Alliums, the Onion family, have been cultivated for decorative and edible uses as far back as 1594, and wild varieties have been foraged for millennia. The allium family provides at least one of the staple foods in nearly every culture!
Alliums are stinky and that’s exactly why we love them! They have a great array of flavors and aromas that call you to the kitchen to prepare meals with them, that call you to a mouthwatering meal! A lot of them can be grown all year long in SoCal, and if you live near the wild, they are deer resistant!
The bulbs are the most commonly eaten part of yellow, red and white garden onions, while scallions are usually harvested for their stalks, although the white base is also edible. Generally all parts of alliums are edible. And the lovely flowers are wonderful bee food!
Onions, Allium cepa, make us cry and give us bad breath but have stupendous flavor! Red onions are sweet. Yellow onions are good all-purpose onions. White onions are best used fresh. Some varieties of onions store better than others.
Table, bunch onions or Scallions Scallions are bunching onions, Allium fistulosum, with a bit less biting flavor. In summer heat, plant these onions in a spot with less sun. Plant all year long and you will always have fresh scallions.
Shallots, Allium cepa var. aggregatum, are a multiplier onion, which means that each shallot bulb you plant will produce a cluster of up to a dozen baby bulbs. They have a sweet and mild (although pronounced) flavor, with a hint of garlic, and lack the bite you get with yellow or white onions. Shallots are smaller and have longer, slimmer bulbs, are more commonly eaten raw.
Hot and dry! I’itoi onion is a prolific multiplier onion cultivated in the Baboquivari Peak Wilderness, Arizona area. This small-bulb type is easy to grow and ideal for hot, dry climates. Bulbs are separated, and planted in the fall 1 inch below the surface and 12 inches apart. Bulbs will multiply into clumps and can be harvested throughout the cooler months. Tops die back in the heat of summer and may return with heavy rains; bulbs can remain in the ground or be harvested and stored in a cool dry place for planting in the fall. The plants rarely flower; propagation is by division.
Leeks, Allium ampeloprasum, are tall, handsome and hefty! And they have that pretty leaf pattern! The leaves are large, flat. Leeks are easy to grow and their sweet, mild flavor and can be enjoyed fresh all year long in SoCal! Summer leek seeds can be sown from January to March to provide the best fall harvest and they overwinter well. You can pull up baby leeks at any time or savor mature leeks when they are about one inch in diameter. They too are a cut and come again. Cut them about one and a half inches from the ground and they grow back quickly 3 or 4 times! Use little ones in salads. Slice mature stems diagonally across and pop into winter soups & stews! The flower heads are elegant, the seeds are easy to harvest. Image by Jan at Jan’s Garden
Too much garlic, aka the stinking rose, Allium sativum and we smell like it! But that doesn’t matter to garlic lovers! There are festivals and restaurants that specialize in only garlic cuisine! It takes little space to produce a large supply of garlic. Elephant garlic, Allium ampeloprasum, makes a bulb about the same size as an ordinary garlic bulb, but it has only three to seven cloves and the flavor is mild.
Garlic is fun to plant! Check weather forecasts and plan to plant before a cold time! Let your garlic cloves or shallots sprout, plant them 6″ to 2″ deep, a 1/2″ if unsprouted. Don’t remove the skin. Plant in slightly moist soil, firm it lightly over the cloves, don’t water or water very little. Too wet and the cloves rot. Plant the biggest and best cloves for the sassiest plants! See more In six to seven months you’ll have beautiful cooking ingredients! Late October, November is likely the best SoCal garlic planting time to get the most cold weather for them. If you don’t mind smaller bulbs, you can also plant in spring.
Sadly, our SoCal warmth doesn’t make our garlic happy. In Santa Barbara our coastal humidity and lack of frosts and freezes like in inland areas let our plants get a lot of rust fungi. It stunts our plants and we get small bulbs. We can grow it, just not with the same jubilant success as happens further north, like at Gilroy CA, where winter frosts naturally kill off the fungi and plants are invigorated and healthy.
