Fall garlic planting

We recently got the garlic in the ground. All 600 feet of it – close to 900 cloves. Shout out to my husband for his help! Putting the garlic in the ground always feels like putting the garden to bed at the end of the season. We had our first hard frost on October 21st, and have since gotten down to 19 degrees here (we tend to run about 5 degrees colder than in town). I’m STILL processing peppers, and have a few cauliflower still out there under cover, but for the most part, the 2020 gardening year is “put a fork in it” done. (More wrap up in a separate blog post).

So now is a good time to get back to myd series on garden plant families. If you look back through the posts, you’ll find we’ve already covered the mints, the brassicas and the nightshades (the series is also listed under “gardening” on the DIY homesteading tab above). What better time to discuss the allium family – garlic, onions, scallions, shallots, leeks, chives – than as we wrap up the fall harvest.

Some of this year’s onion harvest. Southport White, Southport Red and Sweet Spanish Yellow.

Back in the day, the alliums were considered part of the lily family, but genetic studies have since reclassified it into its own family, the Alliaceae. Like lilies, allium family plants have flower parts in sets of three. Three petals, three sepals, three parted stigma, six stamens, three-celled capsule (seed holder). Though we rarely witness these structures in our own garden, as the flowers are either biannual (they bloom the SECOND year, by which time we’ve usually harvested and eaten the plant) or the flowers appear tightly packed in clusters (think of chive blooms) and we’re usually not looking closely enough to count individual flower petals. Technically, Alliaceae is defined as “bulbous plants with basal leaves, flowers have a superior ovary and are borne in a leafless umbel subtended by bracts”. Its gonna take a while for all of our plant books to catch up.

Allium dictuon, a wild onion native to our Blue Mountains.

Alliums are monocots – one of the two primary divisions for all plants. (Corn – which is technically a grass – is the other monocot we commonly find in the garden, as is asparagus). This means that the leaves tend to be long and strappy with parallel veins.

But of course, the primary identifier of alliums is their strong scent and flavor. If you’ve ever been hiking and found what you thought might be wild onions or garlic blooming, the fastest way to be sure is to simply smell the crushed leaves or bulb. This scent and taste is primarily caused by sulfoxides – and can vary a lot depending on the amount of sulfur in the soil. In fact, part of what makes Walla Walla sweet onions sweet is that we naturally have almost no sulfur compounds in our soil.

Note that Walla Walla sweet onions are NOT a storage onion. Harvest starts in early June, and by late August/mid September, the season is over. I don’t personally grow Walla Walla Sweets. I can get these wonderful onions from many other local farmers. I’m more interested in growing storage/cooking onions and Italian heirlooms.

Onions/Leeks/Shallots

As detailed in my two “onion trials” posts, after many years of trial and error planting onion sets or onion plants purchased from nurseries and ending up with plants that went to seed, or plants with multiple bulbs and therefore poor storage, I now grow all of my onions, leeks and shallots from seed. This also gives me a lot more choice in varieties. I start them in deep flats (plastic shoe boxes with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage) at the same time I start my tomatoes and peppers. They get planted out about the same time as the tomatoes and peppers.

Onions are interesting, in that they come in “long day”, “short day” and “day neutral” varieties. If you live north of about latitude 40o, you want “long day” onions. I find these onions really start to dramatically form bulbs after the longest day of the year, June 21st, the summer solstice. In Walla Walla, our day length on June 21st is about 15.75 hours. Its good to remember that each leaf of your onion is a layer in the bulb underneath the ground. So the more leaves when bulb formation is triggered, the bigger the resulting onion. So you want happy healthy plants going into the summer solstice.

This means good soil fertility in the spring. The better fed your onions early on, the bigger bulbs you’ll get once they start to form. From several soil tests over the years, I know that my soil is already high in potassium and phosphorus. So my primary focus is nitrogen, calcium and trace minerals. I use my own custom organic fertilizer blended from feather meal, kelp meal, gypsum (calcium for alkaline soils) and azomite at the time of planting, and a foliar feed with fish emulsion in early June. So far, this seems to have worked well. Many of my onions are over a pound at harvest. We DO live in a great onion growing region, which definitely helps.

I treat shallots and leeks in the same way I treat onions. I plant all three at about 8″ apart with drip irrigation. They are deep watered every 3 days all season. Depending on the variety and what you are trying to achieve, you CAN plant closer, but its easiest for me to keep to an 8″ spacing. Further apart = possibly larger bulbs. Closer together = smaller bulbs. Note that while leeks can take a frost, some handle that MUCH better than others, so if you plan on leaving your leeks in the ground into the winter, look for a variety that is known for winter growing.

2020 Leeks, all trimmed up and ready for sale

If you want to save your own seed from onions/shallots/leeks, either leave them in the ground or replant them the following spring and let them send up a seed stalk. Wait until the seeds are dry and the flowers are shattering before harvesting. If you are trying to maintain purity, only grow one variety for seed each year, as they will cross pollinate easily. Bees LOVE onion flowers. Onion seed is viable for about 3 years, though I have some that is MUCH older than that that still has reasonable germination.

