onions and garlic, in frugal perpetuity

garlicINVESTMENTS MAY DIMINISH OR EVEN DISAPPEAR, but the best edible alliums march bravely onward, proliferating as they go. I’m taking comfort in plants with that kind of potential for perpetuity right now, especially edible ones. So I was happy when my springtime order of multiplier onions arrived last week, and that I’d set aside the best of this year’s garlic harvest for replanting as my 2009 crop. If all else fails, I will at least be well-seasoned.

I’ve never grown multiplier onions before, an oldtime favorite I pre-ordered in March from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which offers them for fall arrival. I haven’t found much consistent information about growing the so-called potato onions, particularly in the North, except for Southern Exposure’s fact sheet, which says to save half the bulbs for springtime planting in case the winter’s too hard for them. Sounds a little ominous, but here I go.

potato-onionIn my cold area, I’m meant to give them up to 5 inches of soil on top of their pointed ends (only 1 inch or 2 in warmer zones), then scrape some of it away come spring, as they prefer to be closer to the surface in the growing season. As with garlic, shallots and other alliums, the bulbs want fertile, well-drained soil and a sunny location to be happiest.

I’d welcome any insights or war stories if you’ve grown multiplier onions, which are also sold by Territorial Seed in Oregon.

I’m far more confident with garlic, particular basically foolproof varieties like ‘German Extra-Hardy,’ with its large cloves and super-tough disposition.

As I say in the current “Chores” column (updated monthly in the sidebar column of every blog page), replant your biggest cloves from heads of harvested garlic for best yield, or hurry and order a supply, to plant ideally about a month before frost is in the ground. Mine went in last week.

Prepare a sunny spot, and plant each clove 1-2 inches deep and 6 inches apart in the row, with about 12 inches between rows. Green growth will happen this fall, which is great; don’t panic. It’s a hardy thing. Now as for those potato onions, only time will tell.

  1. diana says:

    We had wet weather before harvest and by the time the soil was dry enough to dig in, the garlic cloves lost their “jackets”. Do you know if the naked bulbs will grow? Good luck with your onions!

  2. Melinda Wedding says:

    Margaret, I am planting my first garlic ever. I need to look for onions, too.

    I hope you don’t mind me sharing the wonderful experience I had buying the garlic. I Googled “Garlic in Texas” and ended up on this website:
    http://www.gourmetgarlicgardens.com. The options were staggering; I called and spoke to Bob, the Garlicmeister. He was so helpful, kind, and generous with his advice. The bulbs arrived last week, and I hope to get them planted this weekend. Anyway, he offered me one of the top customer service experiences in recent memory.

    If only he’d come plant them for me. :D

  3. I love the multiplying alliums. This year I have finally become garlic self sufficient (I think anyhow) and I am on the lookout for a canadian supplier of yellow multipliers (ritchers?). I have shallots and they are great too!

  4. Johanna says:

    I remember how delighted and surprised I was to discover how very many hundreds of varieties of garlic exist. I love to grow 8 or 12 different kinds and give them as gifts in my clear plastic egg cartons, adding a label on the inside of the lid that shows which garlic is where, just like a Whitman Sampler!

    What would you rather receive, chocolate or garlic???

  5. margaret says:

    Welcome, Ottawa Gardener. I think I turned the corner on garlic self-sufficiency finally, too, so we can now tackle multiplier onions together! Hope to see you here again soon.

  6. We’re going to give onions and garlic a try in our garden this year, something we’ve been wanting to do for so long, but never had enough space. There’s so much we want to grow, but so little…soil space!

    Thank you for the link to Territorial Seeds, it will be very helpful. And thank you for your wonderful garden blog, you are an inspiration to all gardeners, especially to us.

  7. margaret says:

    Welcome, White on Rice (my best friend uses that expression all the time so I am smiling at your “name”). I know that my garden dreams are always bigger than the hours in the week or the acres on the planet, but that’s part of the fun: the lust and “she’s gotta have it” desire that sucks us all in and won’t let go. Thanks for your sweet words, which help spur me onward.

  8. Jendi says:

    I would like to try planting garlic also.
    (Obviously I’m an amateur gardener.)

    And here I thought planting season was over. :)

  9. margaret says:

    Welcome, Jendi. I can keep coming up with things to plant as long as your ground stays unfrozen. Great time for deciduous trees and shrubs for instance…. :)

  10. margaret says:

    Welcome, Conor, and I say it will work. Well-drained mediums as in a pot are good for garlic. The thing about containers outdoors over the winter is how much soil volume there is to insulate the plants; I wouldn’t use tiny pots, but more planter size for best effect. I found a success story on this subject by a couple in Wisconsin (scroll to end of this linked page for the photos). It’s a lot warmer in NYC than Wisconsin, last time I checked. Do it.

