Save a space for staples
by Emma Cooper
credit: C G Parkhouse
Enjoying the stars of the season freshly-picked, may be one of the great joys of homegrown fruit and veg, but there’s still lots to be said for growing a few of the supporting acts that can make all the difference to the flavour of a dish.
Onions and garlic in particular are endlessly useful in the kitchen and, after harvesting in the summer, can be used right through the winter. As an added bonus, they’re also very easy to grow. If you want to inject a bit of glamour, you can always try more unusual types such as serpent garlic with its sculptural flower shoots or banana shallots.
Both garlic and onions can be grown in containers and even if you only have a window box, you can still grow spring onions for salads and stir-fries from spring until winter.
It’s hard to imagine but for a long time, garlic wasn’t popular here in the UK. Now, of course, it’s a must-have ingredient and features in everything from British classics to exotic Asian recipes. The garlic you see in the supermarket may have been flown in from all around the world, but garlic is an easy staple to grow at home.
The varieties of garlic traditionally grown in the UK are soft-necked (they have stems like onions, with no rigid centre) and are planted in October and November. There is an ever-increasing choice on offer; ‘Thermidrome’ and ‘Vallelado’ are both popular. If your plot is waterlogged over winter, choose a variety for ‘spring’ planting, such as Solent Wight, which needs to be in the ground by the end of February.
For something a little more unusual, try a hard-neck garlic variety such as ‘Lautrec Wight’. Also called serpent garlic, these varieties have a much firmer stem and send up flower shoots in May or June called scapes. Scapes are harvested (and are used to make scape pesto, or as an ingredient in stir-fries) to encourage larger bulbs to form, but while they are growing they add majestic, sinuous lines to the garden. Hard-necked garlic varieties are thought to be better-tasting, but they don’t store as well as soft-necked ones (they might keep for three or four months rather than five or six).
Elephant garlic is a relative newcomer on the British vegetable scene, but it has already become popular thanks to its giant cloves and mild flavour. Although it’s more closely related to leeks, it’s grown in the same way as regular garlic. It does need twice as much space though to form those enormous bulbs.
How to grow garlic
Always buy ‘seed’ garlic (not seeds, but bulbs grown especially for planting) if you’re starting out – bulbs from the supermarket will have been grown in a different climate and may not perform well. Seed garlic is certified disease-free.
Leave the garlic bulbs intact until you’re ready to plant, and then gently break them open to free the cloves. Larger cloves will form larger bulbs, so plant those first – at least 15cm apart. Push them down into the soil until they’re about a centimetre deep; you can use a dibber to make the holes if you prefer. Garlic can also be planted in containers, although the resulting bulbs are likely to be smaller.
You may not see any signs of life from your cloves until February, but don’t worry, they are happy buried in the soil. When the shoots appear in spring, feed your garlic with a layer of garden compost, or a high-potassium (K) fertiliser, and keep on top of the weeding. Water in dry weather until midsummer and then allow the bulbs to swell in drier conditions.
You can harvest and eat your garlic in June as ‘green’ garlic – you’ll find it has a fresher, milder flavour. But the main crop will be ready to harvest around August when the leaves go yellow and floppy. Gently pull the bulbs from the soil and then leave them out to dry in the sunshine (or indoors, if the weather is damp) until the skins rustle. Then it’s time to practise your garlic-plaiting skills! Once dry, your garlic will store through the winter, but will start to sprout again in the spring.
Move your garlic around the plot every year to avoid any build-up of pest and disease problems. The most common issue is rust – a fungal disease that affects the leaves. Remove diseased foliage as you spot it to keep the problem under control as there is no cure.
Onions are such an important staple that when they were in short supply during the war years, they were often offered as raffle prizes! If you grow your own, you can pick the variety, and flavour, you like best – whether that’s eye-wateringly strong or delicate and sweet.
