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    How To Grow Onions, Garlic, and Shallots

    Get ready for fall planting...
    by Samantha Biggers

    Monday, September 13, 2021, 12:10 PM

The Allium family contains some of the easiest plants to grow in a raised bed, row, or even a container. At the same time, there are a few basic things you need to be aware of to have success and grow a bountiful crop that will store well. Although it may not be the right time of year to plant some of the delicious alliums I am going to talk about, it is essential that you consider what you want to grow in the future and buy your seed or starts as soon as a company will accept a pre order. Many suppliers of garlic and shallot start to sell out before it is time to plant. The economic time we are facing and worker shortages have made it even more critical to pre-order now for fall planting.

Reasons To Grow Alliums

  • Easy to grow in practically any climate
  • Flavorful
  • Very disease and pest-resistant. Simple to grow organically.
  • Its simple to save seeds and starts
  • Allows you to use a variety of alliums in your everyday cooking affordably. No paying $3-$8 per lbs for shallots, garlic, or leeks!

Bunch Onions

If you are tired of paying $2 for a small bundle of bunch onions or “scallions,” then you should consider growing them at home. Bunch onions are perhaps the easiest onion to grow, and once planted, you can keep a bed or container of them going indefinitely. Using a cold frame or row cover, you can harvest bunch onions year-round, even in fairly cold climates. If grown in a container, bunch onions will thrive indoors year-round, making them a good choice for apartment dwellers.

Bunch onions are easy to grow from seeds, or you can buy some organic bunch onions at the store and save the white bottom with the roots and replant those to get started a little faster.

Sew seeds when the ground is workable in the Spring. You will probably need to thin them out over time. You can, of course, transplant them in a way so that spacing is better.

We often clip the tops of bunch onions and leave the bulbs to regrow. This seems to work well for us.

Shallots

Curing shallots

Although there are plenty of shallots grown in the Pacific Northwest and parts of California, the majority of what you see in USA grocery stores are grown in Holland. They are very expensive for an onion. I fell in love with cooking with shallots when I was in my 20s and trying out new recipes, particularly some of those that Martha Stewart put in her magazine.

Years ago, we learned the hard way that growing shallots requires finding a variety suited to your climate. The first time we grew shallots, we planted the standard red shallots you find at the grocery store. They never bulbed outright. In fact, they stayed small and hard. A few rotted, too, because we did not understand that well-drained soil is critical. You cannot water shallots like you do a lot of garden crops such as tomatoes.

Eventually, we decided to give it another try. I ordered 10 lbs of French Red Shallot starts from Peaceful Valley this year. We had a great harvest this year, as you can see from the pictures! We planted them in a well-drained spot, and my husband Matt was careful not to overwater them.

No more paying $3-$4 for two small shallots at the grocery store. It always felt a little absurd buying an onion that had to be shipped all the way across the Atlantic too.

Shallots are planted on a 6″ x 6″ grid. Do not be tempted to put them closer together. You need all that space to allow for the massive multiplication of bulbs that you get. As far as depth goes, you need to dig down enough that you can cover the shallot start with about 1/2″ of soil. Make sure you are putting the shallot in the ground with the top facing up. You may have to come back and recover them a little if you get a heavy rain that washes soil away.

Garlic

Creme De La Rasa Garlic. Photo Courtesy of Crater Lake Farm. This is the variety my husband and I ordered. It will be ready to harvest in a few weeks. Crater Lake Farm is already taking orders for seed garlic to be delivered this fall if you want to get a head start and make sure you get the variety that you want.

 

This year was not our first time growing garlic. I will warn you that purchasing quality seed garlic costs a lot. 5 lbs of quality seed garlic will allow you to harvest around 300 heads of very high-quality large garlic bulbs. The cost for that 5 lbs is around $120 with shipping. While that sounds high, you should remember that it is a one-time cost as long as you successfully grow some garlic the following year. You can save your seed year after year.  While you can plant garlic from the grocery store, the results are often not great. I recommend spending the money on high-quality seed garlic because you can choose a variety that is best suited to your tastes and your climate.  My husband and I got tired of all the tiny little cloves that you have to peel if you get garlic at the grocery store. The variety we chose to grow provides 6-8 large cloves, which reduces prep time by a lot. Growers that sell seed garlic choose their best garlic heads to sell, which is part of what you are paying for.  When you choose your bulbs to save for seed the next year, you need to make sure to save some of your best too. These practices will make it possible to keep growing quality garlic year after year.

