Friday, September 28, 2018

Have deer friends? Maybe Perennial Onions Can Help!

Lucia Kearney

Why Use Perennial Onions?

I manage the vegetable garden at Pendle Hill, a half-acre space tucked into a corner of campus that produces fruits, vegetables, and culinary herbs for the kitchen. Pendle Hill’s campus is beautiful and wooded and, much to my chagrin, heavily populated with white-tailed deer. Last season they flocked to the garden like a free buffet, helping themselves to Swiss chard and my young tomato plants. This winter, in addition to making plans for a deer fence, I’ve also come across several deer-deterrent strategies. The one that I’m most excited about is the use of perennial onions.

Why? Well, it turns out that deer cannot stand the smell of plants in the Allium genus, which includes onions. This year I’ve chosen to focus my attention on perennial onions for a few reasons. First, annual onions require a great deal of time and attention to grow; perennial varieties, on the other hand, require much less labor and maintenance once established, and will continue to produce for years. Perennial onions actually used to be much more widely cultivated than they are now, but fell out of favor with the advent of mechanical harvesting (perennial onions tend to grow in patches, whereas annual onions can be grow in uniform rows). Perennial onions also have a variety of flowers and flavors, adding forage for pollinators and flavors to your kitchen.

In my research I came across a variety of different perennial onions. The following is a selection of my favorites. Enjoy! And may your garden flourish.

Allium fistulosum (Welsh Onion)

Sometimes called bunching onion, scallion, or spring onion, Allium fistulosum will be a welcome addition to my garden this year. (I’ll be planting ‘White Spear,’ a heat-tolerant cultivar, and ‘Evergreen Hardy White,’ a cold-hardy cultivar to see which does best.)

llium fistulosum, by Robert Pavlis
Robert Pavlis, 
Welsh onions have hollow, edible leaves and produce scapes. Large varieties resemble leeks, while smaller varieties look more like chives. They are similar in taste to the common onion (Allium cepa). The flowers of Allium fistulosum come in a variety of colors, and some are used as ornamentals. They form perennial, evergreen clumps, and can be propagated by division. They can also be started from seed in the early spring for transplant outdoors. They typically need about 7-10 days for germination, and about a month to reach transplant size.

Originally from China, Welsh onions have been naturalized across Eurasia and North America. They are often used in East and Southeast Asian cuisine. Miso soup in Japan often contains Allium fistulosum. My Welsh onions are doing well! I’ve got a nice patch started in my herb bed, and am excited to see how they’ll look next season.

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Thin “silpa” type. 

Allium tricoccum (Ramps)

A favorite amongst foragers and foodies, ramps (also known as spring onion, ramson, wild leek, wood leek, and wild garlic) have been dangerously overharvested in recent years. In Quebec, people are limited to harvesting 50 plants per year, and restaurants are forbidden to use them. The good news is that, if you have the right conditions in or around your garden, it is possible to start your own patch of ramps. 

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Ramps are a bulb-forming perennial; they spread clonally by division, and grow in close groups just below the soil. The whole plant is edible and has a flavor that’s a combination of onion and strong garlic. One of the earliest spring vegetables, ramps were used as a spring tonic and culinary herb by Native American tribes including the Iroquois, Potawatomi, and Ojibwa. They provide much needed vitamins and minerals after long winter months. New leaves emerge in March and April, and die back in June as the flower stalk emerges. Seeds develop in late summer. 

Ramps like growing under forest canopies, especially canopies composed of beech, birch, sugar maple, and/or poplar. They’ll also grow under buckeyes, lindens, hickories, and oaks. They like well-drained soil high in organic matter and leaf mold. If you don’t have a wooded area nearby, you can build a shade structure for your ramps. Ramps can be grown from seed, though it will take some time for a patch to grow in this way as seeds could take years to germinate based on conditions. Direct seed in the spring or fall. If it’s possible to find seedlings, transplant out in March and April. Allow your ramps a few years to establish themselves into a patch, and then harvest by thinning in order to assure a lasting supply.

