“He who bears chives on his breathe, Is safe from being kissed to death.” Marcus Valerius Martialis in his “Epigrams”, 80 A.D.

Rather than bring tears to my eyes, all the alliums (members of the onion family, Alliaceae) in my herb and vegetable gardens bring a smile to my face. Garlic and curly chives are in full bloom, Egyptian walking onions are attempting to escape from the herb garden, second year leeks are going to seed and my ‘White Sweet Spanish’ onions are huge, sweet and juicy.

A pungent favorite of mine is garlic chives (Allium tuberosum). I grow it not only for its charming white flowers that are always useful in arrangements for our garden club’s Olde Home Day Flower Show Labor Day weekend but also for its very garlicky-flavored foliage. The bluish-green, flattish leaves are a tasty addition to stir fries, soups and other culinary dishes where a touch of garlic is nice. A former co-worker from China used to make most delicious Chinese dumplings using garlic chives as part of the stuffing.

garlic chives flowers

White flowering garlic chives by dm

Garlic chives, like most alliums, is a pollinator magnet with hordes of bumblebees and others busily collecting pollen from the round, white umbels of flowers. The flowers reach about 18 inches high. The flowers are also edible but a bit tough. Use them for that finishing touch to dress up salad plates. The one bad habit that garlic chives have is to self-seed everywhere so unless you want tons of plants, deadhead plants as blossoms start to fade.

Curly chives (A. senescens var. ‘Glaucum’) is also in full bloom right now. This plant also has bluish-green foliage but it is only 6 to 8 inches high and there is a nice wave to it. The flowers are small, one-inch umbels of a pinkish mauve color. Curly chives has a strong onion flavor to the leaves and I have never found any seedlings around it. Plants grow slowly, hold their foliage well, and would be useful in perennial beds and even as a border plant.

curly chives

Curly chives by dmp.

About 20 years ago, I planted seeds of ‘Evergreen Long White’ bunching onion (A. fistulosum) and I am still harvesting from the same patch. Also called scallions or green onions (although there are red bulb varieties), one could harvest the whole plant but I just cut the green stems and the plants continue to grow and multiply. If they get a bit too crowded, I will harvest whole plants. They are easily started from seed in the spring and like the garlic chives, their large flower umbels attract lots of pollinators but they self-seed very readily so as soon as the bees stop buzzing around the fairly nondescript flowers, I cut them all down. The green stems can be harvested from early spring until late fall once established.

green onions 3

Green onions towards end of season by dmp.

Egyptian walking onions (A. cepa var. proliferum) are rather curious plants. Strong, large diameter green shoots emerge each spring and stand tall most of the summer. Unlike most allium species that form bulbs at their base, walking onions form a cluster of small bulbs at the top of their shoots. As these topsets reach maturity by the end of summer, they become heavier and heavier and finally the stalk can no longer bear their weight and down they go. This is why they are called walking onions.

Egyptian walking onions 1

Egyptian walking onions leaving the herb garden – time to thin? photo by dmp

You can harvest the little onions at the end of the season and use them like I do in chicken pot pies – so much better than those squishy, frozen pearl onions – or in other dishes. Or, you can let them take root in place. Note they need to touch the bare mineral soil so remove any mulch from underneath them and tuck them into the soil slightly. If there are too many bulbs in the clusters, you may choose to harvest some and only leave a few to root. Or, you can separate the bulbs and plant them 2 inches deep for bigger topsets next harvest. Typically, it will take 2 years after planting for a topset to form.

Egyptian walking onions 2

Egyptian walking onion topset. Photo by dmp.

A few years ago, I did not harvest all my leeks and a couple of them overwintered and bloomed the following year. I left them as pollinator plants and when the seed heads ripened, one keeled over and I left the seed head on the ground over the winter not having enough time to finish cleaning the garden before winter. Lo and behold, leek seedlings next spring! Since then I always leave a few leeks to overwinter and a few usually do so I get no work leek seedlings that I just have to transplant with good spacing between the plants every year since. The original leek that I planted was ‘King Richard’.

leek seed heads

Leek seed heads. Photo by dmp.