In North America, garlic is typically planted in very late fall or early winter. I am in western North Carolina, and we have found that right after Thanksgiving or the first week of December works well for us. I advise checking to see what is best for your specific region since planting times may vary by a month or two.

To plant regular garlic (not Elephant Garlic), you need to dig down around 2 inches.  Loosening soil deeper down can help plants get established faster.  Place a single clove in the hole. Space garlic cloves 4 inches apart. You can plant in triple rows on a 4″ x 4″ or 4″ 6″ grid.  How big of a grid you plant is up to you, really, but you want to be able to reach your garlic to keep it weeded without overstretching. A raised bed where you can walk around all sides can be nice for garlic.

Tips for Garlic Success

  • Keep it well weeded. This is not particularly hard to do since, a lot of the time, it is in the ground is during the cooler months of the year when weeds are not too bad.
  • Water regularly.
  • Plant in well-drained soil. If soil doesn’t drain well, you risk rot. Using peat moss, sand, or vermiculite can help lighten heavy soils.
  • Fertilize as needed. We have good soil, but we still fertilize our garlic a couple of times.

Globe Onions

With globe onions, you want to make sure that you are planting varieties that are suited to the number of daylight hours you have during the main growing season. This is easy to do by looking at a simple map. You may be able to grow many different types of onions if you live in a place that has very long days in the summer. If you plant onions that require 16 hours of daylight in a region that gets only 12, then you will be very disappointed in the size of the onion you harvest at the end of the season. In extreme cases, they may not bulb much at all.

Short Day- Bulb when day length reaches 10-12 hours

Indeterminate-Bulb when day length reaches 12-14 hours

Long Day -Bulb when day length reaches 14-16 hours

 

Here is a link to a handy map that can help you determine what type of onion is best for your area.

Egyptian Walking Onions or Tree Onions

These onions are interesting. They produce a small bulb similar to a shallot. The big difference is that they produce bulbs on top of the plant. At some point, these bulbs fall over and basically, implant themselves in the soil, hence the name “Walking Onion.” These are a nice choice for those that want an onion that will come back year after year. You can also harvest top bulbs and sell them to others for a good price so they can get started growing Egyptian Walking Onions.

Chives

Chives grow wild in my area for part of the year. They are super easy to harvest and dry in a dehydrator. You can dice them up with a pair of scissors and store them with a moisture absorber for use year-round. No more buying those expensive little jars.

If you want fresh chives year-round, you can easily grow them in a container on a window sill in the winter. They grow fast, so you don’t need to take up a ton of growing space inside or out to keep a bountiful supply on hand.

If you have wild chives growing around you, then you can dig up a clump or two and transplant to your garden or container. They will spread a lot over time if you don’t control them well.

Domestic Leeks

Photo of Giant Musselburgh Leeks Courtesy of Territorial Seed Co.

Leeks are a great high-dollar onion to grow. They winter over well in moderately cold climates without any special treatment. In frigid temperatures, a little straw or other covering would go a long way.

The last time I was in a grocery store, leeks were around $3-$4 for a bundle of 3 or 4. I am guessing that the bundles weigh around a pound.

My husband Matt and I grow Giant Musselburgh Leeks and sometimes American Flag Leeks. Both do well, but I have to say that the Giant Musselburgh seem to grow to a little larger and perhaps winter over a little better.

Leeks are grown a lot like bunch onions. You sow a row or raised bed and thin them out or break them up and space them out better if desired. You can eat leeks at any size. You can cut some greens off the top and leave the bulb in the ground, and it will grow back. If you pull up full-size leeks, consider keeping the very bottom with the roots and replanting wherever you desire.

Leeks are easy to slice up and dry in a dehydrator for use in whatever recipe you like. Leeks are excellent in soups and stews and can be used to substitute in any recipe that calls for scallions or green onions.

To grow leeks you simply sow them in row, covering lightly with soil. You will need to thin them out a bit after they sprout. We sometimes start them in a container or bed and then transplant them into rows or rearrange them in a bed so that they are spaced 3 inches apart.

Ramps or Wild Leeks

In the mountains of Appalachia, we look forward to ramp season. It means that warm weather is close and that we will start to get some food from nature and spring gardens!

Ramps are a small wild leek that you can naturalize on your place or encourage to spread if you discover you have a patch on your land.

If you don’t have any ramps growing on your property but live where they grow wild, I advise buying some from a produce stand. You can eat the tops and plant the bulbs if you must, but I would buy a few extra bundles and plant them in a spot that stays shaded and damp for best results. You will have to create these conditions if you don’t have a natural spot. We have some wet and shady spots near our creek that work well for this. Ramps will spread over time, but they will spread even faster if you clip the tops off and leave the bulb in the ground.

