Alliums for January: sow scallions, cipollini, shallots

Clumps of scallion transplants in a plug flat, ready to transplant.
Photo Pam Dawling

Plant scallions, shallots, cipollini mini-onions, small potato onions

In January, one of the first crops we sow is scallions for transplant. We sow in 200-cell plug flats, on January 17, aiming to get 4-6 seeds per cell. It takes 4 gm of seed for 200 cells. We transplant these clumps on March 21, with 3″ (7 cm) space between plugs. We need about 50 row feet (15 m) This grows us scallions already in bunches, and makes excellent use of the space. We make a second sowing of the same size on February 17 and transplant April 14. We also grow scallions in the hoophouse in winter.

French Red Shallot bulbs. Photo Raddysh Acorn

 Plant shallot bulbs January-February, if you haven’t done so before the winter.

Between late January and mid-February, sow shallot seeds. Transplant in late March. Shallots from seed will be ready for harvest 7/4-7/30, about a month later than harvests from replanted bulbs.

Cipollini, Mini-onions, Pickling Onions

Like bulb onions and scallions, cipollini are a biennial crop grown as an annual (A. cepa var. cepa). They are small bulb onions used whole for kebabs, pickles, casseroles, and stews. Depending on your latitude and the variety’s adaptation, these will provide bulbs from the size of large cherries to ping-pong balls. They tend to dry down nicely and store well. White varieties get sunburn here. Red Marble is good, stores well. Purplette doesn’t store well.

Mini-onions are viewed as a gourmet item, so the prices you can get may justify giving them greenhouse bench space, or even growing space in a hoophouse. We can grow these outdoors from seed sown 1/17-1/25, transplanting 3/10-3/21, leading to harvest 7/1-7/17.

Red Marble cipollini.
Photo Fedco Seeds

Small potato onions

In late January, plant small potato onions (smaller than 1.5″/4 cm) late January as soon as the ground can be worked. Or early February, if January is not possible. See Alliums for December for planting medium-sized bulbs, Alliums for September for information on planting the large ones. In order to make January planting possible, we prepare the bed for the small potato onions in the late fall and cover it with mulch for the winter. In late January or early February, we remove the mulch, make 4 deep furrows, plant the small onions (<1½”, 4 cm) on 4″ (10 cm) centers, cover with ½”-1″ (1-3 cm) soil, tamp down, and replace 4″-8″ (10-20 cm) of mulch. Label and write down how much seed was used. Eat any leftovers or give them to a friend. For 360′ (111 m) at 4″ (10 cm), we need 1080 bulbs plus 20% spare. (Approx 1300 bulbs). 425 bulbs = 18-20lbs (8-9 kg), 1lb (500 gm) =20-33 bulbs.

Harvesting and Eating

Eat onions and garlic from storage, including bulbils from Egyptian onions if you stored those.

You can enjoy eating Perennial leeks as leeks, September to February. See Alliums for December

If still green and visible, you can eat leaves of Egyptian onions and perennial leeks, September to April.

This is the time to enjoy winter leeks. We try to grow enough to supply 1 bed (720 leeks) each month, December to February

Other Allium Tasks

How to harvest and trim leeks.

Use a sturdy digging fork to harvest leeks.
Photo Pam Dawling

Be sure to get the prongs/times of the fork downwards into the soil, not at an angle that will stab the leek. Step on the fork and go deep enough to dislodge the leek when you lever back on the fork.

Trim the leek roots off with a big knife.
Photo Pam Dawling

After removing the roots, hold the leek upside down and slash diagonally at the leaves. This will remove the damaged parts of the tougher outer leaves and leave the tender inner leaves to eat.

A trimmed leek showing how the inner leaves are left longer than the outer ones.
Photo Pam Dawling

If you haven’t done it already, free trapped garlic shoots. Look for garlic shoots at whatever spacing you used.

Young garlic shoots which emerged through the mulch on their own.
Photo Pam Dawling

A trapped garlic shoot that was freed with human intervention.
Photo Pam Dawling

If you don’t see a garlic shoot where there should be one, part the mulch just enough to let the pale shoot see the light. Don’t leave any soil bare, it only leads to weeds!

