“Since the best way of weeding
Is to prevent weeds from seeding,
The least procrastination
Of any operation
To prevent the semination
Of noxious vegetation
Is a source of tribulation.
And this in truth, a fact is
Which gardeners ought to practice,
And tillers should remember,
From April to December.”
~ The New England Farmer, vol.8, Boston, October 1829 *
Nowhere in the vegetable garden is this advice more apt than in the onion patch, where the least procrastination is the key word. Freed of the need to do anything for us, weeds will out compete nearly all of our annual crops, growing faster, seizing nutrients and water, and often overtaking their domesticated kin. In the kitchen onions may make cooks cry but in the garden row they are weaklings, handicapped by their short stature, slow growth, a limited amount of foliage and a root system that is both small and shallow.
Many years ago I tucked away a startling statistic about the consequence of weeds among the onions and not trusting my memory, I rummaged around in my library of vegetable books until I found it. It is on page 110 of Know & Grow Vegetables 2, the second volume in a pair of books written by J. K. Bleasdale , P. J. Salter and other staff of the National Vegetable Research Station in Wellesbourne, Warwickshire, England.
Oxford University Press published these two little books in 1979 and 1982. The research they cite is now at least 35 years old, but I have remembered the findings correctly. Onions in competition with weeds yielded almost 4% less after a single day. Leaving the onions unweeded for a fortnight reduced the harvest by more than half when compared to onions grown on ground that was kept clean all the time. I have always been fond of measuring things in fortnights. Why use miles per hour and not furlongs per fortnight? It’s no wonder that the fifty percent reduction per fortnight for onions has stuck in my mind all these years.
The issue of course is how does one keep the ground weed free? For starters, the onion bed should be laid out so that it is easy to reach all the plants without knocking over any onions that are in between. Hexagonal close-packing in a raised bed is fine, but the bed should be no more that two arm’s length in width. Then whether you start your onions from transplants or onion sets you should remove even the smallest weeds as soon as you spot them. The adage that the finest fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow applies to this activity. There is no substitute for regular scrutiny. Onions are not a low maintenance crop.
You can reduce the germination of annual weed seed by the use of mulches. On the Victory Garden television show the beds of Ailsa Craig onions, which we intended to reach three or more pounds apiece, were mulched with the fresh grass clippings taken when the lawn was mowed. Several inches of fresh clippings tucked right up against all the onions would dry, depriving weed seed the light and warmth needed for it to sprout. Of course, we were robbing the lawn of nutrients to do this, and having no bagger on my own lawn mower, I mulch my onions today with chopped leaves. These I rake up in the fall, shred and store them dry for the winter. Spread thickly among the young onion shoots they do not mat down or blow away. They dramatically reduce the amount of hand weeding.
When the onion tops have fallen over, the crop gets harvested and braided for storage. The mulch can be tilled into the soil and a cover crop can follow, or the weed seed will provide one. Nature abhors a vacuum, my father liked to say. But maintaining a weed-free zone for the onions when they are growing is what the nature of onions demands.
Roger B. Swain
* I thank Christie Higginbottom for passing this poem along. She recited it from memory at a recent NOFA winter conference. She was for many years the Horticulture Coordinator at Old Sturbridge Village, an 1830’s living history museum in Massachusetts so the poem is, as historians like to say, of her period.