Fall perennial onions include multiplying onions, shallots and bulbing leeks, all of which supply years of good crops.
Fall Onion Recipes and Planting Tips
Most kitchen gardens contain at least one row of
onions, usually planted in the spring. Less well-known are
the fall-planted onions, including multiplying onions,
shallots and bulbing leeks.
They offer several advantages over their spring
counterparts. Fall-planted perennial onions need to go in the ground
when few other garden chores demand to be done. They also
tend to be more reliable and productive, less day-length
sensitive and less subject to the depravations of pests and
diseases than the more-familiar onions of spring.
Other than garlic, these autumn onions mostly fall into the
Allium cepa var. aggregatum group,
although notable exceptions include bulbing leeks (A.
ampeloprasum) and the perennial Rakkyo (A.
Chinese). By and large, all multiply primarily
through the formation of new bulbs, which is called
vegetative propagation. Most alliums do not produce seed.
Identifying autumn onions can be confusing because the same
common name often is used to describe different plants. For
instance, potato onions sometimes are called Egyptian
onions, which actually are in the top-setting Proliferum
To help clear the fog, here’s a rundown of various popular
Fall Perennial Onions
TOP-Setting Multiplying Onions. Also known as Egyptian onions, tree onions, top onions and
walking onions, these perennials set small bulblets on top
of tall stems, instead of producing underground bulbs or
making seed heads. The bulblets measure only 1/2 to 1 inch
in length and look like miniature purple-red onions. They
often are used for pickling and in vinaigrettes or soups,
and they will last several months in storage.
The weight of the bulblet cluster, if left alone, causes
the stem to bend, dropping the cluster to the ground, where
it roots and sends up new shoots — thus the “walking”
sobriquet. To propagate them, simply remove some of the
bulblets and plant them where you want new onions to grow.
The “Catawissa” onion is a variant of the Egyptian onion.
Its bulblets actually can send out shoots before touching
the ground, so that a second and sometimes even a third
tier of bulblets are produced.
Bulbing Multiplying Onions. Most commonly
known as potato onions, these multipliers also are called
ground onions, inground onions and hill onions. Some carry
descriptive or varietal names as well, such as “Yellow,”
“Red,” “Kentucky Hill” and “Greeley’s.”
To propagate, plant the bulbs in the fall. At maturity the
next summer, a single bulb divides into as many as 14 new
bulbs. Depending on the variety, the new bulbs can be
full-sized singles (as much as 3 inches in diameter), a
bunch of small bulbs, or a combination of large and small
As a general rule, the large onions are kept for the table
and the small ones are used as sets for planting out again.
Shallots. Botanically speaking, shallots
don’t exist; they are a form of bulbing multiplying onion,
differentiated by their smaller size. Originally, they were
named for a plant found by the Crusaders, but they bear no
botanical relationship to that plant. Most shallots on the
market today are not even the same shallot so beloved by
the French. Instead, they are varieties developed by
crossing common onions with Welsh onions or other
multipliers — a primary aim of the plant breeders was
to create varieties that could be reliably reproduced.
Some authorities differentiate shallots from other
multipliers by the color of their skins. The Ontario
Ministry of Agriculture and Food, for example, identifies
shallots as those with red skins (or scales) and true
multipliers as those with yellow or brown skins. Most
shallots do not flower or produce seed, although breeders
have developed some new varieties that can be grown from
In practical terms, shallots are small, layered multipliers
with a special taste that falls somewhere between onion and
garlic. They are propagated in the ground the same as other
bulbing multipliers, and each bulb produces from four to a
dozen baby bulbs in a bunch, joined at the base by a
membrane. In most varieties, each bulb is split into two
large cloves that may or may not share a common wrapper.
Bulbing Leeks. Leeks usually are
spring-planted from seed, but several types that are
neither precisely bulb nor multiplier do bridge the
botanical gap between seed-forming leeks and
non-seed-forming garlics. Three are of particular interest
to home gardeners.
The most familiar is elephant garlic, which forms huge
heads differentiated into cloves, each of which can grow to
the size of a big man’s thumb. Occasionally, small, hard
bulbets form outside the main head as well. Elephant garlic
is propagated exactly like true garlic, by dividing and
replanting the cloves.