Allium tuberosum (Garlic Chives)

Native to southwestern parts of the Chinese province of Shanxi, garlic chives have been cultivated around the world. 
Garlic chives grow from a small, elongated bulb that originates from a stout rhizome beneath the soil. Its leaves are flat, and somewhat fleshy, tasting more like garlic than chives. In the late summer/early fall, it produces white flowers on umbels on stalks 10-24 inches in height. These flowers are quite beautiful, and attract butterflies. 
In warmer areas, the garlic chive is evergreen. In colder areas (zone 7 and below) it dies back to the ground in the winter and resprouts from rhizomes in the spring. It grows in slowly expanding, perennial clumps, and will also sprout from seed. It’s worthwhile to note that in some states garlic chives are considered a noxious weed (in Arkansas, for example), and will require some work to keep it within a certain space. Deadhead flowers before they set seed in order to control spread.

Garlic chives can be grown in average, dry to medium, well-drained soil in part shade or full sun. Direct seeding is preferable – sow seeds ¼” deep when the soil warms in the spring. Seeds can also be started 6-8 weeks before transplant indoors.

Allium proliferum (Egyptian Walking Onions)

Egyptian Walking Onions are one of my favorite plants. I have a small patch started in the garden, and I’m hopeful they’ll spread. Allium proliferum have long, hollow leaves like Welsh Onions. Rather than producing flowers, however, they produce a cluster of bulblets. When the cluster gets heavy enough, the stalk falls over, and the bulblets sprout up from the soil, and so the onion “walks.” 
A hybrid of Allium fistulosum (Welsh Onions) and Allium cepa (the common onion), it’s postulated that this onion was brought to Europe from the Indian subcontinent by the Romani people. The entire plant is edible, from the shallot-like bulbs to the leaves and stalks. The bulbs are tougher and more pungent than the rest of the plant. Young plants can be used much like scallions in the spring. Most cultivars are quite strong-flavored, but there are more mild and sweet cultivars available as well. While Egyptian Walking Onions can grow in tropical conditions, they are also quite winter hardy. 
Walking Onions prefer full sun, and slightly moist but well-draining soil. Topsets (the clusters of bulblets produced by the plant, also called ‘bulbils’) can be planted any time of the year, though fall is the optimal time to plant. Plant each topset in soil about two inches deep with one foot spacing in rows two feet apart. Plants will most likely not produce a topset until their second year after planting.

Allium cepa var. aggregatum (Potato Onions, Shallots)

I haven’t grown either of these before, but I’m excited to try! Potato onions and shallots are closely related enough that they are considered to be the same species and variety. The exact line between the two is hard to pinpoint, but potato onions are said to be larger, divide into fewer bulbs, store longer, and have a stronger flavor than shallots. They are comparable in flavor to common onions, and can be used as a substitute in recipes that call for them. Potato onions are also known as multiplier onions, pregnant onions, or mother onions. 

Potato onion plants produce a cluster of bulbs attached at the base each year. To keep a patch going, you can harvest the larger bulbs while leaving the smaller ones behind to produce more bulbs the following year. Some people harvest all of their onions and replant the smallest ones the following year just like potatoes (hence the name). Potato onions are smaller than common onions, typically between 1 and 3 inches in diameter, and store very well once cured. 
Potato onions are quite winter hardy, surviving up to USDA zone 4. They require long summer days, and so typically do best above latitude 37 (in Philadelphia, we’re at latitude 38, so we’re good!). Potato onions are typically propagated via division. Bulbs are planted in the spring or fall, just below the soil in the fall to give them a bit of protection during the winter, and about one half to two-thirds of the way down into the ground in the spring. Potato onions typically grow mostly out of the ground. They can also be grown from seed, though this route is more difficult. Start seeds indoors about 2 months before the last frost, scattering them and pressing them lightly into the surface of the soil. They require strong light. Germination can take as long as three weeks, and germination rates are around 60%. Plants can be transplanted once they reach about 3 inches in height.

Potato onions are heavy feeders, so they do well with a nitrogen boost in the spring. They don’t put up well with weeds either and thus also require weeding.

Shallot classification, it turns out, is a bit tricky. Most shallots are the same variety as potato onions – Allium cepa var. aggregatum – but were previously classified as Allium ascalonicum. The French gray shallot (or griselle), however, is actually a different species: Allium oschaninii; as is the Persian shallot, which refers to three species: Allium stipitatum, Allium altissimum, and Allium hirtifolium. The former is often referred to as the “true” shallot, and grows wild from central to southwest Asia. The latter is also native to central and southwestern Asia, grows on rocky slopes and in fields, and is often harvested in the wild. It has large flowers on tall slender stalks and as a result is often used as an ornamental.

