Dinner wouldn’t be nearly as delicious without plants from the Allium genus. Ornamental Alliums also attract beneficial insects to your garden.
Allium are monocots that grow from bulbs. Bulbs are a food reserve for the plant (and your pantry). Similar to grass plants, Alliums feature fleshy layers that wrap around the bulb and stem. Their stems do not have leaves, but a single umbel. Umbels are flowers made up of tiny flowerettes, usually forming a curved or flat surface. This surface creates an attractive landing surface for beneficial insects.
Attracting beneficial insects
Planting Allium in the garden is sure to attract beneficial insects. The convenient landing platform and sweet nectar will bring them in from blocks or even miles around. Allium tanguticum, the Lavender globe lily (pictured), attracts hoverflies. These beneficials look like tiny bees and they devour aphids and mealybugs. Spritely black Trichogramma wasps are also attracted and will lay their eggs in moth eggs, preventing caterpillars, such as the tomato hornworm from attacking your garden. If you enjoy the flavor of garlic and chives, you can always plant Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum) another favorite of beneficial insects.
How to grow alliums
These shallow-rooted plants prefer soil that holds a lot of organic material and that means adding compost before planting. They will grow just about anywhere, but our heavy clay soil can slow growth. Allium can be grown in partial shade to full sun. Alliums grow well in raised beds and containers. You can grow chives in a pot on your kitchen windowsill for easy access while cooking!
Growing Allium from seed can be hit and miss. The plants are slow starters and they don’t handle competition (weeds) very well. You can plant seeds in containers or directly in the garden. Seeds should be sown 1/2” deep and 1/2” apart. Thinned plants can be eaten as scallions.
Another way to plant Allium is in the form of “sets”. Allium sets are mature bulbs that can be planted directly in the ground or a container. Follow the package directions for depth and spacing. The only downside to sets is that they tend to bolt. Bolting is the beginning of the going-to-seed process. If you are growing onions, leeks, or garlic, plants that have started bolting should be harvested right away, unless you plan to collect your own seeds.
Garlic and onions are best planted October through January.
Bulbs are actually the modified stems of perennial monocotyledons*.
These plants have evolved to store food reserves in a globe-shaped underground bud that is protected with overlapping, expanded leaf bases. Some bulb plants, such as onion and garlic, have a papery protective layer over these underground leaves, while scaly bulbs, such as the lily, have no protective layer. Bulbs can be as tiny as a pea or as heavy as 15 pounds!
December and January are the best time to plant spring bulbs in the Bay Area. (May is the best time to plant fall bulbs in our area.) Follow these steps to ensure the long term survival and overall health of your new bulbs:
*The only exception is a few varieties of Oxalis, which are dicotyledons.
Who doesn't love garlic? Add some melted butter and you can make just about anything taste amazing. What's even better - it's easy to grow!
How to grow garlic
Garlic can be grown in containers, shade gardens, on balconies or windowsills, or in traditional garden rows. As a bulb, it is a resilient plant that can fit into practically any landscape. While you can certainly grow new plants from a garlic purchased at the grocery store, you are better off buying starts from a reputable grower. Grocery store garlic is safe to eat, but it may harbor diseases that can harm future crops for many years.
Garlic comes in two basic forms: hardneck and softneck. The softneck variety stores better, but the hardneck variety produces bigger cloves that are easier to peel. When you are ready to plant, simply separate the cloves from a garlic and plant them approximately 6" apart and 1" deep, with the root end down and the pointy end up. That's it!
Garlic has been cited as a cure-all and demon-repellant, among other questionable attributes, but science has shown that garlic really does repel aphids, cabbageworms, codling moths, Mexican bean beetles, peach borers, and even slugs and snails. In my book, that makes garlic worthwhile simply as a natural pest and disease inhibitor. Of course, I love to eat garlic, so I would plant it anyway!
Unlike onions, whose leaves are a tube, garlic leaves are flat. When the leaves start to turn yellow and fall over, gently remove them from the ground, dust off the dirt, and put them in a shady spot for a couple of weeks. If you feel inspired, you can then try braiding your garlic crop, but I have found that it's a lot harder than it looks!
Be sure to save your very best garlic for planting in the following fall. Over time, your garlic crop will be become better acclimated to your microclimate and produce even better harvests!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!