These are pretty smelly onions to cook and consume. When my Dad was a kid in the 50s, kids would be forced to sit outside the classroom in the hallway sometimes if they had eaten too many at home and come to school smelling like them.

We have never minded the smell too much ourselves. I guess it depends on how sensitive you are when it comes to scents.

If you forage for ramps, make sure it is in an area where you are allowed to do so and never take all of them. Leaving some ramps means that there will be more there next year. Taking all of them means you have probably eliminated that spot entirely.

Sources For Onion, Garlic, and Shallot Starts

Dixondale Farms

Peaceful Valley (Source for shallot sets featured in this article)

Crater Lake Farm (Produces a variety of high-quality seed garlic.)

Books For Onion and Garlic Growers

Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers

All the Onions: Storey’s Country Wisdom Bulletin

The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible

Conclusion

Onions, garlic, and shallots are an easy-to-grow choice for any home gardener.  The main things to remember for onion success include:

  1. Determining what type of onion is best for the number of daylight hours you received.
  2. Provide adequate water, fertilizer, and drainage.
  3. Make sure you are clear on when to harvest and how to cure and dry your onions, garlic, and shallots, so they keep well.

Remember that you don’t have to have a big garden space to grow some alliums. Many onions, including garlic and shallots, can be grown in planters or window boxes.

Do you have experience growing alliums to share? Join the conversation below!

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11 Comments

  • Mon, Sep 13, 2021 - 2:54pm

    #1

    roosterrancher

    Status: Silver Member

    Joined: Apr 16 2010

    Posts: 192

    2

    Add one clove of garlic?

    That is just about the funniest line in any recipe I have ever read! We eat a ton of it and we plant a ton of it.

    I love that it really does not take much care once it is in the ground, we pretty much ignore it most of the winter and it is ready to harvest in early summer when we need more space in the garden. You are right, heavy feeders, they need some nitrogen rich soil.

    We are picking bulb onions now and curing them for the winter, we almost make it to the next harvest with what we store.

    As always, nice article Samantha. Thanks.

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  • Mon, Sep 13, 2021 - 3:45pm

    #2

    blackeagle

    Status: Bronze Member

    Joined: May 16 2013

    Posts: 266

    3

    A word about ramp

    Ramp is a threatened species here in Quebec. People (and smugglers) tend to pick up too much of them.

    It takes about 7 years for a seed to grow to a mature plant that will fruit again. This very long seeding cycle is the reason why too much picking is bad for the future of this plant.

    If I see a patch in the woods, I leave it alone and won't talk about it or its location.

    We successfully grow garlic every year and we never had good chance with onions. Still on the learning curve.

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  • Mon, Sep 13, 2021 - 5:07pm

    #3
    agnes xyz

    agnes xyz

    Status: Bronze Member

    Joined: Dec 21 2020

    Posts: 193

    4

    Onions

    We've grown onions for years, but there's information here that I didn't know. I'm looking forward to trying some of it next year, as well as growing shallots again.

    We planted garlic once under the blueberry bushes. After several years I dug up some, but mostly I use the greens and scapes in the spring and summer.

    My trick with onions is to plant way more sets than we need or can deal with. When we've gotten enough in the fall we leave the rest there. In the spring they put up greens, which are welcome and maybe even better than the bulbs. Eventually they put up a flower stalk, which is too tough to use, but the flowers and flower buds are wonderful in a salad. The method works because we have 2 gardens, and alternate between them as garden and cover crop. They could get in the way if we just used one garden each year.

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  • Mon, Sep 13, 2021 - 5:29pm

    #4
    richard ward

    richard ward

    Status: Member

    Joined: Sep 03 2021

    Posts: 29

    1

    asparagus?

    I planted a row of asparagus this year just because I had some. I know it takes 3 years to harvest but does anyone know if they will survive the winter in New England?

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  • Mon, Sep 13, 2021 - 7:50pm

    blackeagle

    Status: Bronze Member

    Joined: May 16 2013

    Posts: 266

    2

    Asparagus

    No worries about winter in your location. We planted asparagus in 2014 in Quebec (Hardiness zone 4a). Still alive and producing. We planted 5 plants. This is not enough. It takes about 12 plants per person. In our next garden (Next year hopefully) we will have much more of them.

