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Onions (Liliaceae - Allium cepa)

Onions is such a nutritious and versatile vegetable in that it can be eaten on its own or mixed with a variety of foods. Onions is cultivated in most parts of the world. Although onions grow very easily, they take between seven to eight months from planting before they can be harvested. The onion is a vegetable that has a very long growing season. No kitchen should be without onions. In fact no house should be without onions. Onions is not just a culinary vegetable; it can also be used as a medicine in the treatment of gout. (The juice of a medium onion – extracted in a garlic press - can be added to an infusion that is made up of a half cupful of pennyroyal mint and one cup of boiling water. The pennyroyal mint and water should be left to steep for about twenty minutes, then it should be strained and added to the onion juice. Thereafter you can dip a piece of lint into the mixture and wrapped around the gout afflicted areas.)

Onion can also be used as a cosmetic in that some people use it as a shampoo to aid hair growth. The scalp is rubbed with chopped onion and left on for approximately fifteen minutes thereafter it is washed with a mild shampoo and followed with a vinegar rinse. Onion is also known to heal skin ailments such as cuts and acne.

These days many of the hardy varieties of onions are perennial vegetables.

Nutrients in onions

Onions contain many nutrients such as vitamin A, B1, B2 and B3 as well as vitamin E. As such onions can be used in so many ways. It has antibiotic properties and is diuretic, anti spasmodic, hypotensive and hypoglycemic. Onions can also be used to lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels and is useful to treat coughs, colds and bronchitis as well as gastric complaints.

Onions is such a versatile vegetable that it can be used in soups, stews, and meat and poultry dishes as well as in raw salads. Most savory dishes have onion as one of the ingredients. Onion pickles are just divine as a condiment and accompaniment to a lot of dishes. Onions can be a bit smelly on the breath, but there is always something in a home vegetable garden that can help. Just think about chewing a sprig of fresh parsley.

How to grow onions

Where and when to plant your onions

Onions will grow well in sandy soil. You should test your soil to ascertain what type of garden soil you have in your vegetable patch. The onion is a vegetable that does not like acidic or clayey garden soil. If your garden soil happens to be acidic then you can use soil amendments such as lime to prepare the onion vegetable bed.

A good sowing and planting date would be in the fall or autumn because onions prefer cool weather conditions in the first part of their growth season. As soon as the bulbs are forming, and during harvesting, onions prefer warmer weather with higher temperatures.

Onions make great companion plants to herbs such as chamomile which will enhance the growth of the onions, other vegetables such as carrots since it combats garden pests such as carrot fly, and beetroot.

Prepare the soil with a generous helping of compost as well as a cupful of 2:3:2 fertilizer or superphosphate per square meter.

Work in a few spades of river sand to aid in drainage if your garden happens to be too clayey. That is apart from the normal type of soil amendments that should be done in the case of clayey garden soil.

How to sow your onion seeds

It is recommended that you make use of a seedbed if it is the first time that you as a gardener sow onion seeds. First germinate the onions seeds in the seedbed and then transplant the onion seedlings into the soil where you want to cultivate your onions. (TIP: Sow you onion seeds to the depth of your fingernail.) The seedbed rows should be a hand-width apart and the seedbed should be watered thoroughly so that conditions are favorable for germination. Germination takes about two weeks. Transplanting of onion seedlings can take place when the seedlings are approximately 6 cm high. That usually takes about 6 to 8 weeks after germination. Onion seedlings should be transplanted into rows that are placed about three hand-widths apart. The onion seedlings itself can be planted seven and a half to ten centimeters part in the prepared beds. To facilitate easy transplanting of your onion seedlings, the leaves can be trimmed back to between ten and twelve centimeters and the roots to about one to two centimeters.

Direct sowing or sowing the seeds in situ is also possible when you have a good irrigation system in place. The onion plant itself grows to a length of between twenty and thirty centimeters long.

Taking care of your onions

The recipe for success when cultivating onions is fertile soil and good drainage. Make use of compost and kraal manure for best results. Do not hesitate to also add a cupful of superphosphate per square meter.

To practice organic gardening you should choose the correct companion plants to grow with your onions. Be vigilant for garden pests and diseases. Remove weeds on a regular basis (in the home vegetable garden it can be done by hand) and make us of mulch between rows of onion plants.

When transplanting your onions seedlings, do not plant them too deep. Only cover the roots and approximately half a centimeter of the stem with garden soil. It does not matter if the plant falls over or the stems suffer a little damage as the onion is quite a hardy little vegetable that will pull itself together.

Do not overwater the onion plants as it may result in the plant rotting. Though you should make sure that you onion plants have sufficient water.

Apply additional nutrient to the garden soil a month after planting.

Take care to water in the fertilizers and additional nutrients after application.

Watch out for pests such as cutworm and snails and slugs.

How to harvest your onions crop

Your onion crop will be ready for harvesting when the leaves begin to dry, yellow and fall off.

You should pull the onion out by the leaves.

Then leave the onions to dry out in the sun for approximately three days. Take care to ensure that the bulb of each of the harvested onions is covered so as to prevent sunburn. (TIP: Have the onion leaves of the one harvested vegetable cover the bulb of the other harvested onions for drying out purposes.)

If necessary you may also bend the leaves of the onion plant to encourage drying off.

Store your harvested onions in a dry, well-ventilated, shady position. Ideally on wire racks.

Alternatively you can plait the leaves of the dried harvested onions together in a bundle and hang them up in a cool dry place.

After two to four weeks the onions will be ready for use.

Troubleshooting onions crop failure and growing pains

Downy mildew on onions

Dry hot temperatures are favorable conditions for insects, and mild moist conditions such as rain, mist or dew will promote disease such as downy mildew. Choose the area that you intend to use as your vegetable bed to avoid these conditions.

Onions rotting

Often farmers and gardeners are of the opinion that they should flatten the onion plants when there are signs of the onions ripening (that is when the stems start to brown). This can result in the onion rotting down into the neck of the onion because the onion is then forced to dry out unnaturally. In essence what does happen is that the last bit of nutrients is cut off and worse the onion is thus not as juicy as it otherwise would have been.

Onions do not last long after harvesting

This could also be a result of neck rot in onion plants. Furthermore you should always ensure that the onion is kept in a dry place. Moisture after harvesting the vegetables will result in the onions rotting.

Onion leaves yellowing prematurely

Yellowing of onion plants in its growing season is due to nitrogen deficiencies in the garden soil. While in the growing season and the onion leaves start turning light green to yellow then you should add some 6:3:2 fertilizer which will provide the onion plant with enough nitrogen.