Alliums, such as onions, leeks, scallions, and chives, make up a large swath of the Northeast’s sowing pioneers because they take a long time to germinate and are ready to be transplanted into the garden earlier than most other plants. In fact, March and April storms are nicknamed “onion snows” because the flakes land on top of freshly planted onions. So, to celebrate, a few words about Alliums:
Alliums are a giant plant family (600 to 700 varieties!) that has had a relationship with humans for centuries. Garlic has been grown for food for at least 7,000 years. Onions are believed to have been consumed since 5,000 BC, though not necessarily in cultivated form. They served as currency in the Middle Ages, when it was acceptable to pay rent in onions. Bulb onions (brought to North America by Christopher Columbus’s team) were one of the first crops planted once Europeans began farming on this continent; wild onions were already here and were an important element in many Native American diets.
Many Allium seeds look like tiny monster teeth: triangular, rough to the touch, black as coal. They look far from anything that can produce fragrant, green leaves, let alone large, juicy bulbs. Yet, with the mix of light, soil, warmth, and water, these prehistoric rock-like objects send up bright, young shoots and turn into some of the best-loved seasonings, medicine, and vegetables. Between having so many edible parts, varied growing preferences, perennial and annual varieties, and great store-ability – these beautiful, stinky plants are largely responsible for making our immunity stronger and our dinner more delicious year-round in every season.
Blue-green winter leek.
Our favorite open-pollinated, long-day storage onion.
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A patch of this scallion is a year-long garden friend.
One of the first spring herbs in the spring gives way to pretty white flowers in the summer.
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Above are some of the alliums from our catalog. All of them can be sown now! Here are Doug’s seed starting guidelines. And here, Erin’s thorough instructions on how to plant onions.
As we creep closer toward spring, also keep an eye out for wild alliums under your feet in and out of the garden. Field garlic grows nearly everywhere (roadsides, lawns, gardens) in grass-like clumps. It stays green most of the year, but in early spring, sends up new shoots, which are a lot like scallions. In later spring, it forms tiny garlic-flavored bulbs. Ramps, another wild relative and an Eastern US native, has been a cross-cultural welcome sign of spring for a very long time. This leafy perennial is the first new foliage in a forest and has excited many, from ancient cultures seeking the season's first fresh greens (and a strong dose of spring vitamins) to modern chefs seeking new flavors.
Even Pablo Neruda loves onions:
Ode To The Onion by Pablo Neruda
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
clear as a planet
round rose of water,
of the poor.
You make us cry without hurting us.
I have praised everything that exists,
but to me, onion, you are
more beautiful than a bird
of dazzling feathers,
heavenly globe, platinum goblet,
of the snowy anemone
and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.
What is the first seed you are sowing this season?