Allium oschaninii, “true” shallots 

Persian Shallot, Allium altissimum 
For the sake of simplicity, I’ll primarily be talking about Allium cepa var. agreggatum.

Originally from central/southwest Asia, shallots can range in skin color from golden brown to gray and rose red, while their flesh is typically off-white and tinged with green or magenta. Like garlic, they’re formed in clusters of offsets with a head composed of multiple cloves. As you probably know, they are widely cultivated and treasured for culinary use. They have a milder flavor than common onions, and can often be substituted for them in recipes. Finely sliced and deep-fried shallots are often used as a condiment in Asian cuisine. They can also be pickled. 
Shallots get their name from the ancient Canaanite city of Ashkelon; people in classical Greek times believed that shallots originated from there.

While you can start shallots from seed, most are propagated via offsets. Much like garlic, they can be planted in the fall (zones 3-10) or spring, 4 to 6 inches apart with the pointed end facing up just below the soil surface. They prefer rich, loose soil, with a slightly acidic pH of around 6-6.8, though they will grow in more neutral soil. During the growing season, they need plenty of water. Green tops can be cut and used like chives as long as you’re careful to leave enough leaves to nurture the bulb. Flower stalks should be cut to in order to redirect energy towards the bulbs. Left in the ground, they’ll resprout the following season.

Allium schoenoprasum (Chives)


Chives grow wild across much of Europe, Asia, and North America. They’re commonly used as a culinary herb – all parts of the plant, including the flowers, are edible. They grow to be around 12-30 inches tall, and have small, slender, conical bulbs that grow in dense clusters. Stems and leaves are hollow and tubular, distinguishing them from garlic chives which, as we saw earlier, have flat leaves.

They are also used in gardens as pest-control – they produce sulfur compounds, which repulse many insects. At the same time, they are also great pollinator plants, producing large amounts of nectar. In a UK survey conducted by the AgriLand project, they were ranked in the top 10 for nectar production.

Grown from seed, plants will mature in the summer or early the following spring. They can also be propagated via division. In colder regions, chives die back to the ground in the wintertime, with new leaves sprouting from the bulbs in early spring. They thrive in well-drained soil high in organic matter with a pH of 6-7 and full sun. When harvesting, make sure to cut stalks down to the base. Continuously harvesting plants during the season will help to keep stalks tender for cooking.

I could go on – Allium is a large genus, comprised of hundreds of species, all of which, according to Peterson’s Field Guide, are edible. I’m sure there are plenty more perennial onions to explore!

Works Cited

Friday, September 14, 2018

Harvesting Garlic

Shannon Pacilli

As summer wanes, the time comes to pay some attention to those garlic cloves we planted last fall.  The garlic shown in this video was planted November 15, 2017 and harvested on August 6, 2018.

Since garlic is a cool weather crop, growth halts when the soil temperature reaches 80-90 degrees.  The tops of your garlic will begin to turn brown and die back, indicating it’s time for harvest. If you’re growing a scape producing variety, this will happen approximately 3 weeks after you see the scape.  If you’re not sure that your garlic is ready, test one bulb by digging it up and looking for the differentiation of individual cloves. To get a good wrapper layer, it’s best to harvest the garlic when 3-4 leaves are still partially green.
If harvested early when individual cloves have not yet differentiated, or if left in the ground too long so that cloves have burst out of their wrapper (likely not storable), not to worry.  Bulbs harvested a bit early can be eaten as “Spring garlic.” These have a delectably fresh and delicate garlic flavor. Those harvested a little late are still delicious but must be used quickly, as they will not store long.  
It is important to avoid damage to the garlic bulb when harvesting.  Use a garden fork or shovel to dig straight down a few inches away from the bulb and lift.  If growing a hardneck variety, you can gently pull the stem after loosening up surrounding soil.  Do not pull the stem of softneck varieties. This may cause breaks or tears in the neck, making them more vulnerable to spoilage organisms.  After cloves have been lifted from the ground, remove the excess soil but do not wash them.
Cure garlic for at least 4 weeks in a warm, dark, well-ventilated place.  Bulbs can be hung to dry or laid out on a screen. Test dryness by rolling the neck between your fingers.  If the neck goes flat and does not roll, bulbs are dry enough. To store, trim roots closely and clip stems, leaving ¼ to ½ inch intact.  
Ideally, garlic will keep for up to 6-8 months.  It stores best below 40 degrees and above 60 degrees.  Storing garlic at temperatures between 40 degrees and 56 degrees encourages premature sprouting.  Make sure to check on stored garlic from time to time. Anything going soft or beginning to sprout should be used as soon as possible.    
The time for sowing seed garlic is fast approaching, so don’t forget to save your biggest and best cloves for next year’s crop.  If you need a refresher, check out 4 Easy Steps for Homegrown Garlic.