Maincrop onions are planted in spring for a late summer harvest while Japanese or overwintering onions are planted in the autumn and harvested in early summer. Both types can be planted as sets (tiny onions that swell through the season) or grown from seed, and are available in both red and white varieties. Amongst maincrop onions, ‘Sturon’ and ‘Stuttgarter’ are popular white varieties; try ‘Red Baron’ for red onions. ‘Senshyu’, ‘Radar’ and ‘Electric’ are good Japanese onion varieties. Spring onions (also known as scallions) are eaten when they’re young, tender and strongly-flavoured – they’re grown from seed. You can also find various perennial onions that come up year after year; one of the easiest to grow is the Welsh onion.
Shallots and echalions
Shallots are usually grown from sets in the same way as onions, but each set forms a little clump of shallots rather than a larger bulb. Shallots have a mild onion flavour, and are highly prized in cooking, particularly the gourmet banana shallots that have an elongated shape. Look for ‘Longor’ or the rarer ‘Eschalote Grise’.
Shallots were traditionally planted on the shortest day, and harvested on the longest, but most modern varieties are planted in March and April for an August and September harvest.
Echalions (also known as banana shallots) are elongated shallots with a particularly fine flavour and are the gourmet choice. They are not easy to come by, and can only be grown from seed. Each seed grows into a bulb, like an onion. Keep an eye out for them in the 2012 catalogues and at seed swaps.
Welsh onions (Allium fistulosum) are perennial plants that give you a harvest of green, oniony leaves for most of the year. They are not harvested whilst they are flowering (in May or June), but they make up for it by attracting bees from miles around!
Welsh onions can be grown from seed sown in spring. Either sow in situ, or in pots to plant out later. As Welsh onions are perennials, and you don’t need many plants, you could also choose to buy a plant from the herb section at the garden centre.
Harvest Welsh onion leaves as and when you want them and use them like giant spring onions. Your clump will grow, and you can divide it in autumn to increase your stock, or to harvest the bulbs and use them like regular onions. In very harsh winter weather you may find the leaves die back, but fresh growth will sprout from the clump just as soon as the weather becomes milder.
There are no named varieties of Welsh onion. The standard version has white bulbs at the bottom of its stems, but you may also be able to find the red-tinged variety.
Planting onion sets
The easiest way to grow onions is to plant sets: there’s a good choice of varieties, they are easy to come by, and their size makes them a doddle to plant. They are simply pushed into the soil (or into small holes) until they are just covered – if you leave the papery tips showing, they tend to be pulled up by birds.
Maincrop onion sets are planted in spring (March and April), 10cm apart and with 30cm between rows. The spacing determines the size of the onions – plant them closer to grow smaller onions, and further apart if you want large ones. Keep the soil well-weeded, as onions don’t enjoy competition. You can pull them up as soon as they’re large enough, but the main harvest time is August. When the leaves die back, lift the bulbs and dry them like garlic to store for the winter.
Japanese onion sets are planted in the same way in September and October, and are in the ground over winter. They have the advantage of being ready a month earlier than maincrop onions in the summer but they may not store as well.
Growing onions from seed
Onions can also be grown from seed, the main advantages being that seeds are cheaper and there’s a larger choice of varieties. Seeds are sown in spring, in rows 30cm apart, and seedlings are thinned to 10cm apart. You can also sow several seeds into modules or small pots, and plant out these little clumps of onions – multi-sown onions are smaller, but you get a larger harvest overall and they’re a good option in containers.
Spring onions are always grown from seed, and can be sown right through the growing season (March to June) for a quick crop. The standard variety is ‘White Lisbon’, and there is a ‘White Lisbon Winter Hardy’ for autumn sowing (June to October). Harvest your spring onions whenever they are large enough; at the peak of the growing season that could be as soon as eight weeks after sowing.
Emma Cooper is a writer, gardener and Master Composter. She lives in Oxfordshire with her husband Pete and five pet chickens. Find out more at http://emmacooper.org.