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.