Friday, September 7, 2018

2018 Grow West Master Gardener State Conference

Leslie Cerf

Hi Philly MGers!
I went to the Grow West 2018 Master Gardener State Conference the last weekend in June
with a fellow Philadelphia County Master Gardener (MG), Sally Gendler. I wish you all could have
been there!
Six Southwestern Pennsylvania counties hosted the four day event at Seven Springs Mountain Resort
in Seven Springs, PA. The event included tours of Pittsburgh city proper, private gardens, a tour of two
Frank Lloyd Wright’s local masterpieces, lectures by PSU professors, gardening authors, and a
speech by the founder of Master Gardening.  There was also an expansive and competitive silent
auction, a garden market with handmade birdhouses, tools and plants, as well as a make your own
vertical garden workshop. Furthermore, the hotel which is a cross between the Poconos and a little
Swiss Alps village had lots to offer too, from lovely, rustic seating overlooking summer greenery and
activities to stores and a serious spa lovers hideout called Trillium Spa.
I always wanted to see Wright’s Falling Water and pairing a MG event to a visit to the iconic architect’s
masterpieces was just the ticket to get me to go. The 4 hour drive from Philly was filled with lovely
scenery, rolling hills and dairy farmland everywhere.
The first morning, as I left my room for the Wright houses pre-conference tour, I walked past someone
who looked familiar, Angela Weathers from Franklin County MG. We turned to each each other,
laughed, and spent the day together on the tour. We had a two-hour tour at Kentuck Knob and Falling
Water and I’m so glad I met a friend to share the experience with. Falling Water is nothing less than
a man-made wonder.
Leslie at Kentuck Knob

Though picturesque, nothing like it will ever be built again because Wright had
such a unique style plus modern laws would never allow something like this to be built there. Just to
keep Falling Water preserved is challenging as water is streaming everywhere around and it’s also in
the middle of mountain woodlands filled with blooming laurels and rhododendron.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water

Following our tour, there was a cocktail social at the top of a ski lift. Unfortunately, the lift only stayed open
for a ½ hour so we missed that trip but we sat on the seat later and had our picture taken anyway.
Sally and Leslie on Ski Lift

We met new gardener friends like Diane Diffenderfer, Wayne County Office Coordinator, and David
Gibby, founder of the Master Gardener program, who was honored at the banquet. It meant so much
to him to see hundreds of the master gardeners there. As Gibby received a standing ovation, he told
stories of all the help he needed at the Washington State University Extension office and how he
created this volunteer program.
During the whole conference homemade cookies were on plates everywhere to help keep our energy
up through all the busy breakout sessions and speakers, as it is the local master gardeners’ hosting
tradition.  The first day right after breakfast we listened to “Container Savvy” gardening by Jessica
Walker and learned about starting a home orchard, where I received “A Field Guide to Tree Fruit
Disorders, Pests, and Beneficials” by Penn State Extension which was printed in both English and
Spanish. Later, there was a pesticide education update talk followed by “Growing Native Plants from
Seed” by Mark Tebbitt, native seed starting expert. Tebbitt described in detail the seven types of
germination codes and his potting method.

Conference attendees gathering between sessions

The second day at breakfast we heard Brie Arthur, author of Foodscapes, who was so inspiring and
such a avid gardener! I learned that Arthur’s mentor was Roseland Creasy who coined the term “edible
landscapes”. Questions were raised like “Why do we separate our flower and vegetable gardens and
who says we have to?” It would make suburban landscaping so much more relevant and meaningful
as foodscaping adds to the health and complexity to the home garden. I think it’s a wonderful idea!
After Arthur’s talk, I traveled back home with lots of silent auction goodies that Sally so kindly collected
for me at the end of the conference. I highly recommend these conferences as a chance for continuing
education credits and an opportunity to see the beautiful and unique state of Pennsylvania!
See you soon!