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[There are separate pages here on Onions and on Leeks.]
Terminology here is disastrous. At least on this site, we will use the term "scallion" strictly to refer to the intended use, not the kind of plant. In this sense, "scallions" are some member of the great "onion family" that are grown for culinary use as thin, fairly lightly flavored use in salads and (especially in oriental cuisines) as cooking ingredients. A great many surprisingly different plants are grown for use as (and incorrectly called) "scallions".
These are "ordinary" (bulbing or "dry") onions, Allium cepa, that are simply harvested while yet immature; these need not be, but usually are when grown for use as scallions, white types. A plain, old Spanish White bulbing onion can be harvested early as "green onions".
A variation on that is A. cepa types that are "short-day" varieties (see the discussion at Onions) grown in long-day climates, or vice-versa: such growing is usually a gardener's mistake, for the plants cannot form a head; but in the case of scallions, that is just what is wanted. The basic onion variety used, however, is said to make a real difference in culinary quality, for scallions should not be as pungent as real onions, and even "green" onion greens are pretty raw (and tough). In our locale, one could probably try Vidalias, or Walla Wallas grown spring to fall instead of over-wintered, but why bother?
These are onion types (Allium fistulosum species) that still set a bulb, but a very small one, barely thicker than the long greens atop them. In the Orient, where A. fistulosum types are the only onions used, there are numerous variants, but in the U.S. choices are far fewer. (A university report states that "Improved Japanese cultivars can no longer survive winter in cold climates" [emphasis added]--so much for "progress" in plant development.) These types are commonly called "bunching onions", and also "Welsh onions", though they are unrelated to Wales. Though started from seed, these types are normally maintained and multiplied by clump separation (as with, for example, their cousins chives).
Bunching onions come in both red and white sorts. Moreover, they also seem to roughly sort out into two categories: large-stalked and small-stalked (based more on thickness than height, though that varies, too). Varieties that are winter-hardy in a given climate can be made perennial ("It is common to see it harvested from under snow"), with occasional clump divisions for continuing propagation ("Once you have established some clumps, simply harvest as needed, divide clumps, and replant for the next crop"). Being perennials, they are much more attractive to the home gardner than "green onions", which need to be re-seeded annually. They require, of course, a dedicated patch of ground, but not--for most households--a particularly large one--or they can be grown in a container, size dependant on your appetite for them.
(There are some plants that are, technically, crosses between A. fistulosum and A. cepa, notably the Beltsville Bunching onion--"A crisp, very mild onion that survives hot, dry weather better than any other green onion" says one UK source--but, because they are to gardeners essentially the same as straight A. fistulosum types, we do not distinguish them here.)
The frequently cited and recommended cultivars Evergreen White Bunching (green) and Red Beard (red, obviously) are examples of the long-stalked variety, with stalk diameters in the ½" to 1" range. The much less common cultivars Four Seasons, Franz, and Stevenson are small-stalked, and shorter. One highly experienced grower reports that those small-stalked cultivars proved out in testing as better multipliers, and were also somewhat more winter-hardy, a critical datum for folk in our climate who want perennial stands.
It appears that the best choices for bunching onions are the cultivars Franz, and Stevenson (which are apparently virtually identical in all performance measures.) These are very hard to find, but at least one seedsman was offering seeds of Franz when we looked. If you can find neither and yet want to grow this type, there remain the Evergreen White Bunching and Red Beard mentioned above. But before deciding on a cultivar, consider the alternative below.
These are also commonly known as "Egyptian" onions. Despite their very different appearance and behavior, they are of the same species ((Allium cepa--though one source referes to them as A. proliferum) as "ordinary" bulb onions. But they form their bulb not underground at their base, but rather at the tip of their greens. They reproduce by the stalk bending under the weight of the bulb so that it curls over and the bulb reaches ground, where it sprouts into a new plant (hence the descriptive name "walking" onions). The bulbs can be harvested and used as onion substitutes, though they are small (and thus very tedious to prepare) and said to be somewhat "coarse" in flavor; but the stalks make what are many people's favorite form of "scallion". This type is also very winter-hardy, and easily makes a perennial (one veteran grower reports that "walking onions don't suffer much from being left in the same location each year either; I have a productive bed that I have not dug for over 10 years").