Chives, Allium tuberosum – smallest of all the Alliums, garlic chives, Allium schoenoprasum are a perennial (grow year after year). They are great for your baked potatoes or cottage cheese. The flowers are edible too! While easily grown from seed, they take a while to mature. A nursery purchase is easier! Plant them where they can live weed-free for a long time. A pot of chives close to the kitchen is always a treat. Clip the leaves with scissors about an inch above ground level. They grow back! Image compliments of Hudson Valley Seed Library
Ornamental Alliums are used for landscaping and often edible too! Society Garlic though ornamental, has edible flowers and leaves! And it’s a pleasure to mix veggie alliums in your landscape!
GROWING Most species of these hardy perennials prefer a sunny location, and many require a period of dormancy. That often happens during the dry time of year. Not to worry if your plant dies back for awhile. Don’t pull it, wait for it. It will return and flourish again. These shallow-rooted plants need well-draining soil – no standing water for them! They need slightly fertile to fertile soil because they have those short roots, so the soil has to be good right where they feed! They can take clay soil quite well. They need weeding. They don’t compete well with weeds. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Not maybe bone dry, ’cause if you live on the edge and don’t water enough you may lose your plant. Rotating your allium crops can help prevent disease. If you have limited space, and not enough room to rotate, keep your soil fertile by amending with quality well rounded compost, resting your soil for a season, or putting in a green manure cover crop.
Alliums work well as companion plants for roses, carrots and beets, but inhibit the growth of legumes – that’s peas and beans. Otherwise, when grown close to other plants they tend to increase that plant’s resistance to disease and reduce insect infestation. The smell of onions mask the scent of a plant that might be attacked.
Per Plants for a Future ‘You can make a very good tonic spray from onion or garlic bulbs that will also increase the resistance of plants to pests and diseases, and garlic bulbs have in the past been used as a fungicide. Simply chop up the bulbs and soak them overnight in cold water – a few cloves in a pint of water should be adequate, and adding some camomile flowers if available seems to increase the effectiveness. The juice of the common onion is used as a moth repellent. It can also be used as a rust preventative on metals and as a polish for copper and glass. It is possible that other members of the genus can also be used in these ways.’
Seeds: Generally sow in late winter or in early spring. Sow thinly and only cover the seed lightly. Germination is normally quite quick and good. They are so tiny, you may not realize you have them, possibly pulling them thinking they are grass coming up! Wait a few days before you weed an allium planted area. Apply a liquid feed occasionally to make sure that the plants don’t get hungry. A number of species from Mediterranean-type climates usually come into growth in the autumn, flower in the spring and then die down for the summer. You do have to be careful that they don’t damp off.
Most alliums can be planted in the spring (May is still doable) for fall harvest/blooms in the later summer or early fall. Table, bunch onions or Scallions can be planted year round. Garlic likes fall to Winter Solstice plantings.
Onion varieties are region specific, plant the varieties your local nurseries carry, farmers grow, or experiment! For the biggest, sweetest SoCal harvests, late summer and early fall are the prime times to sow seeds of short- or intermediate-day onions. Fall-sown short- and intermediate-day onions tend to yield more and are larger and sweeter than those seeded or transplanted in early spring. If you do plant in spring, sow summer-maturing onions Feb/March/April. In our area, the 1st half of Nov plant seeds of globe onions for slicing. Grano, Granex, Crystal Wax. December/January plant short-day (sweet) globe onions.
Bulbs! Divide in spring for winter-dormant species, or in late summer for summer-dormant species. The method of division depends the plant. With chives, the bulb is constantly dividing and a clump of bulbs is formed. Dig up the clump, break it into smaller sections, one bulb, replant. In other species, a number of small bulbs, or offsets, are produced at the base of the parent bulb. For rapid increase, dig up the bulbs every year & plant out the offsets.
