Planting garlic, shallots, and perennial onions

Autumn is probably my favorite season. The cool, crisp air and the colors are definite big reasons, plus it is a season where great things happen — like my birthday.

The cool weather last week prompted me to make the final shift between the summer and winter garden. It’s almost like pulling the boxes of winter clothes out of the attic to switch places with the summer clothes. The shorts and most of the short-sleeved shirts go to the attic, and the sweaters and long-sleeved shirts go into the dresser and closet.

In the garden, the tomatoes and peppers come out, and the last of their produce is harvested, even if it is green. The sweet potatoes get dug up, and late greens get sown. That was my weekend last week, anyway.

After a good day’s work in the garden, we ended the day with an early fall garden bounty for dinner — fried green tomatoes, sauteed Swiss chard and shallots, and oven-roasted sweet potatoes (that are more starchy than sweet when first harvested and uncured, but still tasty).

Aside from adding some late greens to the garden (following my own advice from last week), I also planted my garlic for next year. Those who have read my column for the last few years know I’m an avid garlic planter.

Now is the time to plant garlic for a harvest next summer. Unfortunately, most garden centers sell garlic to plant at the wrong time of year, so if you want to follow suit, you’ll either have to order garlic from a catalog or find it at a local market.

Besides my own garlic that I have saved over the years, I also planted the Best in Show garlic from Putnam County organic farmer Julie Schaer. She’s the one who won top prize at the state fair this year with her garlic — and I bought it at The Wild Ramp market in Huntington.

But aside from garlic, there are some other odoriferous onion relatives you can plant this time of year. The ones I’ve added to my garden are shallots and perennial onions — yes, I said perennial onions.

These plants don’t get a lot of love in the garden, mainly because they are sort of backup players to other crops when it comes to recipes. Like Rodney Dangerfield, they “don’t get no respect.” But I love these plants, and they definitely add flavor and character to both my garden and my cooking.

Shallots have a mild onion flavor and are great because they form cloves like garlic (meaning you don’t have to cut up a whole bulb if you just need a little bit) and store well. The beauty of shallots is that they can also be planted in really early spring — they are a multi-seasonal crop. This year I planted both some shallot bulbs from my plants last year and the little bulbils they produce on top of the flower stalk (instead of seeds). You can also start them from seeds in the spring.

Shallots are technically perennials, as they will grow over many years if left undisturbed. However, to harvest them, you have to dig them up, so they are usually grown as annuals. Once you dig them up, use the larger bulbs for cooking and save the smaller ones for replanting.

Multiplier onions, sometimes called “potato onions” are another fall-planted perennial. These plants produce clusters of bulbs (hence the name “multiplier”) that are harvested in the early summer for bulb onions.

One of the benefits of these and other perennial onions is that you can harvest the green blades of the plant for use as green onions or scallions throughout most of the winter and spring.

Egyptian walking onions are another perennial that can be harvested either for its bulb or as a green onion. The name comes from the bulbils that form at the top of the flower stalk.

When they mature, they get heavy enough for the stalk to collapse and fall over, creating a new bunch of onions away from the mother plant. You can allow them to do this to fill in an area, though most people limit it by harvesting the bulbils before they fall.

There are also perennial leeks (I don’t have those in my garden — yet) that have a flavor similar to leeks and can be harvested as green leeks through the winter or dug up as small, tender leeks in the spring.

If you love growing perennial vegetables that add flavor to just about any dish, give these tasty plants a try. They’re really simple to grow and can keep your garden and your kitchen full of fun and flavors for years to come.

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