Again quoting a veteran, "if you divide them to single plants during dormancy and space them out 6" to 8" apart, they will form a cluster of bulbs up to 2" in diameter the following year." There is a lot more information, with copious photos, at "The Official Egyptian Walking Onion Site" (which also sells sets, and is quite near our area--just next door, really). There is at least one other dedicated Egyptian Walking Onions site: who knew?
Note that during the winter, it is easy enough to put a few bulblets in a pot indoors on a windowsill for an uninterrupted supply of scallions.
A popular, easily found, and reportedly satisfactory cultivar of this sort is the Catawissa (you don't buy seed, you buy bulbs for planting out), though others can also be found. Some are even red.
(Information on growing walking onions is so fully presented in the links under that heading above that we will not duplicate them here; this is just about bunching onions, if for some reason you elect to do those instead.)
Seed for bunching onions can be sown in spring or fall, but if we're going for a perennial stand we might as well start it in spring and let build up some body before hitting it with its first winter.
They're cold-hardy (or we couldn't annualize them) but there's no point in pressing the issue when we're planting for perennial use. They grow best at a daytime temperature of 80° F., which we hereabouts first hit, on average, in middle June; our inclination would be to sow outdoors around May 1st, when the high is typically 65° and the low a little above freezing (the catalogues from climates like ours refer to sowing in "early spring", so that should be fine).
Give them reasonably rich soil, with a pH between 6.3 and 6.8, which is typical of most good garden soil (they dislike strongly acid soil, but a soil pH below 6 is rare in the western U.S.). Well-drained loams or sandy loams high in organic matter and rich in phosphate are optimal; if your soil is a heavy clay, amend it, with sand if necessary but preferably with organic matter.
These are usually direct seeded, especially as we normally want a number of individual plants. They can be spaced rather closely, down to 2 inches in a deep-dug or raised bed, though a 3-inch spacing is probably better for perennial plantings, giving them a little elbow room to form their "clumps". Plant the seed about ½ inch deep.
Like all onions, scallions are shallow-rooted, and so need the soil at and near the surface kept moist (they can't go down deep for water)--but they easily "drown" if the soil gets waterlogged, which is why you don't want a heavy clay soil.
Give the plants some weeks--10 or more--to get established. After that, cut (preferably with scissors or the like) stalks as needed. Obviously you should try not to cut any one plant too heavily, which is why it's a good idea to plan a goodly number of plants (they don't take up much space).
In their second summer (not that of the year you planted them in), "divide" the plants. As they grow, this type "bunches" (hence its common sobriquet)--that is, tillers spring from the mother plant--which is why a 3-inch separation is better than 2 inches for the long term. One expert wrote:
When you need some green onions, use a trowel to loosen the soil around a clump, lift the clump, take out what you need, and put the rest back in the ground. If you want to start another clump, just reset one of the individual side shoots in its new location. Plant it deep, so more of the lower stem will be blanched. I've had the same clone of bunching onions in my vegetable garden now for more than 8 years. They've been moved around a lot, but they keep on producing.
We're not so sure about the "take a whole bulblet anytime" approach, but for sure, by taking a little care, you can have both leaves and actual whole scallions year round. A little more detail on the separating: cut the "bunch" into sections with a sharp knife, and make quite sure that each section you intend to re-plant has at least one leaf-growing point on it.
Note that scallions actually need (for health) to be divided from time to time (some sources say annually, some say every three years). We think that common sense and that sensitive detector, the human eyeball, will best enable you to judge how much to take when.
Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.
Scallions are simply a species of onion that doesn't bulb up. They are of the Alliaceae family, the alliums (till recently called the Lilliaecae family). Besides such obvious relatives as bulbing onions, leeks, scallions, and garlic, the Welsh onion's kin include lillies and hyacinths.
The bunching onion was developed in Asia from a wild relative, possibly A. altaicum, which occurs in Northwest China and neighboring Kazakhstan. It was brought to Europe in the 17th century.
The "Welsh" in Welsh Onions has nothing to do with Wales: it derives from the German word welsche, "foreign".
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