By Roberta Bailey
Onions are the beginning of almost every meal, a cook’s greatest ally. As a kitchen gardener I work hard to grow a variety of onions. Mesh bags of pungent bulb onions and braids of sweet Cippolini onions (the open-pollinated, Italian heirloom onion) hang from the beams, ready for the soup pot or sauté pan. Outside my kitchen door chives and scallion-like Welsh onions grow in large clumps. A few steps beyond grow clusters and rows of shallots, potato onions and leeks. Though the bulb onion is the workhorse of the North American culinary world, many other Alliums deserve a gardener’s attention. They bring delicate flavors to dishes, and they fill niches of time when bulb onions are not in season.
More than 400 species of Allium grow worldwide, most with the distinctive onion odor and flavor. Most originated in the Orient, then migrated with explorers and with the displaced, adapting to climates as they traveled. Most commonly used today are chives, scallions, bunching or Welsh onions, top-setting or Egyptian onions, shallots, elephant garlic, potato onions, leeks and garlic. (Leeks and garlic have been covered in previous articles.)
Most Alliums require a fertile, loose soil with a regular moisture supply and a pH of 6.0-6.8. They are extremely sensitive to weed pressure, so mulching is recommended. Small amounts of wood ash sprinkled in the row or at the base of plants contribute valuable potassium and help deter onion maggots. (Be sure not to overdo the wood ash; it raises the pH quickly.)
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are hardy perennial bulbs that multiply rapidly and grow in clumps. They come up early in spring, adding a pungent fresh green to late winter fare. The hollow stems can be snipped or pinched from the plant. In late spring they send up an attractive, round, lavender flower head. Chives thrive in full sun to partial shade. They do well in most soils, but rich, loose loam will produce the fastest growth. Chives can be started from seed sown shallowly about an inch apart. The tender shoots should be kept free of weeds and left to gain size for three months before picking. The easiest way to propagate chives is to get a clump division from a friend or garden center. Divide the clump into individual chives and set them out 1 to 3 inches apart. They will multiply and fill out their space in a few years. Overcrowded clumps with chives that get smaller toward the center should be divided and reset in fertile soil.
Garlic chives (A. tuberosum) offer a mild, garlicky flavor. Grown the same way as chives, they have a flat spear and bloom late in summer. Their flower heads last long in bouquets and add interest to the fall flower garden.
The delicate flavor of shallots earns them the reputation of the gourmet member of this family. Get around their gourmet price by growing them. They are very easy to grow, taking up little space. Each shallot grows into a cluster of 1- to 2-1/2-inch bulbs. Shallots (A. cepa) can be planted in fall or spring. If planted in fall, mulch heavily. Spring-planted shallots seem to size up as well as fall plantings without the risk of winterkill. I overwinter bulbs in a cool, dry, dark storage room, cooking all but a few clumps that I save for planting. To plant, I break the clusters into individual bulbs and plant them in soil that is rich in humus derived from 1 to 2 inches of compost or from rotted manure added the previous fall. I nestle the bulbs into the soil with their pointed ends sticking out of the soil, spaced 6 inches apart. Shallots are especially sensitive to weed competition. Mulch or place the bed in an area where it will get your attention. Individual bulbs form green tops then divide into clusters of 3 to 7 shallots. The tops die back in late summer, and shallots can be pulled and cured in the garden row for a few days, then stored in mesh bags in a cool, dark, dry place.
Potato onions (A. cepa) are similar to shallots, as they grow in clusters, although potato onions form 2- to 3-inch mild onions below ground. Plant individual onions in early spring, 10 inches apart. As bulbs form, brush soil away to expose them to sunlight and to speed ripening. Tops die back in late summer. Do not leave the onions in the ground, as they will start to sprout again. Pull and cure them in a dry place, then store them for use and for spring planting.
Welsh onions or Japanese bunching onions (A. fistulosum) have a place in my heart because of their perfect timing. Planted from seed or by clump division, perennial bunching onions produce bunches of thick scallions with slightly swollen bulbs. They are the first up in spring, weeks before the chives, then they go to seed in summer, only to produce a second crop of tender young scallions in late summer, which last into winter when the snows get too deep. Individual scallions can be pulled from the bunch. Leave some scallion-like onions to continue to multiply. Spacing ranges from 2 to 6 inches apart, depending on whether you allow for long range plant growth or plan to divide them regularly.
Egyptian or topsetting or walking onions (A. cepa) are extremely hardy and care-free Alliums that are popular among gardeners for their early green tops, then later for their top sets or small clusters of bulbils atop a central seed stalk. These small bulbs can be harvested in late summer for winter use. Peel the bulbs and add them to soups, meat or vegetable dishes. If left on the plant, they will fall eventually and start new plants on their own, thus ‘walking’ around your garden. They can be propagated intentionally by clump division or by the bulbils. Spacing should be 4 to 5 inches apart in rows 15 inches apart.
Elephant garlic (A. ampeloprasum) is more closely related to the leek than to true garlic (A. sativum). It grows similar to garlic, forming elephant-sized heads of mildly flavored cloves. Each clove can weigh an ounce. If garlic has too much flavor for you, try this milder relative. A warning: Elephant garlic is not as hardy as regular garlic; it may not overwinter in cold zone 4 areas. Plant it in the fall, spacing individual cloves 10 to 14 inches apart, in rows 2 feet apart. They need a heavy feeding of well-rotted manure and compost to encourage good size. They will send up a flower stalk in early summer, which should be snipped off to encourage larger bulbs.
Few diseases or insects bother these hardy perennials. The Alliums that form larger bulbs may attract onion maggots. Rotation is advised, and wood ashes dug in around the roots deter maggots. Row covers placed over the plants in early spring will prevent adult flies (the source of the maggots) from laying eggs on the onions.
This small cross section of the onion family can greatly diversify our Northern diets, from soup to salad to appetizer or entrée.
About the author: Roberta has written for The MOF&G for many years. She lives in Vassalboro.