Easy to grow, versatile in the kitchen, beloved by cooks everywhere…onions are a popular and reliable all-rounder! They can be used as a main ingredient in onion soup, chutneys and relishes or onion bhajis. Alternatively they can be chopped, sliced and added to dishes as a flavoursome ingredient. They can be pickled, braised, baked, fried, grilled…the possibilities are endless.
When it comes to growing your own, remember that onions are hardy and can tolerate a variety of temperatures. They can even be overwintered, but are usually planted in spring. Onions prefer a loose, loamy soil rather than heavy clay.
When sowing you can choose either to plant from seed or from sets. Growing from seed is cheaper and allows you to plant a wider variety of types. However it’s a slower process, one that can take up to 5 months for them to reach maturity. Onion sets are small, partly grown onion bulbs that are already one year old. Growing from sets is a more popular method, as it’s quicker and requires less upkeep.On the other hand, sets can be more susceptible to bolting (meaning they grow flowers sooner than they should be doing so). Bolting is a sign that the plant is under stress and can be caused by very hot or cold weather conditions. Heat treated onion sets are much less likely to bolt, but can work out a bit more expensive.
Yellow Onions The most commonly used onion variety, yellow onions have a mellow flavour when they’re roasted or sautéed. They take on a softer, sweeter texture when carmelised. In their raw state they have a very strong and pungent flavour. Yellow onions have a high sulfur content, which is the cause of their famous ‘eye-watering’ tendencies.
Red Onions Red onions have a spicier quality than their yellow counterparts, and are commonly eaten raw or added to salads, sandwiches, dishes etc. Known for their distinctive red rings, they are high in flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) and fibre. Soaking them in cold water before preparing can soften their flavour while adding more crispiness to their texture. Red onions are particularly well-suited to pickling and grilling.
Shallots Shallots are from the same family as onions and garlic. In many ways they can be used interchangeably in recipes. They have a different quality to them however, being sweeter and less pungent in taste than onions. Versatile in the kitchen, they can be sliced and deep fried, sautéed or pickled. Shallots produce multiple bulbs per plant and their skin colour can be brown, gray or rose red. Like onions, they can be sown either from seeds or sets. For best results, shallots should be grown in a sunny spot in well-drained soil with plenty of space.
Harvest and Storage
When a sizeable portion of your onions have started to yellow and topple, you will know that they are ready for harvesting. Use a fork to lift the onions out of the ground. Take care not to damage the skins when doing this, as this can cause them to decay sooner. Young plants can also be harvested before they get a chance to bulb: this is how spring onions and scallions are harvested. When stored in a cool, dry are onions will generally keep for 2-3 months.
Garlic is a widely-loved member of the onion family. It’s been used for thousands of years, whether as a food seasoning, in traditional medicine or even as a folk cure.
Garlic tends to be used like a herb or seasoning, adding a sweet and earthy flavour to an endless list of dishes, recipes and sauces. It can be crushed or peeled before cooking or used whole. Even small amounts of garlic have great health benefits. Many of these benefits come from sulfur compounds which are activated when the clove is crushed, chopped or chewed. Garlic is a good source of vitamins C and B6 and is believed to boost the immune system.
A garlic plant consists of the bulb, a stem and leaves. The bulb has 10-20 cloves covered in a paper-like skin. The compounds in garlic mentioned above that lend it its sharp, strong taste are thought to be a kind of defense mechanism to discourage insects, birds and other garden visitors from damaging the plant. Eating parsley can counteract the effects of these sulfur compounds so keep that in mind if you’re worried about garlic breath.
Hardneck garlic varieties produce a flower stem or 'Scape' which is delicious used in a salad or a stir fry. It has a similar quality to asparagus. Hardnecks varieties don't store as well as softneck varieties but have a more pungent flavour. Softneck garlic are the kind you’re more familiar with seeing in shops. They don’t produce a stem and they have a much longer storage life than hardnecks.
Like onions, garlic is quite easy to grow. Before you plant garlic, it's important to select the best bulbs. It is far better to buy guaranteed virus free bulbs than to use shop bought garlic. You can re-use the cloves from the garlic you grow as long as they appear to be strong and healthy. There are two planting times for garlic depending on the variety, Autumn/Winter and early Spring. Planting in autumn is preferable as it will lead to a better crop and bigger sized bulbs.
Garlic needs a cold period of about 6 weeks where the soil temperature is below 10°. If this doesn't happen the garlic won't split into cloves and you'll get just one solid clove-less bulb. When it’s ready for harvesting the leaves will turn yellow. It’s important not to delay harvesting as the bulbs can break open and not store as well if left too long.