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The Allium Family in the Winter Garden: Onion, Leeks, Garlic and Shallots

Alliums, including onion, leeks, garlic and shallots are perfect vegetables to grow in the winter. Cool wet weather encourages strong root and foliage growth to produce larger bulbs and hardier plants. In addition, by growing your own, you’ll be able to say, “I grew it myself.”

For the best growth, chose a location where the crops will receive full sun. Prepare a bed at least 12″ deep with well-draining, enriched, neutral to slightly acidic loam soil at least three months prior to planting. Adjust acidic soil by adding lime. Neutralize highly alkaline soil with peat moss or garden sulfur. If your bed has heavy clay, add humus, compost or well-rotted manure. Remember to weed regularly to reduce the competition for nutrients.

Garlic is easy to grow. While it can be grown from seed, most home gardeners purchase bulbs and plant the separated cloves. Remove the papery covering and plant the cloves with the flat end down and tapered end up, 2-3″ deep and 5″ apart. Mulch lightly. Weed regularly and harvest in the summer when the foliage begins to die back. Dig or pull out to harvest. Let dry in a well-ventilated area with indirect light.

Shallots are planted 6″ apart with the tapered tip slightly above the soil level. Add mulch or a layer of leaves. As they grow, add soil around each plant. Harvest when the foliage turns brown and let dry in indirect light. Each clove should produce 10-20 shallots…what a savings over store prices!

Leeks may be grown from seeds started 10-12 weeks before the planting date or from purchased seedlings. Plant 4-6″ apart. To have beautiful white leeks, begin mounding soil around each plant as soon as they reach pencil thickness. Add additional soil every two weeks to encourage growth and maintain the blanched color. Harvest when the stalk base is 1-2″ in diameter by gently twisting and pulling from the ground. Remove the roots and most of the green leaves. Leeks don’t require curing or drying. Use as a fresh vegetable or freeze.

Onions…so many choices! While stores sell maybe a dozen varieties of onions, gardeners grow many more. Flavor, variety and economy are some of the reasons to grow your own. “Foodies” especially enjoy the variety of gourmet tastes.

Onions grow from seed; however, this can take nearly a year. Onion varieties are categorized by their day length requirements. Because Contra Costa gardens receive approximately 14.5 hours of light on the year’s longest day, gardeners here should use the short and intermediate-day varieties. Sometimes the seed packet doesn’t include the day-length requirement, but the garden center can tell you. On the other hand, you may grow onions from seedlings or sets. The seedlings are already growing onion plants. Sets are little onion bulbs. Both will mature much faster than seeds. Plant the sets or plants 3″ apart. The sets should be planted 1 ½” deep with the tapered end pointing upwards. Harvest well sized bulbs when the tops yellow.

The best part of growing alliums is the flavor. However, different alliums are not good substitutes for each other in recipes as each has a distinctive flavor. Use what your recipe requires. Have you wondered how folks roast and mash garlic to add to potatoes or dips? It’s so easy…

  1. Peel off the excess papery wrap, leaving one or two layers around the head of garlic.
  2. Cut off the top 1/4 of the head, showing the interior tops of the inside cloves.
  3. Place the garlic onto a piece of foil, drizzle with 1-3 teaspoons of olive oil. Close the garlic over all and crimp edges to seal.
  4. Cook in 400⁰ oven for 30-40 minutes, remove and let cool.
  5. Remove the soft paste from each clove using sharp knife.
  6. Mix with sour cream for garlic dip. Jazz up the mashed potatoes. So many uses…


Western Garden Nursery

2756 Vineyard Ave.
Pleasanton, CA 94566

Phone: 925-462-1760

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