Finally, my late onions ‘White Sweet Spanish’ are remarkably large this year. This is a mild and sweet variety that stores only moderately well so I just leave them in the garden and pull as needed. They are needed quite often for everything from kebobs on the grill to warm tuna salad to lemony shrimp orzo to pepper and onion pizza so they should all be used up by the end of the month. Onions are ready to harvest when the tops fall over although you can harvest them any time you want. When I started gardening at first I purchased onion sets. These were available locally but the varieties were often limited. Then I started growing my own onions from seeds but like leeks they needed to be started in February. Now I just purchase onion plants. There is a decent selection of varieties to choose from that are suited to the northeast and it frees up the limited space under my plant lights.

onion white sweet Spanish

Onions ‘White Sweet Spanish’. photo by dmp.

Alliums are remarkably easy and fun to grow. They are great for both culinary and ornamental purposes. Try some, you’ll like them!

Dawn P.

October is in its  second week, bringing the first hard frost to the middle of Connecticut. This seasonal mile stone is my cue to plant garlic. I know, planting anything in mid October seems like the wrong thing to do and a bit backward, but now is the correct time to plant the strong scented bulbs. There are about six weeks left before the ground freezes, giving the garlic ample time to develop a good root system without producing any top growth that will be killed with the freezing weather.

Pick the right spot.

Garlic needs a full sun spot with well drained soil rich in organic matter. Full sun is 6 to 8 hours of sun a day. Add a one inch layer of well rotted manure or compost and mix in with existing soil. Loosen soil to about a foot deep. Have a soil test done to determine pH and nutrient level after compost or manure has been added. Garlic grows best in a soil pH of 6.5 to 7.0. Add lime and any amendments as soil test results recommend.

Break the head of garlic into individual cloves. Leave the papery skins on the cloves. Plant with the root end down and the pointed tip up, three inches into the soil, with each clove spaced six inches apart. A fluffy mulch of straw covering the bed for the winter will provide protection from heaving during the freezing weather. The goal is the encourage root growth this fall, not top green growth until spring.  Once warm spring weather initiates green growth next spring, side dress with a little 5-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of 1/2 pound for 50 garlic plants.

Pick the right garlic.

There are three different types of garlic:   softneck,   hardneck   and elephant. Choosing the correct type to grow for your area will bring the most success.

Soft neck garlic is not well suited to grow through our cold New England winters. It has a soft neck, papery neck of a stem good for braiding. Soft neck garlic is most often the type seen for sale in the grocery stores, shipped in from California where it is grown. Do not plant this in Connecticut.

Hardneck garlic is best suited for New England gardens. It has a hard, almost woody center stem with six to 12 cloves surrounding the central stalk. This type will produce an edible scape that if left on the plant, will produce a flower. The flower will sap strength from the bulb making the cloves smaller. Cut off the scapes before they bloom in May or June. Common hard neck varieties include ‘German White’,  ‘Music’, and ‘Spanish Roja’. Hard neck garlic can be purchased through seed catalogs and most commonly available at farmers’ market during September and October. They are sold to eat, and these can be used as seed stock for planting.

Elephant garlic are very large heads the size of tennis balls with a mild taste.  It is not actually a garlic but closer to the leek family. I have not had much luck getting elephant garlic to live though the winter successfully. Stick with the hard neck varieties!

Harvest and Storage.

During the month of May, the each plant will put up a tall scape with a bud at the tip containing a future flower. As stated earlier, don’t let it flower. Cut the scapes off of the plant about two feet above the ground. The scapes are the first harvest provided from the plants. Garlic scapes are sharp in taste, considered a spring delicacy in stir fries or made into a pesto.

The real harvest of the bulbs comes when the greenery begins to turn yellow and papery. Each above ground leaf is a layer of papery sheath for the cloves below. Handle the plant carefully without damaging the protective paper covering of the head of cloves. When about half of the leaves have turned yellow to brown, harvest the bulbs. Gently dig the heads and lay them in the shade  to dry for two or three days. Protect from night dew to promote the drying. Good airflow is essential. Leave the roots, stalk and leaves on the plant for a month. Set out of the sun, in a covered airy location to cure the garlic. The curing develops the taste and keeping quality.   Do not wash with water. After curing and drying, cut the roots to half inch and bush off any dirt.Garlic can be stored in mesh bags or braided by the stems.


photo by Carol Quish

photo by Carol Quish

Even Mother Nature was in perfect form today giving us southern New England mothers, and other gardening souls as well, an absolutely lovely afternoon to clean up our garden beds, sow our cool season seeds, tend our transplants, and prune a large amount of winter kill from roses and thymes. A brisk wind made it comfortable outdoors in a light sweatshirt and kept those nasty black flies from finding their much desired food source – me!

