September 13, 2013
Dot Zanotti Ingels
Alliums are a genus of plants that have been providing flavorful seasoning to foods for thousands of years. They are pretty easy to grow and have ready to enjoy in meals.
I cannot imagine cooking without onions, shallots, garlic and chives. Their often high cost at the grocery store makes it worth your while to give them some space in your garden. There are many other plants in the allium genus with colorful flowers to decorate your landscape, but they are inedible and not used in foods.
Alliums are shallow-rooted and grow best in a fertile, well-drained, weed-free soil enriched generously with compost. They can be planted in the ground, raised beds or pots, and they provide maximum yield in full sun. Keep the soil moist but not soggy and allow it to dry out a bit between waterings. If you want to provide supplemental fertilizer, use a balanced, organic food such as fish emulsion. To prevent disease problems, rotate the location of your onion-family crops so they are not always planted in the same area.
Black aphids can be problematic with alliums, and they can be washed off with a heavy stream of water or treated with insecticidal soap. Adequate plant spacing can decrease the risk of aphids and discourage mold growth. Starting with fresh seeds or certified disease-free cloves goes a long way to preventing onion root maggots or white rot.
There are several varieties of common garden onions (Allium cepa). Choose varieties by color, size and sweetness. We like red-skinned onions for their sweetness. Some varieties store better than others. Yellow onions are good all-purpose onions. White onions are best used fresh. Shallots are a multiplier onion, which means that each shallot bulb you plant will produce a cluster of up to a dozen baby bulbs.
In our area, the average length of summer daylight is a bit more than 14 hours so we have the best luck choosing varieties that have intermediate-daylight length requirements. The time to plant your onions depends upon where you live. In Marin, you can plant seeds for intermediate-daylight onions in mid- to late-fall or in late winter (January or February). The seeds take a while to germinate, so be patient. You can buy onion sets that are small purchased bulbs, or you can buy seedlings or bare-root plants from a nursery. However, you decide to start your onions, check the variety for day length, taste features and storage ability for best success.
Here are four plants worth trying:
- Scallions: These are bunching onions (Allium fistulosum) with a bit less biting flavor. Seeds can be planted spring, summer or fall. If you have summer heat, plant the onions in a spot that is less sunny. Keep planting all season long and you will always have fresh scallions.
- Chives: The perennial Allium schoenoprasum can be easy to grow and have handy for your baked potatoes or cottage cheese. While easily grown from seed, they take a while to mature. You can get quicker gratification by purchasing clumps from the nursery. Plant them somewhere that they can live, weed-free for a long time. A pot of chives close to the kitchen is always a treat. They are harvested by clipping the leaves with scissors nearly at ground level to stimulate continued growth.
- Leeks: Allium ampeloprasum can be easy to grow and their sweet, mild flavor and can be enjoyed fresh over several months. Summer leek seeds can be sown from January to March to provide the best fall harvest and they should overwinter well. You can pull up baby leeks at any time or savor mature leeks when they are about one inch in diameter.
- Garlic: To me, all recipes are made better with garlic (Allium sativum). It takes little space to produce a large supply of garlic. It is best to start with garlic bulbs purchased from a nursery. Bulbs planted by mid-October will be ready to harvest and store in late June or July. 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.
Give the allium family a chance to grow in your garden. You will be rewarded in your kitchen. For more information about growing alliums, call the Master Gardener Help Desk at 473-4204 or check out the Master Gardener website at marinmg.org.