Onions - Winning that elusive Red Card
30th Jul 1997
Growing onions for exhibition is undoubtedly a fascinating hobby but the art of growing them is really only the first stage of the story, preparing them for exhibition and winning that elusive red card completes the whole cycle. I have had the best season ever with onions this year with phenomenal growth rate earlier on in the year, so good was the growth that I had one onion measuring 21" around on the 28th June.
Of course I get problems just like everyone else and when I get them they can be a disaster, this year I have lost seven onions to the disease white rot which can devastate an onion bed.
I have never had this disease before and I will certainly take steps next year to make sure that I shan't have it again. It manifests itself with the lower fresh leaves of the plant turning yellow and wilting before their time and when handling the onion it feels loose in the ground. When you lift it from the soil the base will be covered in a white fluffy mould and a closer look will show that there are small round black bodies inside the fungus.
As soon as the disease became evident I immediately soaked around, as well as over each bulb, with a strong dilution of Armillatox, 10 ml to a gallon of water applied with a watering can giving about a pint to each onion. the stations where the onions were removed were also thoroughly soaked with a 25ml of Armillatox to a gallon and each station given 4 pints each. This certainly put a stop to the disease and as a preventative measure, every time the onions wanted watering, every bulb was again given a weaker solution at 5ml to a gallon, again giving a pint per plant.
However the onions that were left grew on well and I have now harvested over a dozen and I"m hoping for a set around 22" in circumference. This seems to be the measurement that most of the top shows are won with and also seems to be about the top size that you can get your onions in perfect condition. Of course you can get them bigger, but after 22" it gets increasingly difficult to get a matching set.
Once you have decided what size you are going to lift them at, you cut the tops off leaving a long neck for tying, then with an old knife cut away the roots through the soil so that you can then easily remove the onion. The other onions are then left in the ground until they also arrive at this size so that getting a matching set becomes a lot easier. Trim off the roots and start praying that you haven't got a split or a hole in the base and remove the outer skin down to one complete skin.
Wash the onions very carefully using a soft sponge in some tepid water to which has been added a few drops of washing up liquid and dry each one with a soft cloth. Once you have washed them all, you then powder each one using some talcum powder on a pad of cotton wool, this will uniformly dry out the onions skin and can be repeated every other day or so. The onion are then placed on some soft material to start harvesting and getting a proper colour. If the onion has been lifted on the correct skin, the colour will come naturally and uniformly all over, but if you have removed one skin too many then you will find that the onion will not harvest uniformly.
Drying and Harvesting
I have tried many different locations to dry or harvest the bulbs, last year I placed them on the greenhouse bench for the first ten days or so to completely dry out and covered over with some kitchen paper towels. This prevented the sun from burning down directly on the bulbs and I must confess that I had a lovely condition on them last year. After ten days they were taken to the garage where they remained until ready for the necks to be tied with raffia.
This can be a very pleasurable job, particularly when you have a good set, even more so when you have plenty to select from; start tying them as near as you can to the show date as you don"t want the raffia to work loose later on. I can literally spend hours on the kitchen table tying and trimming the necks to the same height, then placing them on the actual stand that they would be staged on, even as far as draping the stand with black cloth to give the desired effect. In my opinion this is an exercise well worth spending time on as every onion has one good face and by moving the onions around on the stand and looking at them from every angle you will eventually find out which are the best ones for the set and even in which position they go on the stand.
Once you are happy with your set they can then be boxed up in a strong wooden box, I have had two specially made from strong plywood and each box is partitioned off with thin plywood and the bottom of each section has a ¾" thick sponge glued to it. The next step is to place a piece of paper on the sponge which will identify where each onion goes on the stand. I use the following letters for a set of six, TL,TC, TR, ML, MR and F; very simply the letters stand for Top Left, Top Centre and Top Right. The next once are Middle Left and Middle Centre and the F stands for Front. In carrying out all this work in the comfort of your own home, with no one talking to you, you won't make any mistakes at the show. Once the onions have been carefully lowered down on to the sponge, they are then packed around with some more pieces of soft sponge to prevent any movement that could damage them in transit.