Think fall is only a time for harvesting? Meet the Allium family! Plant chives, garlic, bunching onions, and shallots beginning in September and October for eating next year.
You can grow most alliums from seeds or small transplants, but fall is the ideal time for planting allium bulbs—also called sets—and to make divisions of clump-forming alliums from your garden or a friend’s.
The basics—a sunny spot and fertile soil
Alliums require a sunny garden spot with good drainage. If you haven’t tested your soil in the last three years to adjust soil nutrients and pH—the soil acidity—do it now! Kits for sending your samples in for free testing are available at the Extension Office and Extension Master Gardener Volunteer information tables and plant clinics.
Bulbs—source varieties best for growing in WNC
It is easy to plant garlic, elephant garlic, bunching onion, and shallot bulbs. These look just like what you’d buy for cooking, but think twice before planting store-bought produce. Bulbs sold in supermarkets are often varieties that grow best in other areas or are treated to delay sprouting.
Buy bulb varieties suited to Western North Carolina from nurseries or seed companies, or from a local farmer. You can ensure you’ve planted varieties you’ll enjoy by sampling bulbs at a local farmer’s market.
Garlic (Allium sativum) comes in softneck and hardneck types. Extension Horticulture Specialist Jeanine Davis notes that the garlic bulbs usually sold in supermarkets are softneck varieties. She recommends California Early, many Italian cultivars, and New York White Neck softneck varieties for North Carolina. Davis cautions that hardneck varieties tend to be trickier to grow, but NC commercial growers do well with German Extra Hardy, Chesnok Red, Music, and Spanish Roja. Elephant garlic is actually a leek (Allium ampeloprasum), but you plant and grow it just like true garlic. Always separate garlic bulbs into cloves before planting.
Bunching onions (Allium cepa var cepa and Allium fistulosum) and shallot bulbs (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are planted whole. Extension Horticulture Specialist Douglas Sanders recommends Ebenezer, Silverskin, or Yellow Globe Danvers varieties for bunching onions grown from sets. Unlike garlic, you may find your sets grow quickly enough that you can harvest “green” onions later in the fall.
Plant your garlic cloves and bunching onion and shallot sets no more than a couple of inches deep and 3 to 5 inches apart. If you plant in rows, allow at least a foot between rows. Keep well-watered.
Although you can grow chives from purchased plants or seeds, these plants benefit from division, so if you have a planting or can get a friend to share, you can increase your harvest next spring by digging and separating a chive clump into two or more plants. There is no need to separate the individual bulblets, just cut back the green tops to a couple of inches, dig, pull apart, and replant in a sunny, well-drained spot with the nutrients and lime recommended in your soil test.
The most common garden chives, (Allium schoenoprasum) have pretty, edible purple flowers in spring. You can tell them from garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) by their flowers—garlic chives have white flowers—as well as the fact that “regular” chives have round, hollow green leaves, while garlic chives have flat, solid leaves. The long life and attractiveness of these flowering alliums makes them suitable for ornamental gardens and might tempt you to look for Allium family members grown exclusively for their flowers. Fall is the time to plant these, too!
The “Walking” onion (Allium cepa proliferum group) is another Allium family member that benefits from division. In this case, in addition to digging, separating, and replanting individual bulbs, you can break apart the mature seed heads, which are also forming new bulbs! As the pollinated flowers form seeds that swell into bulbs, the tiny new bulbs sprout and the weight begins to bend the flower stalk. These heads will eventually reach the ground. Thus, the onions “walk” into a neighboring section of the garden. You can control where the new onions grow by cutting off the flower stalks once the bulbs begin to form and replanting.
Visit the websites below for more information about growing alliums:
- Garlic: https://polk.ces.ncsu.edu/?page_id=155206
- Bunching onions: http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/green-bunch-onions
- Ornamental alliums: http://ngb.org/downloads/files/Pamphlet%203-panel%20Allium.pdf
Article written by Debbie Green, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.
Photos: Flowering onion by Phillip Merritt, Flickr.com; Harvested garlic by Tony Austin, Flickr.com; Onion bulb by Laura Leonard Fitch, Flickr.com; Flowering chives by NCSU; Walking onion by Anderwood, Garden.org.