  11. Conor says:

    Does anyone have any idea how garlic or onions might fair in rooftop containers? This particular rooftop is in New York City and gets loads of sunlight. Is it simply a matter of soil depth? If I’ve got enough, would the garlic/onions be OK?

  12. margaret says:

    Welcome, Elizabeth. Perfect timing. You just want it to have a few weeks or a month to root in before the ground freezes solid. Go for it.

  13. Elizabeth says:

    We’re having overnight temps in the 30s here (Blue Ridge Mtns., Virginia) but daytime temps are up and down this week (50s and 60s so far). Is it too late to plant the garlic? The ground isn’t freezing yet so I’m confused about the temp requirement. I plan on buying a soil thermomenter; maybe should do it sooner than I’d planned.

  14. margaret says:

    Hello, Siever…I am inferring that you already have the bulbs on hand, yes? I don’t think they will be happy waiting till spring, and in our cold climate the garlic wants to grow all fall/winter/spring anyhow, or at least root in. I’d either eat the garlic and get more in fall, or go ahead and plant it and see what happens.
    Yes, garlic is sold in spring as well but doesn’t do as well if spring-planted, and from bulbs that lie around all winter in probably less-than-ideal conditions, I am not optimistic.

  15. Karen says:

    On the subject of alliums, I have had scallions for years now, orginally started from seeds. Each year they develop beautiful flowers, which I am wondering how to handle. Each year I cut some of them down, but I haven’t figured out if it is better to let them go to seed or cut them off while in bud. Some of the clumps develop more scallions but some don’t. They are spreading out from the original scallions, not sprouting from seed. Any ideas about this?

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Karen. Generally what we call “scallions” are grown for those two or three inches of white shank down near the base; not to be confused with the green top of a regular onion, which won’t have that (because it’s meant to create a big bulbs down below). They are the same plant genetically, Allium cepa just like a bulbing onion, but just selected for their inclination to make that shank I think (and not bulb). They are meant to be grown in successive batches, planted regularly, so you always have tender “green onions” (as they are also called) to use.

      Most onions, including these, will overwinter in many areas, as you have seen, but I think allowing them to grow and grow defeats the young, tender nature of the desired crop, no? If you want to save seed for next year you will need some to set flowers, but basically the idea is to plant enough at regular intervals so you use up each crop when it’s young and tender. So make successive sowings. Does that make any sense?

  16. barbara Maleonskie says:

    This is such a fun interesting website. Can you direct me to any of these great gardeners who would come and
    talk and educate our garden club in Red Hook, Ny. We would love to have you if you’re out there. Many thanks,

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Barbara. Thank you for the kind words. If you want to email me we can discuss. The address is awaytogarden @ gmail dot com (obviously not all the spaces, but you get the idea). :)

  17. Judy says:

    My dad always grew what he called “spring onions”. I’ve always thought these were probably the same thing as multipliers, Egyptian or “walking” onions. He brought a start to Kansas in 1944 and they’re now going strong in one end of one of my raised beds.
    We only eat them as scallions, and only in spring (although I’ve often pulled some young ones up in late February if we have a warm spell.) They get tough and strong as it gets hotter.
    This time of year I clean out the bed, pulling out all the dried, brown stalks and scatter the small bulblets that form at the top of the stalk. I’ve given them away both as the bulblets and as starts of mature plants that I have dug. They seem to take off either way.

  18. So glad to hear you’re taking an interest in potato onions! They’re fun, and tasty, and very entertaining to grow. There’s a supplier closer to you, and it’s where I got my starts after losing them in a long-drawn-out move to a home in the country (the termites got there first). I don’t have her address at hand, but you can find her by Googling “Maine Potato Lady.” Hers was the best price, and they arrived clean, plentiful and just at the right time.
    FYI Judy, spring onions are a different allium, a top-setting onion also called a walking or Egyptian onion. Little bulblets form at the top of the greens, keel over and root, and form new clusters of scallions. Multipliers form multiple bulbs, much like shallots, but larger.

  19. Louise says:

    I cut scapes last Sunday from our garlic, and glad I had read to do so! Thanks. I have two gallon sized bags of them and love having them. I wonder if anyone has pickled them for a joyful meal or two in the part of winter when the garlic runs out.

    At any rate, the scapes are a special treat. Thanks again for having a wonderful blog.


  20. Louise says:

    Thanks again! I just ordered the starter set of multiplier onions and multiplier leeks. Imagine scallions, onions, shallots, and leeks that are perennial. Heaven.

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