This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
It appears somewhat singular that the improvement from an original state of many of our best kitchen esculents, has, or would seem to have had its beginning during the time which is generally known as the Dark Ages; and, in consequence, we are in the habit of saying that they have been in use from time immemorial. If we consider, however, that the teachers of theology, in those days, held almost despotic power; that they kept their knowledge amongst the privileged few; also, that the monastery was nearly the only school for gardening; and still further, that this individuality was well understood and much cultivated by these exclusives, the deficiency of many historical facts in horticulture is clearly seen. As we possess the result of their labors, which has, in many examples, been the forerunner of our present excellence, we may content ourselves with conjecture, and judge of physiological truth from our now more developed intelligence.
It is supposed that the onion was originally from Spain, but is just as likely that the knapsacks of the Crusaders were the receptacles of conveyance from the Asiatic continent. Whatever have been the means of introduction matters not in a practical point of view, as long as we have got so universally esteemed a vegetable.
The medical properties of the whole genus Allium, to which the onion belongs, are more or less stimulant and diuretic. In addition to these, the juice of our present subject is made into a syrup with sugar, and often administered to advantage in infantile croup and catarrh, when there is not much inflammatory action. It is also recommended in dropsy and calculous disorders; and when roasted, applied as a poultice to foul tumors. Notwithstanding these good qualities, there are many persons whose digestive organs are weakly, and which become deranged by the use of onions, when nausea and headache are the result. It is not advisable, in any case, to eat them either fried or in a raw state; for in the former, they pass the stomach comparatively by mechanical action, and in the latter, they often produce giddiness, and an affection similar to a "cold in the head;" while, properly boiled or roasted, they are nutritive and wholesome.
The onion thrives best in an open situation, having a free exposure to the son, and a deep, rich, and mellow soil, that is not over sandy in its base, or wet in the subsoil. There is no danger of over manuring, provided the material is thoroughly rotted, or incorporated with the earth. Barnyard manure is the best fertilizer, but soot, guano, poudrette, urine, and soapsuds are all useful auxiliaries, and which ought to be applied in the fall, previous to planting. There is also a singular exception in this vegetable; while most others do better by rotation, the onion will continue to produce equally good crops on the same spot for many years in succession, if the fertilizing material is judiciously renewed. Many cultivators have testified to this fact, and my own experience verifies the same, as I have grown prize onions on the same bed for ten consecutive years; consequently, a little expense at first commencement will lead to after profit. To accomplish this, proceed as follows: Choose a plot of suitable size, and as near to the above-mentioned character as the limits of the place will admit of, prepare in the same way as recommended for rhubarb in the January No., page 17. This will make a good base to commence operations, when it is desirable to have the very finest prize quality, and an annual trenching and manuring will keep it up.
Those who are satisfied with ordinary size and flavor will obtain such by simply ploughing, or trenching, and manuring, as for a crop of cabbages.
There are two methods by which a crop may be procured, viz: by sowing the seed the same season, or planting small bulbs of the previous year. The first is the best and least expensive, if rightly performed, excepting in those regions of country where the weather is extremely cool and wet, or subject to become dry and hot soon after the growing season commences.
Immediately when the ground is in working order after the breaking up of frost, fork over and loosen the soil well if previously prepared in the fall; and if not, trench and manure. Make all level with the fork or spade as the work proceeds; draw out drills with the corner of the hoe, one inch deep, and twelve inches apart. Sow the seed thinly, say one inch asunder; cover by treading in the sides with the feet. When the young plants are some three inches high, thin out to four inches apart, and at the same time take out all the weeds in the rows, when the scuffle hoe may be afterwards run between them, and all will be clean. And here I would take the opportunity of drawing attention to the desirableness and advantages to be gained by using this implement at all times while the weeds are small. In many places we see them allowed to grow until they entirely smother the young crops. When the mischief is done, and the expected produce has become considerably deteriorated, in fact, almost ruined, it is then thought to be about soon enough to eradicate them; the doing of which will occupy ten times more time than would have been required by an early application.
Attention to this item will reduce the labor in a vegetable garden more than one-half, besides the advantage of an equal ratio of profit in crop. Nothing further is now required but an occasional clearing of weeds with the hoe, until the bulbs are ripe.
The object here is the obtaining of larger and better ripened bulbs, and is often resorted to in cool and wet climates where there is not enough solar influence to centralize the growth; and also in those countries where the commencement of summer is subject to regular droughts, and, consequently, the ripening is premature. In both cases the method is to be recommended, as the plant is partly developed to begin with, and only requires to finish out that extension, which, under more favorable circumstances, would be accomplished in one season. In most of our Northern States we have growing weather sufficient for healthy maturity, which renders this process unnecessary if the seed be sown early enough. To procure these small bulbs the seed should be sowed thickly on poor soil about the last week in April, and the plants allowed to remain somewhat crowded, by which minute size and early maturity is gained. When ripe, pull the whole up, lay them on the ground exposed to the sun for a few days, and afterwards remove to a dry but cool room till planting time. This will be in the following spring, as soon as the soil is in good state for working.
Prepare the same as for seed; draw drills not more than an inch deep, and one foot apart; place the bulbs therein, and level the soil as the work proceeds. Do not cover more than is sufficient to retain the set in its place, for nothing deteriorates the form, size, and particularly the keeping qualities, more than covering up during growth.
There are many varieties of the class that is suited for general kitchen and market purposes, but nothing is to be gained by an extended list. The following, therefore, will be found to be the best, and give satisfaction:
Tawny, red, tinged with green; hardy; a good keeper, with strong flavor.
Pale brown, globular, large; keeps well; mild flavor.
Pale brown, somewhat globular, solid; a good keeper; rather strong flavor.
Middle size, flat, dark red; the best keeper; strong flavor.
Medium size, white, rather flat; an early sort, with mild flavor; does not keep very long.
Pearly, whitish-green, below medium size; should be sowed thick, as it is best adapted for pickling.