Unusual Alliums List. (There are others)

While you are perusing seed catalogs, look out for these less common alliums, and consider if they have a place in your garden. The Clove Garden has lots of info on all types of onion. The Backyard Larder: Ali’s Alliums is also a good read.

  1. Pearl onions (Allium ampeloprasum sectivum), also known as button or baby onions in the UK, or creamers in the US, are a close relative of leeks, with thin skins and a mild, sweet flavor. They grow up to 1′ (2.5 cm) in diameter. They are especially popular in the Netherlands and Germany. Unlike bulb onions, they do not have layers of storage leaves but only a single storage leaf, like the non-layered cloves of garlic. The onions are ready to harvest 90 days from sowing. They are mostly used for pickling. Most onions grown for pickling today are simply small crowded bulb onions, with layers. Also see the Useful Temperate Plants Site  and How to grow Pearl Onions by Jenny Harrington
  2. Perennial Rakkyo (aka as true pearl onions, Japanese scallions, Vietnamese leeks) are Allium Chinense. These small onion bulbs are generally pickled.
  3. Canada onion (aka Wild onion) (Allium canadense) is a perennial sounding very like what we call onion grass or wild garlic in Virginia, although that is Allium vineale (crow garlic). The leaves of onion grass are hollow and round, while those of Canada onion are more flat and ‘solid’.
  4. Kurrat ( kurrat), is a Middle-Eastern cultivated leek, used mainly for the greens, which may be cut from the plant repeatedly.
  5. Field garlic Allium oleraceum is native to most of Europe, where it is a wild perennial, growing tall leaves (the part that is used).
  6. Ramsons Allium ursinum, buckrams, wild garlic, broad-leaved garlic, wood garlic, bear leek, or bear’s garlic, common in Europe. Looks like Ramps, (Allium tricoccum) but is not the same. The broad flat leaves are the part used.
  7. Japanese bunching onion and Welsh onion (native to Siberia or China, not Wales) are Allium fistulosum. They are sometimes used as scallions, as are some A. cepa. Young plants of A. fistulosum and A. cepa look very similar, but may be distinguished by their leaves, which are circular in cross-section in A. fistulosum rather than flattened on one side.  A. fistulosum has hollow leaves (fistulosum means “hollow”), scapes and does not develop bulbs – the leaves are the part which is eaten.

Alliums for December: Free trapped garlic shoots, divide perennial leeks

Sorry for the delayed post. We lost our internet in the storm 5 days ago. Just got it back. Ah rural life!

Perennial leeks (small ones)

Planting Alliums in December

Sow backup bulb onions 12/5 in the hoophouse, see Alliums for November. These will be transplanted outdoors March 1st or as soon after that as feasible. If this sowing is not needed for transplants, they can be used as scallions. Regular bulb onions are a biennial crop grown as an annual (Allium cepa var. cepa)

Divide clumps of perennial leeks and replant (see Special Topic below)

Egyptian onions, aka Top-setting onions, tree onions, walking onions, produce tiny red-purple bulbs in the umbel instead of flowers, and were previously named Allium cepa var. proliferum. According to Wikipedia, they are now known to be a hybrid of A. cepa and A. fistulosum. Divide clumps in Spring (March, April) and fall (late September to November, depending on your climate)

Further south, warmer than zone 7, plant garlic and elephant garlic. Elephant garlic is botanically a leek (A. ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum).

Yellow Potato Onions.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Potato onions and shallots (which develop in the ground) are Allium cepa var. aggregatum. Plant medium-sized (1½”-2″, 4-5 cm) potato onions in late November-early December in zone 7. See Alliums for September on planting the large ones. Save the small ones to plant in January, as they won’t survive the winter well in the ground. On the plus side, the small ones store really well indoors, unlike the large ones.

