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Onions that keep on giving.

Plant them now and you can harvest them for years to come

POTATO ONIONS, Egyptian onions, and Chinese leek flowers are seldom featured prominently on supermarkets' produce counters. In fact, there's a good chance you won't find them in most home gardens either.

These cousins of the ordinary bulbing onion are part of a diverse group in the Allium family that are all perennial onions. Once you plant them, they'll provide many crops.

If planted in October in the mild-winter West, they grow and develop through the cool season, with harvest the following spring.


Among perennial onions, you'll find a wide selection.

Multipliers. The closest relatives of common single-bulb onions are multipliers, which include potato onions and shallots. Multipliers grow by dividing. If you plant a larger (about 2- to 3-inch-diameter) potato onion, it will divide into a cluster of bulbs of mixed sizes. Each smaller onion (about 1 inch in diameter) usually grows into one large bulb. Shallots always divide, and they're often smaller than potato onions.

Multipliers can be left in the ground, where they will continue to multiply. But most gardeners lift the bulbs at harvesttime, store some for eating, and replant the rest in fall.

Both potato onions and shallots are good keepers, flavorful, and fairly mild. But they're best for cooking rather than for eating fresh.

Topset onions. This type, called Egyptian onion (it's not really from Egypt), produces many leafy green stalks; small bulblets form on their tops. If bulblets are not harvested, the leaves bend and the bulblets fall to the ground and take root.

When left in the ground, Egyptian onion plants increase in size. To expand the size of your planting, harvest the bulblets and plant them individually in fall (if bulblets are very small, don't separate them before planting).

Several parts of this onion are edible. Mild, tender young leaves (with no bulblets) can be used like green onions. The bulblets make tasty pickles. The bulbs normally are left in the ground, but some can be harvested. Since their flavor is very strong, they're best cooked.

Bunching onions. These onions may be called Japanese bunching onions, Welsh onions, or sometimes scallions (although scallions can refer to any onion at the green onion stage of growth).

Although these onions are often grown as annuals, you can leave some plants in the ground to allow offshoots to develop and continue to divide. Harvest older ones carefully by gently pulling them up, so the young ones remain in the soil to grow.

Bunching onions are mild and can be used fresh or in cooking just like any green onions.

Chives. Common chives have leafy growth 12 to 24 inches tall, lavender-pink flowers in spring, and a mild green onion flavor. To harvest them, snip leaves as needed.

Chinese leeks (also called Oriental garlic chives) form foot-tall plants; the foliage has a distinctive mild garlic flavor. Common Chinese leek plants have fairly narrow leaves (there's also a broad-leafed type) and produce white flowers in late summer. Another type--Chinese leek flower--is grown especially for its flowers, which appear starting in spring. The flowers are harvested in bud stage when stalks are about a foot tall and stems are pliable.


Till the soil and turn in plenty of organic material. Since onions have shallow roots, they don't compete well with weeds. Lightly hoe or hand-weed regularly; deep hoeing can damage roots. Keep the soil moist (Chinese leeks prefer to be on the dry side) and fertilize every two weeks with fish emulsion.

Planting and harvesting techniques vary by type.

Multipliers. Cover bulbs with 1 inch of soil. In cold-winter climates, cover soil with about 2 inches of mulch in fall; remove in February. Stop fertilizing one month before harvest (late April or early May in mild climates); cut off water a week before harvest. Harvest when necks are dry and most of the leaves are turning brown.

Cure bulbs for one to two months in a protected spot out of sunlight; handle gently to avoid bruising them. When bulbs have cured, clip off tops, leaving about 1 inch of neck. Store in a dry place.

Topset. Cover bulbs with 1 to 1 1/2 inches of soil. Harvest tender green leaves when plants grow large enough to snip some off. Cut off bulblets when they're 1/2 to 3/4 inch in diameter. Harvest underground bulbs in late spring.

Bunching. Scatter seeds about 1 inch apart. Cover with 1/4 inch of soil; thin to 2 to 3 inches apart. Harvest as needed.

Chives and Chinese leeks. Sow seeds about 2 inches apart and 1/4 inch deep; thin to 4 to 6 inches apart. Harvest individual leaves as needed or cut back the entire plant.


The more unusual perennial onions must be ordered by mail. Here are four sources.

Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 N. Pacific Highway, Albany, Ore. 97321; (503) 928-9280 (free catalog). Chives, Oriental garlic chives, and onions (bunching, Egyptian).

Seeds Blum, Idaho City Stage, Boise, Idaho 83706 (catalog $3). Welsh onions and potato onions.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Box 158, North Garden, Va. 22959; (804) 973-4703 (catalog $3). Shallots, and bunching, Egyptian, and potato onions (call for fall availability).

Sunrise Enterprises, Box 330058, West Hartford, Conn. 06133; (203) 666-8071 (catalog $2). Bunching onions, and broad-leafed, common, and Chinese leek flowers.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Swezey, Lauren Bonar
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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