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Celt's Garden - Alliums and Roots for Winter Gardening

The large and varied onion family is a mainstay of winter eating. Leeks are wonderful, a mainstay of the winter garden. There are spring leeks, planted now and eaten in summer, and there are fall leeks. Fall leeks should get a good start in the warmth of late summer. They can be eaten in fall, or they can just sit there dormant all winter and be there for you in early spring when the stored onions have been eaten or gone mushy. Harvest by cutting off the green leaves and the leeks will keep growing. If your leek bolts in summer's heat, you can cut off the flower stalk and leave the plant in the ground. In early spring, it will send up new leaves. Leeks are easy to grow from seed. There is a mystique of hilling the leeks to make a long white stalk. I don't bother. The slender green leaves are welcome in soup or an omelet. Leek and potato soup is delicious.

In a small garden, green onions provide fresh flavor in compact spaces. There are two kinds of green onions, Allium cepa, which is a normal onion eaten young, and A. fistulosum, the non-bulbing scallion. A.cepa is sensitive to day length. Market gardeners around here plant long day or day neutral onions. In tight spaces any A. cepa will do for green onions, because we plan to eat that onion in its infancy. Onions can be started from seed indoors now or outdoors in March. The easiest way to grow them is to buy sets, little tiny bulbs, and crowd them on 2" centers. If you leave A. cepa alone, it will send up a flower stalk with a giant puff ball. The onion is way past eating at that point, but if you just leave the puff ball alone, the stalk will collapse over the winter, the seeds root, and in the spring you will have a cluster of thread onions. Thread onions are a Korean delicacy seldom found for sale. If you are fond of Asian cooking, all it takes is some ignored onions to grow your own.

The potato onion, a multiplier onion, is a fall planted variety of A. cepa. I tried potato onions one year and it was pretty cool. The onions went in in September, following tomatoes in a raised bed, and I had small hard bulb onions in March and April. The bunch of bulbs can be divided and saved to replant. They like high fertility. I planted the tomatoes into eight inches of composted used horse bedding, and then the potato onions. By spring it was down to the hard clay soil.

The other fall planted A. cepa is the Walla-Walla onion. Food is culture, and Walla-Wallas are a cult around here. An ephemeral summer treat, an onion that doesn't store well and must be eaten when it is fresh and juicy, eating Walla-Walla onions connects us to this place and its seasons. It is worth growing some of your own. Eating your homegrown Walla-Wallas is a surprisingly powerful ritual act.

A. fistulosum is also know as Welsh (that would be "strange" in Old English) or Japanese bunching onion. For historical interest, the city of Ashkelon, in modern Israel, used to supply Rome with boatloads of "scallions", hence the name. Different varieties are larger, redder (Red Beard), more perennial (Evergreen), better bunchers, more bulbing (Pacific Pearl, which makes darling miniature onions), or more winter hardy. A. fistulosum will produce through the fall, die back in the cold, and then pop up early spring onions for your culinary delight. Just keep cutting it and it comes back. The better bunchers among the A. fistulosums, such as the Nebuka, or Japanese bunching onion, will form clusters of stems, which can be divided. They like rich soil, so keep feeding your scallions to make them act more perennial.

Shallots are started from seed now or from bulbs in March. Shallots are summer onions. They store well in winter, are central ingredients in French cooking, and cost a fortune. Even a small bed of shallots will produce enough to make you snicker when you see them for sale. Shallots are a standby of traditional French cooking precisely because they are reliable, abundant producers in the home garden and each bulb produces a cluster of new bulbs. A special shallot, the yellow Dutch, is large enough to be considered a multiplier onion and stores well if spring planted. My experience is that yellow Dutch shallots can be fall planted in these parts, although neither the yield nor the storage qualities were as good as the spring planted ones.

Our native perennial Nodding Onion, Allium cernuum, was an important food to the First Nations people. Nodding onions are prairie dwellers and like soils that dry out in summer. Seeds are available, listed as ornamental native plants. You might want to try some growing some Nodding Onions in your permaculture patch, where they can be left alone. I had trouble getting them established in the garden, I think because I had them in a raised bed with the vegetables and they got too much summer moisture. Nodding onions are sown in fall or winter and come up the next spring.

The strange looking Egyptian onion, or walking onion, is fun in the herb bed. The little bulbs send up a stalk with another cluster of bulblets, which start making tiny green onions even before the stalk bends over and the bulblets take root. The bulblets can be harvested and planted for green onions. Egyptian onions don't produce much until the second year, and then they produce a small but steady green onion harvest over a long season.

Chives and Chinese chives are perennials and can live for years here. They die back in winter but pop up again when the weather warms up. Chives need to be cut back in summer, or they develop hard stems.

October is garlic planting time in Whatcom County. There are whole books on growing garlic. Garlic is planted on 8" centers into fertile soil, making it infeasible to supply even a small family with enough garlic for year round consumption in a small urban garden. However, it is educational to grow some of your own. Garlic is like wine, it has terroir, connection to place. If you grow your own, you can grow some of the heirloom varieties. Territorial sells a variety called China Pink, which is an early garlic. Planted in October, China Pink is ready to harvest in May. It has a good strong flavor and keeps well.

In a small urban garden, the casual gardener can just go outside with that purchased onion or garlic that has gone sprouty and stick it in the ground or a pot. The allium will root and grow delicious young leaves. This is a serendipitous joy, an expensive treat for just about free.

That's enough for now. The roots can wait until next post.

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Comment by Heather K on February 14, 2010 at 5:05pm
Super Info on the allium family!

Did you mentnion 'ramps'? Its a native Applalachian bulb that is an early spring delicacy when they first push up through the forest floor before the leaves have come out. I just brought some saved seeds back from friends in PA. I planted them in the understory of my pear tree's edible 'guild' and tucked them around the garden here & there. I'll look forward to searching for them sprouting up hidden among leaves & browning perennials when I return home! (I'll have to research the latin name).

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