  • For 360′ (110 m) @ 6″ (15cm) you need 720 bulbs plus 20% spare. Approximately 940 bulbs. 150 medium bulbs weigh about 20-21# (9 kg). 1# = 8 bulbs
  • Plant them at 6″ (15cm). If there are not enough medium-sized onions available, increase spacing or fill out with small onions.
  • Cover with ½-1″ (1-2 cm) soil, and add 4″-8″ (10-20 cm) mulch.
  • Store any leftovers till January, when the small ones get planted, if you want more.

A yellow potato onion plant in spring, showing how a cluster of onions forms.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Here’s more information about Potato onions and shallots from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange:

The potato onion is closely related to the shallot. Like the walking onion they aren’t largely referenced until the 1790s when they gain popularity in English and American gardens. Shallots on the other hand, have been recorded in use for centuries and date back to Roman times. Southern Exposure’s yellow potato onion variety is an heirloom that dates back to prior to 1790. Both the potato and walking onions saw widespread use in colonial America. They were often easy to grow in conditions that were less than ideal and easy to keep year after year. Sadly these perennial onions fell out of favor during the 20th century. People chose to grow more seed onions as onion seeds and sets became more widely available.

Benefits of potato onions and shallots

  • They are not as readily bothered by the onion fly as are seed onions.
  • Once you have enough potato onions or shallots you need not buy seeds or sets again.
  • Some types of multiplier onions are in demand as gourmet items in restaurants.
  • Potato onions and many shallots store well, and can withstand subfreezing temperatures in every area of the continental U.S. when properly planted.
  • Perennial onions may be easier for you to grow. While some gardeners find seed onions to be an easy, productive crop others struggle with them. If you’re having a hard time with seed onions perennial onions are worth a shot.”

Harvesting alliums in December

Winter leeks, 12/8-3/1. Common leeks are Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum.

Scallions in the hoophouse at the end of November.
Photo Pam Dawling

Hoophouse scallions, (spring onions, escallions or salad onions). Like bulb onions, these are A. cepa var. cepa. Early Lisbon and Evergreen Hardy White scallion varieties are hardy to 0°F (−18°C), as are chives, garlic, a few leeks (Alaska, Durabel), some bulb onions, and yellow potato onions.

Perennial leeks as leeks (see Special Topic below).

Leaves of Egyptian onions and perennial leeks: Cut and use these September to April, as long as they are still green and in good shape.

Other Allium tasks for December

Garlic shoots emerging through the mulch.

Free trapped garlic shoots. Watch your mulched garlic beds and when the shoots start to emerge, choose the moment to free any trapped shoots, by working along the rows, investigating each spot where you expect a garlic plant to be, but see nothing. Your goal is simply to let the shoot see the daylight. Then it will right itself. Don’t reveal any bare soil, as that will grow weeds (and let colder winter air at the garlic.) Don’t over-work this – as soon as any part of a shoot is visible, leave that plant alone, and move on to the thousands of others. It isn’t necessary to make all the leaves visible, or to clear around the whole plant.

Choosing the right time might be tricky. I used to say when half or more of the shoots are visible, but one year we were having a crop disaster, and we waited too long – we were never going to have half visible. Usually, most of them emerge at the same time.

When properly planted and mulched, garlic can withstand winter lows of -30°F (-35°C). garlic roots will grow whenever the ground isn’t frozen, and the tops will grow whenever the temperature is above 40°F (4.5°C). If garlic gets frozen back to the ground, it can regrow and be fine.

Eat onions and garlic from storage, and if you harvested little bulbils from Egyptian onions in September, you can use them during the winter. They store well.

Cured garlic and onions hanging from a beam.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Special topic for December: Perennial Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum)

Divide clumps of perennial leeks and replant in late September to November and March-April. Harvest the larger leeks September to February, replant the rest. Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange says:

“If divided and left to grow for 9-12 months, perennial leeks really make decent-sized leeks you harvest in October [or so]. This gives you something more like the early traditional leeks plus an assortment of smaller leeks to divide and let grow. [If you are] starting with only a few it’s best to just divide and grow larger for at least a year to get up to a decent quantity and size.”

In June, July and early August some people use larger bulbils in mixed pickles.

Perennial leeks will be dry bulbs in August and can be re-spaced between August and November into a larger planting for next year.