Allium is the genus of onions and their family. The Allium family is pretty wide and can be divided into four main groups: Cloves, Clones, Top-sets and Seeds. I’m not going to go in depth with each individual variety, just the more popular ones.
1. Cloves, which includes shallots, garlic and elephant garlic.
Elephant Garlic is a different species than regular garlic. It is much hardier than most garlic and very mild flavored. It is a larger plant, producing larger cloves and requires more garden space. Otherwise it grows the same as regular garlic.
Garlic has the highest consentraiton of sulfide of allyl which is not only the pungent smell but the wormer, disinfectant ect, properties. The tops are grass like and can grow up to two feet tall. Shallots are closest to garlic. They both produce pink flower blooms that may or may not make seed. All reproduce by growing bulbs that can be divided into cloves and planted under ground again.
Plant the cloves in a full sun spot. They like moist, rich soil, that is loose or sandy (so they can easily produce bulbs) with good drainage. Garlic does not transplant well. It is best to plant it in the fall or early spring as soon as the ground is workable. Generally 1 lb. of cloves will be enough for a 25 foot row. Be sure to plant the cloves with the point up! Plant the cloves about 2-3 inches deep and about 3 inches apart.
To harvest the garlic wait until the tops are about a foot tall, then quit watering them. Once the tops have fallen over and dried you can carefully dig the bulbs, lightly wash them and braid the tops together to hang and dry as well as store.
Seed Saving- Bulbs for saving for seed should be dried in open air for at least a day. Then they can be stored, the will need a resting period of 8 weeks at a temperature between 32 and 50 degrees.
Garlic will keep for 6 to 8 months if stored between 35 and 40 degrees with a 60-70% humidity.
Shallots are a close relative of garlic. They grow with few cloves and don’t have the paper husk that garlic does. It has a milder flavor as well. The are hardy plants and generally good producers.
To plant shallots follow the same guidelines as garlic with the exception to plant them 4-6 inches apart.
Harvesting is pretty close to the same as well. Wait until the leaves have dried and turned brown. Carefully pull them up and allow them to dry for a few days. To store them, you can braid the tops like garlic or cut the tops off and store like globe onions.
2. Clones, which includes welsh onions and potato onions. These reproduce by dividing the plant at the base and not into topless cloves like those in the clove category.
Potato Onions are really a neat onion variety. To grow most easily you plant an onion set only deep enough that it had a heavy dusting of soil on top in the early spring about 8 inches apart. They will grow green onion tops, once to tops have browned and dried the onions can be dug.
Each onion plant will have multiple onion bulbs under it like potatoes. Keep the larger bulbs for use in the kitchen and set the smaller ones aside to use for you sets next year.
These can be used the same as other onions, the have a milder flavor.
3. Top-sets, also known as walking or Egyptian onions reproduce by growing a bulb on the top of their greens which eventually bend to the ground and replant themselves.
Rocambole(also known as sand leeks or Spanish garlic), Tree Onions (also known as Egyptian Onions) are the most popular varieties.
To harvest these you can cut the tops to use as green onions. Once the tops have grown thick the bulb can be dug and used as a regular onion. The tops can grow to 5 feet tall before the top bulb is formed. Allowing the bulb to for on the top of the green, then letting the green dry to brown the top set can be replanted and will keep your onions growing as long as you like.
4. Seeds, these include chives, garlic chives, pearl onions, leeks, globe onions and bunching onions, which reproduce by flowering and making a seed.
Chives and Garlic Chives are a grass like onion in which you only use the greens. They do not form a bulb. They are short plants usually averaging 10inches tall or so. They flower mid summer with light pink, purple or white flowers. Planting is quite simple, sow the seeds in early spring or indoors. These will continue to come back year after year. To harvest simply cut the greens off. They will regrow in no time! The flowers are edible too and make a great salad garnish.
Saving the seeds is quite easy too. Allow the plant to flower, once the bloom has died and dried on the plant snip it off and shake the bloom. You will have tiny black seeds that you can start another patch with. After the plants are established they are easily divided too.
Globe Onions have many different varieties but all are grown, harvested and stored about the same. They can be bought as seeds, sets or plants. The seeds are the cheapest and you get what seems like a million! Then the sets and plants. I’ve used seeds and sets but never plants. I would recommend sets to any first time gardener or those with a very short growing season. I use seeds, however it takes me two growing seasons to produce onions ready for the kitchen. The first year I plant the seeds pretty close together and harvest the bulbs in the fall. I allow the to dry for a few days as you would with a full grown onion. The bulbs are usually about the size of a set. The following spring I plant the set I grew about 4inches apart and harvest the full grown onion in the fall. Each year I have a patch of sets growing and seeds growing.
To harvest the bulb onions is the same as the rest of the allium family; allow the tops to brown and dry. Carefully dig them up. Allow them to dry for a few days and store some place cool for the winter.
To produce seed the onion will have one extra tall leaf that will produce a flower. If you want your onion to spend it’s energy on making an onion rather than seed you can cut the flower off. I let a couple flower so I have seed for next year.
I grow a few different types of onions each year, they are open pollenated so I know what I am growing now is not true to the original type. That’s ok with me. If you want to ensure that you get a true plant each year I recommend only planting one type of onion or planting your different types a mile or more apart. (See why I don’t mind if mine cross breed)
Tips and Recipes
No Crying in the Onions keeping your onions in the refrigerator or placing them in the freezer for 15 minutes before you plan to cut them will help the “fumes” that cause the tears. OR Once you slice them in half run cold water over them for a short while.
Scratch Onion or Garlic Powder
Some recipes call for onion or garlic powder and just are the same when you use fresh instead. Here’s the easy way to make your own without the additives from the store bought ones.
Dehydrate your onions or garlic, at about 120 degrees until they feel dry. (this may take a few hours depending on how thick your slices are.)
Then using a mortar and pestle or food processor, pound or blend until it’s powder.
You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned Scallions. Although they look like an immature onion they are actually not in the Allium family. They are a “green onion”, confusing I know. To grow scallions plant them early in your growing season. If you plant them by seed you can plant them thick and thin by harvesting them, it will take about 60 days for them to be ready for harvest. Scallions can also be planted by onion sets and then will only take a few weeks to be ready. Once you have your scallions in the kitchen you can continue to grow the greens by putting the “bulb” end in a glass of water by the window. The greens will continue to grow as you cut them. The scallions are ready for harvest when the stems are about as thick as a pencil. (Scallions reference- The Encyclopedia of Country Living pg 252)