Jane's Delicious Garden Blog


Big onion flavour for small gardens

Posted in Garden Diary by Jane Griffiths on the December 12th, 2017

Spring and green onions (1)
In small urban gardens growing a crop that takes up to 10 months to harvest is not ideal. Especially ones like onions that are a once-off deal when they are harvested. There are many smaller members of the onion family that will provide year-round onion flavour. Chives, green onions, scallions, shallots, spring onions, walking onions and Welsh onions are members of the Allium family that are ideal for gardeners with limited space.
However, the names can be confusing, especially as other countries have different names for the same thing: for example, what we call spring onions in South Africa are called Welsh onions or scallions in other countries.

CHIVES
(Allium schoenoprasum and tuberosum)
Onion chives (4)
Delicious chives are an easy perennial that should be grown in every vegetable garden. Not only do they add flavour to any meal, they are also a very good protective plant, deterring many harmful insects, especially if grown as a border around beds. There are two types of chive: Onion chives have hollow leaves, lilac coloured pom-pom flowers and a mild onion flavour; and Garlic chives have flat mildly garlic-flavoured leaves and white flowers. They are larger and bushier than onion chives. They are both perennials, but onion chives are not as long lived as the garlic chives.
Chives are easily grown from seed or seedlings. They prefer full sun and moist soil but can handle dry weather. Every couple of years, divide chives in spring by lifting them and splitting them into new plants. When harvesting, don’t cut the tops as if you are giving them a hair trim, as this will just weaken the plant. Harvest by snipping off leaves 2 cm above the base with a pair of scissors. They will regrow quickly. Chive flowers can be tossed onto a salad or added to ice cubes and dropped into a cold soup. Chopped fresh leaves are great on just about anything. They are also delicious used to flavour cream cheese, oil, vinegar or salt.

GREEN ONIONS
(Allium cepa)
Green onions (2)
Green onions (also called scallions) are simply large onions that are harvested early, before the bulb has formed. Follow the planting instructions for normal onions, other than spacing. As you will be harvesting them before they have bulbed, you can plant them much closer together. They are also good companions to beetroot, lettuce, spinach and Swiss chard.
They are ready for harvesting about eight weeks after planting, when they are at least 1.5 cm thick and about 20 to 25 cm tall. Loosen the soil around their base and pull them up. They don’t keep well, so only harvest what you plan to eat. The longer they stay in the ground, the stronger their flavour becomes. Both the green stalk and the white stem are edible.

SHALLOTS
(Allium cepa aggregatum)
Shallots (1)
(Photo courtesy Mountain Herb Estate)
Shallots are not often grown in South African gardens, which is a pity as they take less time to mature than onions or garlic and are therefore great for smaller gardens. Unlike onions, which produce a single bulb, shallots contain clusters of smaller bulbs. They have a deliciously mild oniony flavour (with a touch of garlic), without the sharp bite of an onion. Shallot seeds are available from Mountain Herb Estate.
Sow the seeds in seed trays from May to August. Transplant when they are six weeks old into well-drained fertile soil. Position the bulb base about 1 cm below the surface and press the soil down firmly. Once established, mulch well to control weeds and maintain moisture but keep the tops of the bulbs clear of earth or mulch. Water during dry spells and break off any flower stems as soon as they pop up.
When the bulbs have formed, loosen the soil to expose them to the sun. About 90 days after sowing, the foliage will begin to die back and they will be ready to harvest once the leaves turn yellow and flop over.
Sweet shallots are mild enough to be sliced raw in salads and sweet enough for long slow cooking, bringing out an intense caramelised flavour.

SPRING ONIONS
(Allium fistulosum)
Spring onions about to flower
These are bunching onions that do not form big bulbs. Sow them directly (or in seed trays and then transplant) year-round, except for the hottest midsummer and the coldest midwinter months. They like full sun, fertile soil and regular moisture.
Harvest when young for the best flavour. If you leave a few to go to seed, they produce white flower heads that bees and butterflies love and will seed themselves happily. Look out for seeds of red varieties, such as Red Rum, to add interest to your salads. The entire plant is edible, with the bulb being stronger than the green leaves. They can be eaten raw or lightly cooked.

WALKING ONIONS
(Allium x proliferum)
Walking onions (1)
Perennial Egyptian walking onions (also known as tree onions or top onions) are unusual in that they produce clusters of small bulbs (top-sets) where the onion flower normally would be. These reach up to 90 cm, become top heavy, fall over and then root themselves a short distance from the mother plant – hence their name ‘walking onions’. They can be planted in full sun from autumn through to late spring in fertile, well-drained soil (they do not like wet feet).
Four to five months after planting, the clusters of what look like miniature onions at the top of each stalk will have matured. Each plant will bear anything from one up to 30 bulblets, which range in size from 0.5 cm to 3 cm. As these bend and touch the ground you can encourage them to root by pinning the stem down with a paper clip. At the base of the plant, underground, there is a shallot-like swelling.
The underground bulb, leaves and top-sets are all edible, with the leaves tasting much like spring onions. The underground bulb has a mild flavour similar to a shallot. The top-sets have a stronger flavour and are great in soups, salads and sauces, or pickled. In their first year they might not produce top-sets. However, if the plant is left in the ground it will continue to produce bigger and more prolific top-sets every year.