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  • Mon, Sep 13, 2021 - 7:57pm

    #6

    David Huang

    Status: Bronze Member

    Joined: Jan 20 2010

    Posts: 115

    1

    Garlic scapes

    With garlic I find I get nearly as much food from harvesting the scapes as I do from harvesting the bulbs later in the season.  This is partly because I get to eat all the scapes where I tend to save about half the bulbs to replant in an effort to expand my garlic harvest each year.

    I find the scapes are best if snipped while still in the tender fast growing stage.  Often the ends can get too tough to be used at which point I just keep cutting them up the scape until I reach a point where it is no longer as tough.

    The great thing about this is that for better bulb formation I want to be cutting the scapes anyway so the plant stops putting energy into it and instead focuses that back into bulb formation.

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  • Mon, Sep 13, 2021 - 9:24pm

    #7
    Netlej

    Netlej

    Status: Silver Member

    Joined: Dec 09 2020

    Posts: 326

    1

    Garleeks

    There is a varietal of leek that has a very strong garlic flavor. I can't find it now but someone gave me some and I have been growing it since.

    I love any crop where I don't have to water. Any winter over crop is golden. Last year I turned in a bunch of yukon taters and left them alone. I can now go into that bed and dig up several pounds from just a few square feet. Free Lunch!!!! Trouble is that that bed is done now and I will have to completely re-nourish it before planting anything. Free Lunch ends costing inputs, labor, and 6 months to a year.

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  • Tue, Sep 14, 2021 - 7:13am

    #8
    angelnumbershub

    angelnumbershub

    Status: Member

    Joined: Feb 19 2021

    Posts: 3

    0

    angelnumbershub said:

    Love adding shallots to my salads, so it's great to see you organically growing them! <3

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  • Tue, Sep 14, 2021 - 7:17am

    #9
    l m bach

    l m bach

    Status: Member

    Joined: May 01 2021

    Posts: 15

    1

    Mostly pest and disease resistant....heads up

    Mostly pest and disease resistant....ahhh, the memory of that here in the northeast. Enter the Allium leaf miner.  I feel pretty awful bringing this up--garlic used to be almost therapeutic to plant--the simplest thing to grow and harvest. I've grown it (five or six varieties--as well as onions and leeks) for well over a decade but it's important that PPers share regional information so we can prepare.

    I live in the Mid Hudson Valley (NY) and as I said, have been growing onions,garlic and leeks for years. I was lucky that one of the gardening/farming sources I follow is from a part of Canada that had the miners a few years before they showed up here--so there was time to prepare. (But even then I was caught off guard by the damage the sneaky little pests caused.) Their tunneling is particularly problematic with leeks.

    Good news--It's not impossible to control them with row cover and some diligence. Timing of row cover is important and regular inspection.  The leaf miners are spreading world wide so you need to know about them and look for them. It's essential to inspect any alliums you are saving for seed to ensure they are free from damage.

    There isn't great info out there on allium miner protection but right now, row cover placed on crop in the spring when temperatures warm up and the garlic is a few inches tall has worked very well for us so far. I don't love keeping crops under row cover because you don't develop the same relationship with the plants--but some field experiments have shown severe damage if we don't cover.

    Hope you never see a little miner fly ever!

    Treatments tested for invasive pest on allium crops | Cornell Chronicle

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  • Tue, Sep 14, 2021 - 7:57am

    #10
    nicoellisen

    nicoellisen

    Status: Member

    Joined: Aug 14 2021

    Posts: 1

    0

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  • Tue, Sep 14, 2021 - 10:10am

    #11
    Mike Anderson

    Mike Anderson

    Status: Member

    Joined: Nov 25 2019

    Posts: 56

    0

    hardneck garlic

    I planted hardneck (scape-producing, fewer bigger cloves, more distinctive flavors) garlic for about four years, primarily "Russian Red" and "Spanish Roja" (so... red again).  Each year they got a little smaller, from about 2-1/4 inch bulbs to perhaps 1-3/4 inch bulbs, all the while seeing bulbs as large as 3-1/2 inch of other hardneck varieties at the farmers markets.  I also started finding mites, which probably came in on the seed bulbs.

    The first year I used fresh pelletized organic chicken manure pellets, the second year the same batch of pellets (some ammonia was lost), and the third I used a fair bit of fish emulsion.  But I don't think the degrading soil nutrition and the increase in mites were the only reasons for shrinking harvests.  A Canadian grower reported that propagating from seed cloves follows a cycle of increasing, then decreasing yields.  He thought you need to start the cycle over with bubils (the small seed-like growths in a mature scape) and wait several seasons for them to size up again.  Considering all my labor and attention, I called it quits for garlic except for maybe 20 plants, often volunteers.

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