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Unusual alliums

Space-saving, decorative and unusual onion family members

Chives in full flower – they are edible too

For those of you who don’t want spring or winter-planted onions or leeks, there are many members of the allium family that are more unusual and decorative, even perennial. I’ve grown all of these in containers successfully.

An onion with many facets, that’s Italian variety Lilia. It’s sold as a spring/bunching/maincrop variety with a pungent flavour. It has hollow green leaves and torpedo-shaped purple/red onions that can be harvested in summer as a spring onion or as late as November as a maincrop, or try it as a perennial bunching onion, only harvesting part of the plant.

Sow from late winter to summer at three-weekly intervals, or for an early spring crop, sow seeds in autumn and overwinter. Sow thinly 6mm deep in drills 15cm apart. No thinning is required. Harvesting can usually start 6-8 weeks after sowing for use as spring onions.

Perennial Welsh bunching onion Ciboule Red is winter hardy. This heritage variety forms dense clumps of slender hollow stems that can be used as a substitute for chives.

The slender elongated bulbs are similar to spring onions with a strong flavour. You can direct sow, but I started mine off indoors in modules.

Garlic and shallot
Garlic and shallot Griselle

Shallot Griselle, (autumn planting) should be ready by July at the latest and are extremely pungent.

Chives and garlic chives – so unfussy, they’re everywhere in my garden. It’s a perfect foil for other plants and its globular flowers are lovely in themselves (and edible). It grows easily from seed, but it’s probably easier to buy a small pot and divide it yourself.

I get two crops a year – one of fresh new growth in May and another in August, but discard any old flower stems (they’re tough).

They don’t dry, so chop and pack them into ice cube trays or small boxes to freeze, then store them loose in a freezer bag, to use throughout winter.

Monster Shimonita onion

Shimonita onion
Huge Shimonita onion

This Japanese spring onion, or Shimonita onion, is named after the town of its origin.

It’s a bunching onion, a single stalk variety, with fat white root ends and a sweet flavour. They’re easy to grow and hard as nails.

I’ve grown it as a normal spring onion (ready after 60 days), but leave them to thicken and develop beefy stems – traditionally sown in autumn and not picked until the next autumn.

You get two crops – spring onions for salads (thinnings) and stir-fries in summer.

As they get bigger, the flavour strengthens, ideal for casseroles and soups – and they take up far less room than leeks.