A new gardening year is already under way

An onion growing for seed.

An onion growing for seed.

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Here we go again! My new gardening year has started with more of a whimper than a bang, but the first seeds have been sown, even before we change the calendar.

The greenhouse is scrubbed clean and some of the vegetable beds cleared and dug over. This does not mean that we’re up to date with everything. Several jobs remain outstanding, but opportunities will arise to complete them before plant growth really takes off in mid-March.

Seeds that will result in big onions were sown last week, not on Boxing Day as tradition dictates, but close enough to make no difference.

I make drills in the compost with the edge of a ruler, deliver seeds along them and cover with vermiculite. This regimented form makes seedlings easier to remove without damage later. Compost in the tray is watered in advance of sowing, and it only remains to cover the top and offer a warm environment that encourages germination.

Two varieties started my sowing season – Robinson’s Mammoth Improved, which results in golden, globe-shaped bulbs capable of up to six pounds in weight, and a Kelsae show onion saved for seed production two years ago. This came from a large, well-shaped bulb exhibited by friend Alan at the Coach Inn show in September 2015.

It stood on the greenhouse bench until roots began to emerge in mid-January, when it was placed on a potful of John Innes soil-based compost and transferred to the conservatory. There, in the modest warmth and full light, root and shoot development began.

Onions and leeks are most at home in a cool temperate environment so transfer to the unheated greenhouse is an essential in toughening-up and encouraging sturdy growth. March is a reasonable time for this, and transfer to a sheltered position outdoors is desirable in April as the midday sun makes greenhouse temperatures soar.

At the time of planting outside, this one onion had three flowering stems rising to 1m, supported by canes. They eventually reached 2m and developed flower heads that were pollinated by hand daily in the absence of insects. The seed heads were dried in September. Much winnowing by hand followed to arrive at the brown specs sown last week.

Onions of good pedigree, sown over this festive period, can and do put on enough growth to win local shows in September. There is even time to exhibit them in a ripened state. But it should come as no surprise that seasoned exhibitors, with bigger prizes in mind, start plants off much earlier, even offering supplementary lighting.