The ultimate guide to deciding which allium to plant in your Maine garden
Not only are they easy to grow, there are a number of ways to preserve alliums so you can enjoy their spicy-sweet flavor in soups, salads, stews or sauces throughout the year.
If you’re struggling to find out which allium is best for you to plant at home based on your available space and preferred use, here’s what you need to know.
How to plant: When it comes to planting alliums, Dumas said garlic is a great starter crop. Garlic should be planted between mid-September and the end of October. Plant individual cloves with the pointed ends facing up 2-3 inches deep about 6 inches apart in rows spaced about a foot apart. Smooth over the soil onto the cloves and then cover with around 6 inches of mulch.
When to harvest: Hard neck garlic varieties produce green shoots called scapes that are typically ready for harvest in June. They look like oversized chives and cutting them off the plant helps the bulb — the edible part of the garlic below the soil — mature for fall harvest.
For long term storage, garlic needs to be dried or cured. Spread them in an even layer on a flat surface in a warm, dry spot. It takes about two weeks and they are ready when the outer skins are dry and crispy, the bulb’s neck is constricted, and the center of the stems is hard.
Best use: Garlic scapes taste like a cross between garlic and chives and can be sauteed with other vegetables, pureed into pesto, or added to roasted meats and vegetables.
The bulbs can be roasted whole and eaten as a bread spread or condiment. Chopped garlic is great in sauces, soups, stir-fries and added to roasts or poultry dishes.
How to plant: Chives are another spring allium but are considered more of an herb than a vegetable. The plant can be grown indoors or outside and once it is established it will produce year after year.
To start from seeds, place them in your planting area and lightly cover them with about a quarter inch of soil. The chives should start to emerge in two weeks. When they are around 2 inches tall, thin them out so they are spaced 4 inches apart.
You can also transplant rooted chives in the spring once the danger of frost passes. Space the plants between 6 and 12 inches apart. Rooted chive plants are available at nurseries and greenhouses.
When to harvest: You should be able to start harvesting chives about a month after transplanting rooted plants or 60-days after planting seeds. The fresh green shoots can be snipped off with scissors down to 3 inches from the base. The flowers, which look like purple puffballs, are also edible and attract pollinators.
“Letting some of your chives go to flower is a good thing,” Dumas said. “They usually flower in June and a wide array of bumblebees will come to them.”Best use: The shoots and blossoms have a mild flavor. They can be used as a garnish or added to soups, dressings and egg- or potato-based recipes.
How to plant: The most common way to plant onions is starting them from sets that can be purchased at local feed stores, nurseries or greenhouses. Onion sets can be planted in late March or early April, as soon as the ground can be easily worked. Each set should be planted about an inch deep and 5 inches apart. Rows should be spaced at least a foot apart.
“I have had better luck growing onions from seed,” Dumas said. The current price for 100 onion sets in Maine is $11.
Onion seeds should be started indoors, 10-12 weeks before the final frost, according to Dumas. Plant seeds a quarter-inch deep and 2 inches apart in a seed-starting mix. It may take them two to three weeks to germinate.
To transplant the seedlings, gently pull them up and break up any dirt around their roots. Then plant them in prepared holes an inch or so deep.
“You can plant them three per hole,” Dumas said. “They will grow right next to each other [and] you will get small onions but a higher density per row.”
When to harvest: As the onions start to grow, they send up green shoots that can be harvested, along with the tender young bulb producing them. Known as green onions, spring onions, scallions or salad onions, they are all immature onions picked before they are full grown.
After the summer solstice the onions start putting all their energy into growing the bulb and the once-green tops begin to die. Once those greens fall over, it’s time to harvest the onions.
Before storing onions, they need to be cured. Dumas spreads his in a single layer on a table in a warm, dry spot for several weeks. Then he cuts off the dried out tops and trims any roots off, taking care to not cut directly into the bulb.
“To store them I organize them by variety in my root cellar,” he said. “I am still eating red onions that are still perfectly good from last fall.”
If you don’t have a root cellar to store crops, any cool, dry area will do, including a closet, basement or garage.
Onions can also be frozen, according to Kathy Savoie, food educator with University of Maine Cooperative Extension. But she cautioned to take care as even stored in bags, onions can overwhelm a freezer with their smell.
Best use: In addition to differences in how long different onion varieties remain edible after harvest, there are differences in flavor and textures.
In general red onions are the best for eating raw. White and yellow onions tend to work better for cooking.
Green onions can be used fresh chopped in salads or as a garnish on soups and stews.
Popular in Acadian French parts of Maine, green onions are preserved in a salt brine called “herbes salees.” According to Dumas, there are almost as many ways to prepare herbes salees as there are Acadian families, and some are closely held secrets.
The basic recipe is combining chopped green onions with coarse salt in alternate layers in a mason jar and pressing down firmly between each layer. Then cover and store in the refrigerator. These salted onions are used as the base for soups and stews, though real fans of herbes salees will eat them straight from the jar.
How to plant: Leeks can be started indoors the same way as onions and you can transplant them at the same time. Remove the leek seedlings from their planter and carefully tease the roots apart. Plant them individually in a skinny hole deep enough so the roots can go in straight and not bunch up.
As they grow, keep mounding dirt up around the base of each plant. That allows the edible portion of the leek just under the surface to remain white and tender.
When to harvest: Leeks are ready for harvest when the ends of the leaves start to turn a dark blueish-green and the white portion at the base is firm. Depending on the variety, that can take between 70 and 120 days.
To pull the leek out, use a small shovel or knife to carve a circle around the base of the plant to break up the soil, Then grab the leaves and gently twist the plant while pulling it out of the ground. Immediately trim away the roots and any woody portion of the leaves.
Once out of the ground, leeks can be stored for up to six weeks in a refrigerator crisper. Unlike other alliums, you can’t cure them for storage so you need a plan for what to do with them.
The easiest thing to do with an abundance of leeks is freezing them. They do not need to be blanched. Simply slice them and freeze them in a single layer on a tray. Once frozen, they can be placed in a sealed container or freezer bag for storage.
Best use: Most people enjoy leeks fresh and raw right out of the ground. They can be thinly sliced and added to salads, soups, roasted vegetables and meat dishes. They also are good mixed into dips and salad dressings.
“With my leeks, if I have some potatoes and some garlic I will combine them with chicken broth for a big pot of soup that I freeze in quarts,” Dumas said. “Then when I want to make a chowder, I take out a quart of the frozen soup for a base.”
How to plant: Just like onions, these alliums are planted in sets and just like cloves, those sets need to be separated into individual cloves. They can be planted in the fall or spring, but a fall planting will give you an earlier and heavier yield the following season.
Regardless of when you plant them, push each clove into the ground with the thick end pointing down and the top just above the soil. Space them between 6 and 8 inches apart in rows about a foot apart.
When to harvest: Shallots are ready to harvest when the portion above the ground turns yellow and flops over, usually mid to late summer. Don’t pull them out by their leaves. Instead, gently lift them out with a gardening or spading fork.
They can be used right away or cured like garlic and onions for long term storage. If you are curing them, they are ready for storage when the top leaves are completely shriveled.
Best use: If you are looking for a sweet, mild onion flavor without that oniony bight, Dumas recommends growing shallots. These smaller members of the allium family can be used in any recipe that calls for onions.
To eat them raw, all you have to do is peel off the papery skin and slice off the ends. Then thinly slice or mince the cloves and toss them in salads, dressings or marinades. Before adding to soups, stews or any other recipe, cook them in butter or olive oil over medium heat until they are soft and fragrant, about three minutes.