Perlzwiebel, also known as Portuguese onion, is another
bulbing leek. The head divides into small, round bulblets
resembling pearl onions that range from pearl size to an
inch in length, with the larger ones tending to be
The third is the Los Mol wild leek, perhaps the least known
of the three. Naturalized throughout Europe (primarily in
Spain and the United Kingdom), each bulb divides into four
bulbs that sometimes have hard bulblets attached, like
elephant garlic. Either the full bulb or the bulblets can
be used for propagation.
Los Mol tastes like garlic, and those who know it say they
like it best in omelettes and soups. This leek is not a
truly wild plant; rather it once was widely cultivated,
particularly in church gardens. Some of the naturalized
European stands now are being rediscovered and harvested
for commercial purposes because interest among gardeners is
on the rise.
Except in the far north, standard leeks can be grown as a
fall/winter crop, too, particularly if they are well
mulched. To succeed, you should set seeds indoors in July
or August, to protect the plants from extreme summer heat,
and transplant them to the garden in September, when
temperatures begin to fall. Before cold-weather threatens,
make sure the plants are well mulched.
Rakkyo. This allium is very familiar to
most gardeners, but they don’t know it. If you’ve ever
bought a jar of those tiny pickled onions, which you
probably thought were pearl onions, chances are you bought
Rakkyos. The Japanese pickle and export thousands of
barrels of Rakkyo each year.
It is a multiplying perennial with a backwards-growing
twist. Planted in late summer, Rakkyo grows new leaves and
scapes, which are leafless stalks, at the same time.
In October, the scapes put out flower heads that do not
produce seed. The plant then goes through the same winter
dormancy as other autumn onions, producing bulbs in the
late spring and early summer. Each bulb divides into from
four to 14 new full-sized bulbs, each measuring roughly
1-by 1/2 inch.
By July, tile bulbing is complete; if not harvested (called
“lifting” with bull) crops) then, the plants go through a
short summer dormancy. By August, they start their growing
Fall-Planted Onion Cultivation
Fall-planted onions can go into the ground at
tulip-planting time (and easy way to remember when to plant
them) and, in most cases, the onions should be cultivated
just like garlic. Although they will grow in any soil, they
prefer , a rich, light loam that allows them to “stretch
their legs,” or spread.
Onions also are heavy feeders, so the soil should be
amended (enriched) regularly. For a new planting, equal
parts of dried blood, bone meal and hardwood ashes should
be worked into the soil at the rate of one cup to every
10-foot row before planting takes place.
Established plantings should be fertilized with the same
soil amendments and/or compost by side-dressing the plants,
which means spreading the materials around their bases.
Planting can take place anytime the soil can be worked, as
long as the plants’ root structures have time to develop be
fore the ground freezes. In most of the United States,
October to December is prime fall-onion-planting time.
During warmer-than-normal winters, some sprouting may take
place before the plants go completely dormant; in such a
case, the tender sprout leaves may suffer frostbite over
the winter but the plants themselves will not be harmed.
All fall onions but shallots should be planted from 2 to 4
inches deep and from 4 to 6 inches apart. Space the rows at
least 8 inches apart, so you have room to hoe. In far
northern areas, it’s OK to mulch them in winter.
Shallots should be planted less deeply than the others
— with their tops just under or level with the soil
line, like spring-planted onion sets. This way, the
shallots will grow on top of the soil, like common onions.
In colder areas, shallots absolutely require mulching.
The tops of fall-planted onions will start to dry up and
die back in mid-summer. When about half the leaves have
died, the bulbs should be harvested. If the weather is
fair, they can cure right on top of the soil. In wet
weather, spread them out in a sheltered area that is warm
but not subject to direct sunlight. In either case, after a
few days, hang them in bunches to finish drying.
Fall Onion Sources
Shallots are becoming easier to find on the commercial market, but multiplying onions and bulbing leeks still are rare. Only a few seed houses carry them, so you will be more likely to find them through seed-saving organizations, such as Seed Savers Exchange, or through private growers. Among commercial sources, Horus Botanicals may be the only company with a full range of shallots, multiplying onions and bulbing leeks.
Key: B=Bulbing Leeks; P=Potato Onions; S=Shallots; and T=Topsetting Onions.
Halifax Seed (S) Halifax, NS B3K 5L8 Canada; www.halifaxseed.com
Horus Botanicals (B, P, S, T) Salem, AR
Seed Savers Exchange (B. P, S, T) Decorah, IA; www.seedsavers.org (Only available to members)
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (B, P, S) Mineral, VA; www.southernexposure.com
Territorial Seed (P, S, T) Cottage Grove, OR; www.territorialseed.com