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The Versatile Onion Family

5/27/2014 9:05:00 AM

Tags: onions, garlic, leeks, ramps, chives, shallots, garden planning, North Carolina, Nan K Chase

Meet the Onion Family. They’re my new best friends in the garden:

Onions (white, yellow, purple, “walking,” bunching)
Scallions (simply onions that haven’t formed bulbs, or what we call spring onions)

I have experimented with growing most, but not all, of the species on that list. Each one has its quirks and personality, its favored growing conditions. What they all share is great hardiness in weather extremes and the ability to grow in many parts of the country. Onions are economical to grow and by raising them yourself you avoid some particularly nasty strains of food poisoning that have accompanied dangerous commercial farming practices.

Members of the onion family are also great kitchen companions, adding character to all sorts of dishes. In springtime chives and scallions, as well as the wild garlic called ramp, act as vitamin-rich tonics.

Leeks Cleaned

The onion family is so vast and varied that just reading about them in seed catalogs inspires me. My main failing in growing them is probably that I skimp on fertilizer; for the most part onion relatives do best in compost-rich, nutrient-rich, deeply-worked soil. I need to add more composted manure. Some of the onions also like a thick mulch cover to protect them in heat and cold. I use straw.          

Here They Are: Onion Family Crops

Onions. There are three ways to get started with onion plants: growing from seed, from hard little bulbs called “sets,” and from live plant starts.

My favorite way, by far, is to grow bulbing type onions from sets (bunching onions and walking onions are usually grown from divisions of live roots). Look for the sets at garden centers or farm suppliers or online. Stock up! Onion sets keep well in a cool, dry place, so there’s no urgency to plant them all at once.

My favorite way, by far, is to grow bulbing type onions from sets (bunching onions and walking onions are usually grown from divisions of live roots). Look for the sets at garden centers or farm suppliers or online. Stock up! Onion sets keep well in a cool, dry place, so there’s no urgency to plant them all at once.

I buy a few pounds of the sets and put them into the cool springtime earth about a dozen at a time – an inch or two below ground -- in groupings throughout my flower beds. New shoots appear in a week or so. When they do I make another round of planting, and repeat the process until all the sets are gone. In a month or so I will have a continuous supply of plump, mild scallions that lasts much of the season.

In fall I can make another planting, and sometimes the scallions go all through the winter. No need to store them. Just dig up on demand for maximum vitamin power. If you let them grow all season you get typical bulb onions, which must be completely dried before storage.

Garlic. The trick with garlic is to plant the individual cloves in the fall, usually September or October, or even later. They start growing and then overwinter; in spring their growth takes off again and they are ready to harvest in July. See more detail in my earlier blog post.

Leeks. The greatest! Homegrown leeks are tasty and tender and they survive through the most brutal winter weather. Actually, I have found that it takes almost a year to grow leeks to maturity. Leeks are an onion type that doesn’t form a bulb but remains cylindrical.

They are easy to grow from seed and I consistently get almost 100 percent germination. There are two ways: plant one or two seeds in individual peat pots in early spring. When they are six inches high or so, transplant to the garden and keep them weed free and banked with soil until fall (or even longer; they love snow). The other way is to plant seeds directly in the garden, very thickly, and when they have grown to about six inches, dig them up, divide, and replant in the garden with more space around each one.

Leek Seeds Germinated

Leeks are remarkably tough, despite their slender build when young.

Ramps. Ramps are a wildflower native to the Appalachian Mountains, and their short season in early spring brings devotees out of the woodwork. Ramps grow only six inches or so above the ground, and with an attractive thick set of veined leaves. The white bulbous root is the reward, although I use the greens too.

The aroma is pungent and the flavor is quite strong. Ramps go with everything, and every ramp fanatic has a favorite way: with eggs, with bacon, on a baloney sandwich or with tinned herring snacks, or pickled.


There is some controversy about growing ramps. Some people consider ramps endangered, and because they are trendy they are in danger of being over-harvested from the wild (ramps grow in the woods, in leaf compost). It is possible to buy ramp seeds but I just buy bunches of ramps at the farmers market around April and then plant half of them each year and cook the rest.

They are perennial and will come back every year if not over-harvested.

Shallots. Here’s the only onion type that I haven’t grown yet. The secret to growing this interesting bulb – so good as a cross between garlic and onion flavors – is to remember that they grow on top of the ground.

Ramps With Eggs

Each individual bulb will grow many times its own weight in mature shallots. Dry them as you would onions, and store in a cool, dark place.

Chives. Chives are a perennial form of spring onion which lives for several years before needing to be divided and replanted. That practice maintains the vigor.

Although it is possible to grow chives from seed, most likely you can buy a live potted plant and move it outdoors; chives are cold hardy and reappear early in the spring. Cut the tender shoots to garnish eggs, salads, and other dishes. As the plants get older they will start to bloom. The blossoms are pretty but indicate that the stalks will soon become tough and not as good to eat.

Nan K. Chase is the author of Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, and flowers for your landscape (Gibbs Smith, 2010), and co-author of Drink the Harvest: Marking and Preserving Juices, Wines, Meads, Teas, and Cider (Storey, 2014). She lives in Asheville, N.C., and also blogs at

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