This year, I harvested both storage onion seed (Newburg and Dakota Tears – I purposely let them cross) and shallot seed (a mix of three varieties – only one of which is open pollinated – so the grow out should give me a LOT of interesting diversity). Next spring should be fun!

Harvesting my mixed shallot seed. Note the 3 part seed capsule.

Garlic

When it comes to garlic, as mentioned, ideally you want to plant in October. You CAN plant garlic in the early spring, but you’ll get much better growth/bigger heads if you plant in the fall.

Lately, I’ve been exploring all of the different garlic varieties available. I LOVE the information provided by Filaree Garlic out of Omak Washington. Most gardeners know that garlic falls into two categories, the hard necks and soft necks. Hard necks usually have larger cloves and are easier to peel, but don’t store as well. Softnecks can store up to 12 months in the right conditions, and are what you always find in the grocery store.

Hardneck variety. Note the stiff leftover seed stalk in the center of the bulb.

But did you know that there are 5 different subgroups of hardneck? The Asiatics/Turbans, Rocambole, Purple Stripe, Porcelains and Creoles. Softnecks include Artichoke and Silverskin. There are many varieties under each subgroup. Each has its own distinctive character traits, from how early you can harvest them to the size of the bulbs to how long they store to how spicy they taste. Some do better in our northern climate than others. For instance, the Creoles are better suited to southern latitudes. The Asiatics/turbans tend to be smaller shorter plants with smaller heads, but they are the first to come out of the ground in the summer, up to three weeks before the final harvest.

I had spectacular success with a new Rocambole and a new Purple Stripe this year. And the beauty of garlic is that you can save over heads from the previous planting for your fall garden, selecting the largest cloves/heads for planting again. Eventually, you’ll end up with a variety that is well adapted to your local growing conditions.

Hardneck garlics send up a seed stalk in the spring. These stalks are called “scapes”, and can be clipped while they are still young and tender and eaten. They make a lovey addition to stir fries, or as a “garlic scape pesto”. You can also pickle them.

If left to mature, hardneck garlic stalks will form “bulbils”, that look like tiny garlic bulbs, on the end of the seed stalk. But it takes several years to grow out bulbils to full sized heads of garlic. And leaving them on takes energy away from the growing bulb below ground. So conventional growing practices clip them in the spring.

Garlic Scapes.

Harvest your garlic when the outer few leaves are brown and dry. Tie together in bunches of ten or so, out of the sun, and let them air dry for several weeks before cleaning and trimming off the above ground growth. Store in a cool dark place.

As my short storage garlic starts to dry out too much, or worse, sprout, I peel everything and then roast in the oven (tinfoil packet with a bit of olive oil), then puree in a food processor and freeze into 1 tbsp blobs for later use. Or I throw peeled cloves into a food processor with a slicing plate and then dehydrate. These “garlic chips” can later be blitzed in a spice grinder for your own garlic powder. They store forever in a mason jar. I’m never without home grown garlic on Miles Away Farm, and many of my spice blends contain my garlic.

Other Alliums & Medicinal Uses

There are many other alliums in the world. The family is huge. Some, like chives, we welcome at the first sign of spring. Some, like Egyptian walking onions, are kept as much for their novelty as for eating. Some are beautiful ornamentals that delight humans, bees and butterflies alike.

Common Chive. Loved by bees, and one of the first herbs to emerge in spring.

Bulbs in the onion family have been used medicinally for millennia. Thought to have antiviral and antibacterial properties, there’s even an old wives tale about leaving a cut onion in the room when someone is sick, as it will absorb any germs in the air (I personally don’t ascribe to that one).

I do however, make a good sized batch of Fire Cider every year. Fire cider, popularized by herbalist Rosemary Gladstar, is traditionally a mix of onions, garlic, horseradish, ginger and chili, with optional ingredients like lemon, rosemary and turmeric thrown in. This mixture is ground and seeped in apple cider vinegar for a month. Once strained, honey is added to taste. While on paper it sounds pretty awful, its actually quite tasty. Take a tablespoon or two of this elixir several times a day at the first sign of a cold. It has proven to be effective for us on several occasions. It also makes a surprisingly good salad dressing!

I make mine with equal parts of garlic, onion and horseradish, and a half part ginger (so this might look like 1/2 cup each of garlic, onion and horseradish and 1/4 cup ginger). I grind all of my ingredients in a food processor to maximize surface area, mix and place contents in a mason jar and cover with Braggs apple cider vinegar (I want an unpasteurized vinegar here). I then add 1/4 tsp of ground cayenne pepper per quart. Cover and keep at room temperature but out of the sun for 4 weeks. Strain. Add honey to taste. I like between 1/8 to 1/4 cup per quart. Just the right amount of sweetness. Store in the refrigerator for up to a year.

Drink it in good health.

© 2020 Miles Away Farm, where we’re miles away from done exploring all this plant family has to offer, and will be enjoying home grown onions, shallots and garlic all winter.