About fifteen years ago or so, we turned one quadrant of the vegetable garden into an approximately 12 foot by 15 foot herb garden. It looks like a rectangular ‘C’ with a smaller rectangle in the middle. The center bed was originally filled with a dozen varieties of thyme but over the years, the lemon, golden, and red-flowered ones are all that remain. The garden bed version of ‘Survivor’ I guess. I chose thyme to fill in this area because I happened upon a sun dial with the inscription ‘Tempus Fugit’ – time flies and I immediately thought that a thyme/time bed would be the perfect match for this garden ornament.  The problem with my herb garden is that it is in a low lying area of the yard and in wet winters the water table rises quite high and the root zone is saturated. The rock-lined raised beds improve drainage somewhat but not nearly enough to reliably grow those few choice herbs that absolutely, positively cannot tolerate wet feet – like lavender, garden sage, Russian sage, and a number of thyme varieties. I could choose to relocate the herb garden but I like it where it is so I just opt to replant when necessary and fill in with annuals.

Center bed of thyme

Center bed of thyme

Several herb species, like pineapple mint, lemon balm, artemesia, three kinds of chives, and betony have no problem living with wet feet and I continually need to either lift and divide them or deadhead to prevent these plants from taking over the whole herb garden and then some. Giving the garden a once over early in the season when the soil is moist and loose makes it easier to pull up wandering mints and lemon balm seedlings, and divide over exuberant clumps of chives.

I have two old-fashioned roses at the front corners of the herb garden. One is an Old World gallica called ‘Alika’. It has bright fushia, sweetly scented, single blossoms, rather large rose hips, and a propensity for sending up shoots into the oregano. The other I call the Franklin rose. The flowers are partially quartered so I think there is some cabbage rose in its lineage. They are a marvelous, pale pink with that soft, sensual, true rose fragrance. While visiting family in Franklin, MA I noticed a for sale sign at a house whose gardens I remember well from my youth. Now the beds looked sad and neglected. As if making a run for freedom, this old rose had sent suckers out into the front yard bordering the street. I clipped a few of its lovely flowers as a reminder of the care free days of yesteryear and when I got home decided to try and root the stems. One took and has been my companion for more than twenty years now.

One of my favorite combinations in the herb garden this time of year are the Purple Sensation alliums and Silver King artemesia. The alliums are about 2 or 3 inches in diameter and stand about 2 feet or so tall. Flowering alliums have quite beautiful blooms that are very attractive to bees but their foliage begins to look brown and ratty before they are done flowering. Placing the bulbs in the artemesia patch helps to camouflage the dying leaves while illuminating the flowers. These bulbs seem to have no issues with the poor winter drainage situation. Indeed, they increase in number each year.

Beautiful flowers but unattractive allium foliage

Beautiful flowers but unattractive allium foliage


Alliums planted in silver leaved artemesia

Alliums planted in silver leaved artemesia

As the alliums begin to fade, the baptisia becomes a rhapsody in blue. Now mature, it reaches almost five feet in height and width. Despite attempts to stake this beauty, once the flowers start to fade and seed heads begin to form, it becomes so top heavy that I end up cutting the top back a bit to keep it from covering the path. I let a few seed pods mature each year. The seeds need the winter stratification to germinate. I started this plant from seeds given to me by a garden club friend and now I try and pot up a few seedlings each year for our annual garden club plant sale.

There are several plants that are mostly annuals or short-lived perennials that reseed themselves in my herb garden each year. Probably the most prolific is chamomile. I have the tall type with small, white, daisy-like flowers. Blooming right now are pink corydalis which are sought after by hummingbirds. Seeds of these two plants continue to germinate throughout the summer. I thin them and sometimes move them to more appropriate locations. Calendulas and bronze fennel come back but in quantities that make them more than welcome. Sometimes my pineapple alpine strawberries also seed themselves as does the rue.

As I am going through the garden, I also add a bit of ground limestone and some slow release fertilizer. Either cocoa shell or buckwheat hull mulch is great for this garden because of the small sized particles. I find they set off the herbs plants to a greater extent than coarser bark mulches. I will put some mulch down now and then after I transplant warm weather loving basils, marigolds, sages and other finds into the garden around Memorial Day, I will top it with a final one inch layer.         

Dawn P.