Rhizomes! A number of species, like Society Garlic, form a clump of rhizome-like roots. In spring, dig up the clump, cut it into sections with a sharp knife making sure that there is at least one leaf- growing point on each section. Or, without digging it up, chop sections away from the part you choose to be the parent. Either way, plant the sections where you want them.
Some species, like the Tree Onion (A. cepa proliferum), and Walking Onion, also produce small bulbs, or bulbils, at the top of the flowering stem. Sometimes these are produced together with flowers, sometimes instead of flowers. Plant them out as soon as they part easily from the flowering stem. Some of the alliums with bulbils can become noxious weeds! Too true!
Transplants are often the easiest for busy gardeners. Carefully separate the little plants. Make a trench where you want to plant them and lay them with their roots outstretched along the edge of the trench as far apart between them as is right for what you are planting. Simply push the soil from the other side of the trench over their roots.
CAUTION! Alliums are poisonous to dogs and cats. Don’t grow these in your garden if your pets can access them, and never give a dog or cat table food that has been seasoned with onion or garlic.
HEALTH! If you are one of the lucky ones and garlic thrives at your micro climate niche, hooray! For humans, raw Garlic, in particular, acts like a natural antibiotic! A Washington State University 2012 study states that a compound from garlic is 100 times more effective than two popular antibiotics used in the treatment of intestinal infections caused by the bacterium species Campylobacter bacterium. Many other scientific research projects suggest that raw garlic has incredible healing properties. It has a substantial history. in France, gravediggers supposedly drank wine mixed with crushed garlic to protect them from the plague. It was also given to soldiers – in both world wars – to prevent gangrene caused by bacterial infection. The healing properties of this spice ranges from anti-infective to antioxidant.
Garlic is amazing! It is the only antibiotic that can actually kill infecting bacteria and at the same time protect the body from the poisons that are causing the infection. Clinical research found garlic’s effectiveness to be comparable to that of penicillin, streptomycin, erythromycin, and tetracycline. In addition, it has proven effective against some resistant bacteria that no longer respond to prescription antibiotics. It has also been reported that the vapor from freshly cut garlic can kill bacteria at a distance of 20 centimeters!
HARVEST, Drying! In May garlic, bulb onions, and shallots naturally begin to dry. When the foliage begins to dry it’s time to stop irrigating. Dry outer layers needed for long storage will form on the bulbs. When about half of the foliage slumps to the ground, bend the rest to initiate this maturing. The bulbs will be ready for harvest when the foliage is thoroughly dry and crisp. Some gardeners gather and store the bulbs inside. Others leave them lying on the hot ground for about a week. If you like, plait your onions or garlic!
Onion, Allium Cepa drying bundles by Larry Rettig at Dave’s Garden
Image at Masters Produce, Auckland NZ
Besides plaiting onions or garlic, or bulk dry onion storage, make healthy probiotic treats. Conveniently chop and put in freezer bags in the serving sizes or the amount you will add to favorite meal, freeze. Canning and drying are traditional. Dry thinly sliced onions and garlic to spice up a camp stew later on.
Onions IN the Kitchen tips!
Store in a cool, dark, dry place such as your pantry.
No fridge! Cold temps soften their texture plus onions flavour your other produce.
NO plastic bags; they accelerate sprouting and spoilage due to lack of air circulation.
Store onions and potatoes separately! Both give off gases that accelerate spoilage of each other.
SAVING SEEDS is a joy! Let a few of your plants grow out. Put a bag over the seeding flower stalk, bend the stem, whap or shake it, and let the seeds fall into the bag. I use a clear, zipper style plastic bag so I can see it happen and seal the seeds in so I don’t lose them if the bag gets dropped or bumped!
Enjoy the tasty range of shapes, colors, flavors of your alliums. Experiment with different varieties!
The Green Bean Connection started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden. All three of Santa Barbara city community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!
See the March 2017 GBC Newsletter!
Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!