By Kristi Cook
Of all the pantry staples we grow on our homestead, producing a year-long supply of onions evaded me for many years. Not only do I tend to forget where I plant those spring onion sets as the garden grows, but I inevitably set out too few. Then a few will rot, others will be given away, and still others simply disappear (onion eating moles?). Finally, I had a eureka moment as I observed my perennial planting of asparagus and decided to try my hand at perennial onions. And I am so glad I did. These little gems produce onions throughout most of the winter and into early spring, perfectly filling the gaps left by my spring plantings of common onions. As an added bonus, they reproduce every year and stay in one place — much like my asparagus.
Common vs. Perennial
Most onions grown in home gardens are biennials, often referred to as the common onion. These are the little bunches of baby onions (or onion sets) usually found in wooden crates at the big box stores in early spring. Holes are dug; sets are plopped in. Within a couple of weeks, onion greens pop up signaling that it’s time to enjoy green onions. However, the patient gardener who foregoes this early spring treat is rewarded within a couple of months with varying sizes of onion bulbs ready for eating or winter storage. This cycle repeats itself every year with newly purchased bundles of onion sets.
Fresh from the garden onion greens gracing the Christmas table are just one of the many benefits of perennial onions.
Not so with perennial onions. Usually planted in fall — or even early winter — onion greens are harvested throughout the cold winter months as individual greens are clipped from the growing plants (and occasionally in summer, depending on the variety) while bulbs are typically left in the ground to multiply into still more onions during the first year. Once established, bulbs may be dug up and enjoyed with dinner or stored for winter meals. To keep the perennial aspect of these onions intact, several bulbs are then set aside to create an ample supply for replanting the following year. Even better, depending on where you garden, most varieties may be left in the ground year round allowing for impromptu harvesting as the need arises, and divided once every few years.
Egyptian walking onion
The most interesting of the perennial onions, this unusual allium not only grows tasty shallot sized bulbs and greens, but it also produces a delicious cluster of bulblets at the top of its stem known as topsets. Once the topset becomes heavy enough, it causes the stem to bend to the ground allowing the bulblets to take root and grow into even more plants. Each of the new plants then carries on this cycle of growing topsets and planting themselves, thus creating the appearance of onions walking across the garden in a rather haphazard fashion. Alternatively, clusters may be removed and bulblets eaten or planted in a preferred location.
Often called multiplier onions, potato onions are planted as a single bulb in fall and produce greens throughout much of winter. Once spring arrives, the single bulb divides into two or more bulbs and is then ready for harvesting by division. Both large and small bulbs may be planted in the spring or fall with fall plantings typically producing the highest yields. However, you can leave the bulbs in the ground year round, only lifting bulbs to gather your family’s needs and dividing clumps of bulbs every couple of years.
Blanch leeks by piling dirt or mulch around the stems as they grow. This produces the tasty white stems that leeks are best known for.
While not technically an onion, but rather a cousin, perennial leeks may be grown year round and harvested throughout winter to be used in place of traditional onions or pulled at younger stages to be enjoyed like green onions. Smaller in size than their annual counterparts, perennial leeks produce bulbils around the bulbs that may be removed and replanted in spring. The key to great tasting leeks is blanching the stems, or blocking sunlight to prevent photosynthesis from turning the stem green. Blanch by piling dirt around the stem as it grows or place seedlings into deep holes if growth is present.
Egyptian walking onions, potato onions, and perennial leeks are not the only perennial options available, and each year I try to add at least one new variety to my perennial beds. Over time, I’m discovering my onion woes have been greatly diminished with the added bonus of each new variety adding even more flavor to our family dishes. And because we homestead and grow much of our own food, I relish the sustainability and time-saving qualities of planting each onion one time with little followup care needed. Now that’s a crop worth keeping.