also got to share a very exciting gift with this week’s students. When I went to Hampton Court Flower Show to read from The Allotment Diaries I fell in love with Chris Beardsley’s show garden for McCarthy and Stone Retirement Lifestyles and, having raved about it on and off ever since, was delighted to be sent some packets of the wildflower seed used in the garden! There were actually too many for my needs, which I’m not going to talk about yet as it’s still at the planning stage, so I was able to pass some seeds onto the the students … it will be great to see how they use them! Thank you McCarthy and Stone, specifically Jan and Alexa, for such a lovely surprise in the post!

Leave a comment »

Onions and garlic and how to store them

onions beforeIf you’ve grown summer onions, they will be juicy and sweet and they really won’t keep for long. If you’ve grown onions to keep over the winter, then they’ll have less juice and they will keep through the winter, if you give them proper treatment. Garlic is like storing onions, only more so!

onions dryingFirst – let them cure. If you harvest as the tops bend over, they need between two and four weeks to cure (the necks become dry and thin, the outer layers become paper thin, the roots desiccate completely) in an airy place – not too hot and definitely not in direct sun which steals the subtler flavours. Airy is vital: moisture is the enemy of onion and garlic while it’s curing.

garlic beforeSecond – only when the roots are completely desiccated, and the skins have become papery, do you clear away the outer layers, particularly if they are muddy or damaged, until you reach a complete, dry layer. Then trim back the roots with so they are as short as possible and finally brush the roots with a soft brush – a soft old toothbrush is ideal, to remove any lurking grit, mud or other nasties that could harbour bacteria that will lead to rot.

You might string your onions – there’s a great description here. We don’t, we store them in wooden trays.

For garlic, if you want to, you can string them too. Repeat the process as for onions and if the necks are still soft and you don’t have evidence of rust, plait the garlic together. We’ve got rust this year and I prefer not to plait as my experience is that there’s a higher change of garlic getting rot if it’s plaited with rust on the necks. Instead I shorten the necks back and make a hole about two inches down with a large darning needle carrying a thick cotton thread. Then I knot the thread by the neck, move on a couple of inches and thread on another garlic. You end up with something more like a horticultural garland but as the heads don’t touch and have excellent air circulation, they seem to keep better.

onions and garlicYou can just cut cured (no longer soft/moist or bendy) necks off completely and store your garlic in a cotton bag, a wooden drawer etc. It’s a choice – some like one thing, some another. While storage methods are personal, cleaning your cured onions and garlic is vital to keep them in good condition for as long as possible – and it’s very satisfying!

Comments (1) »

March allotment crops to plant – whatever the weather!

While we’re holding back on our potatoes, the onions just had to go in this weekend. Some crops have a limited storage life, and while onion sets keep well through the winter, once the day length starts to change, they start to soften. It’s not possible to keep them once that happens, so planting out is the only option. The way to check is to gently pinch the middle of an onion set and see if it squidges. It doesn’t matter if all the outer layers of skin slough off, as long as what remains is rock hard. But if they have started to soften and you don’t get them in the ground, they will simply rot.

Quick guide to planting onions

onion sets

Onions like a light sandy soil, in which you dib holes for them to sit.

raised vegetable bed

It’s nothng like the rich soil in which you plant salads or strawberries

onion sets

Lighly raking the soil back over the onions gives them the optimum conditions to start growth

red onion sets

Red and white onions benefit from exactly the same treatment

The mistakes most people make with onion sets are:

    to push them into the ground, the way the old gardening books say – don’t do this, it just allows small stones to gash the onion slightly, which can then lead to fungal infection and rot, and
    to plant them too firmly. Onions like light soil, a light hand and light watering.

You do need to cover them to stop birds pulling them up as soon as they sprout, so either fleece or netting will keep them safe from bird vandalism!

Leave a comment »