This section is from the book "Commercial Gardening Vol4", by John Weathers (the Editor). Also available from Amazon: Commercial Gardening, A Practical & Scientific Treatise For Market Gardeners.
This crop has the valuable advantage of being one of the few possible to a market gardener that need not be marketed at the moment of attaining maturity. A good crop of Onions well harvested will provide something to go to market with all through the winter, and none but those who have experienced it know the worry of the period from Christmas to March, with wages to be met weekly, rent and rates to be paid, baskets and rods to be bought, manure to be got in, with the land nearly all empty requiring cultivation and cropping.
Onions, to be successful, should be grown on clean land. The grower who spares the hoe and lets the weeds go to seed to save wages had better not attempt Onion growing. It is a wise practice, even for the clean grower, to follow Onions after a crop such as Savoys, in which during the previous summer it has been easy to keep the weeds down. The land for Onions should be ploughed up by Christmas, and they pay for a coat of manure.
Sowing takes place at the end of February or beginning of March, as soon as the land is dry enough to be properly worked. In fact the precise time is of less consequence than getting the land in proper order, which includes getting it quite fine and well rolled, for an indispensable cultural condition for Onions is to get the soil well firmed underneath without "panning" it. The seed is sown in drills 8 or 9 in. apart, and 10 lb. of seed are enough for 1 ac. The seed only wants putting just under the ground; in other words, requires but a slight covering of soil.
To get the land in proper tilth for this the last operations must be two-horse harrows, followed by one-horse harrows, followed by one-horse roll, followed by light seed harrows. After drilling, the light seed harrows must be run over the land - only on very light land and in dry weather - followed by the one-horse roll. A very good plan is to run a set of light harrows with well-sharpened tines over the "bed" as soon as the seed has sprouted. This will destroy a good many weeds without hurting the crop. As soon as the seed is well up the hoeing must be taken in hand. The time to destroy the weeds is when they are small; a delay of a day or two then may double the cost of hoeing.
A good many Onion growers let the hoeing by contract. The price in normal seasons on land of average cleanliness is £5 per acre to keep the crop clean and leave it clean on 12 July. Some pay £1 more and extend the time to 1 August. Pay is drawn by the men on the basis of the time put in, although, of course, the grower always takes care to keep sufficient balance in hand for a completion of the undertaking.
As a preventive to Onion Mildew some sow 1 cwt. of sulphate of iron to the acre, and, to improve the keeping quality, 1 cwt. of sulphate of potash before the seed is sown. It is not wise to use manure of a nitrogenous character too freely, as this is apt to make the onions too soft for long keeping. Soot both before and after sowing is a favourite manure with many.
When the tops are quite dried off, the onions are ripe for pulling.
This should be done quickly, because if wet should come the bulbs may-start fresh root action; this, besides making them harder to pull, will seriously impair their quality. After they are pulled the onions are left in narrow "windrows" to get well dried and ripened, and then are harvested in lofts or sheds. Wherever they are put the place must be dry, and such as to allow of free currents of air. If the onions are shot thickly on a floor, it is a wise precaution to put chimneys of empty baskets now and then through them. If they show any signs of heating they must at once be turned over, and the bad ones picked out during the process.
The price of onions is generally from £4 to £6 per ton. For "picklers", that is the very small ones, £7 can sometimes be obtained. The crop should be 12 to 15 tons per acre. Good varieties of onion for keeping are Giant Zittau, Up-to-date, and Bedfordshire Champion.
There used to be a considerable quantity of the Tripoli Onion grown, but the practice is not so general now as it was. One reason given for the decrease is that the increased production of onions in Egypt has enabled retailers to obtain a supply just at the time the Tripoli comes in, in a more convenient form and at lower cost. The Tripoli Onion, either Giant Rocca or Red Tripoli, is sown in seed beds in July, and transplanted in November, in rows 9 in. apart and 6 in. from plant to plant. The crop is ready to pull and bunch in June, when all the homegrown winter onions are finished.
The Lisbon Onion, a white-skinned variety, is grown for use as a salad. To pay, it must be sown thickly in the rows, 28 lb. of seed being required to sow 1 ac., the rows being 8 to 9 in. apart. Here also clean land is an indispensable condition to a paying crop. On dirty land the crop is heavily mortgaged before it gets on to the van. The first sowings are made in July, and if successions are desired they should be continued at intervals to late August. The onions are pulled when as thick as lead pencils, bunched in flat or fan bunches, carefully washed, dried on hurdles, and packed for market. The price is 2s. to 3s. per dozen bunches, and a good crop should come off at two to three dozen bunches to the pole. [W. G. L].