Alternative Onions

By Staff

Not every climate is great for growing bulb onions, and in some years, unusual weather can lead to substandard crops. You can keep plenty of garden-fresh onion flavor on hand by growing these alternative onions. Many are perennials that will come back or can be replanted for many years.




Bunching onions
scallions, green onions
(Allium fistulosum)
Instead of forming bulbs, these cold-hardy, disease-resistant plants multiply by division, forming clumps of scallions. Established plants often bloom and produce seed. Start seeds indoors in late winter. Divide in spring or fall. ‘Evergreen White Nebuka’ is hardy to Zone 4. ‘Beltsville’ and ‘White Spear’ are hardy to Zone 5. Some Japanese varieties are winter-hardy, but handle others as cool-season annuals.
topset, walking or multiplying onions
(A. cepa proliferum)
These plants develop bulblets atop tall stems in early summer, and often multiply by division, too. Replant bulblets in fall for spring scallions. Dig and divide parent plants, or make new plantings in spring or fall. The ‘Catawissa’ strain is popular in the Northwest. These perennial onions are usually sold as Egyptian or multiplying onions and are hardy to Zone 5.
(A. porrum)
Leeks are easy to grow from seed. When grown from seed as cool-season annuals, they develop long, thick shanks. Summer crops can be dried. Start seeds indoors from late winter to early summer. Fast-growing summer leeks to harvest young include ‘King Richard’ and ‘Lincoln.’ ‘Bandit’ and ‘Blue Solaize’ are more cold-hardy but slower to mature.
Potato onions
nest, hill or
pregnant onions
(A. cepa aggregatum)
Planted in fall, these hardy storage onions produce a “nest” of 2- to 3-inch onions in midsummer. Potato onions are easier to grow and store than larger bulb onions, and they are more productive than shallots. Replant saved bulbs or make new plantings in fall or early spring. Yellow-skinned strains are popular and productive. Some varieties produce topsets (like Egyptian onions do) and nests of small bulbs.
(A. cepa aggregatum, A. oschaninii)
Highly renowned for flavor, shallots look like elongated potato onions, with some selections appearing nearly round. Plant them in fall as you would garlic, or set out bulbs in early spring. Several newer varieties can be grown from seed started in late winter. Young shallot greens can be substituted for scallions in any recipe. Gray shallots excel in cold-hardiness, while most other varieties grow well in long-day, northern climates. In the South, look locally for ‘Delta Giant’ and other “Louisiana” varieties, which stay green nearly year-round.

For more information on growing onions, including harvesting, cooking and storage advice, see Growing Onions.