Meet the Allium Family

Fall gardening isn't only about raking leaves and tidying perennials as they curl up and turn brown.  It's also time to plant bulbs for vibrant spring colour.  Tulips, daffodils, muscari, crocus and hyacinth are all beautiful in the spring....but my absolute favorite bulbs are from the Allium Family where I get flowers and food too!

Globemaster Allium

Globemaster Allium

The genus Allium contains more than 700 species of plants, all possessing flowers and foliage with an onion fragrance.  Easy to grow ornamental alliums come in a variety of colours, heights, blooms and flower shapes that are easy to fit into any garden because they don't take up much space.

Last year I planted Allium "Globemaster"; a 32" tall show stopper with fabulous purple spheres of tiny star-shaped flowers that reach up to 8" in diameter.  When spent, I cut the dried heads with long stems and enjoy them in my dining room year round.  This month, I added 20 mixed Allium bulbs to a south-facing bed for vertical spring interest. While not edible, they definitely spice up my garden!

The Halifax Seed Company uses ornamental allium en masse as a foundation planting along Kane Street where they are a neighbourhood favorite.  Dalhousie University's Truro Campus has a large garden showcasing them as well.  You can walk by either garden in late spring/early summer and indulge in the floral architecture offered by these easy-to-grow plants. Both gardens use them intermixed with lower growing plants to conceal dying foliage once they are spent.

Onions, shallots and garlic are vegetables that are also members of the allium family.  October is the best month to plant garlic cloves and this month I visited Via Vita Academy to teach students how to plant organic garlic bulbs in their raised beds using these simple steps:

  1. Carefully separate the full bulb into cloves, leaving the papery coating on.

  2. Prepare a clean soil bed by turning it over to about 6-12 inches, breaking apart clumps and removing any rocks or weed roots. Add a bit of compost and work it in if you wish.

  3. Make holes about six inches apart and about two inches deep; plant each clove to a depth of about twice its height, flat rooty side down and pointy side up.

  4. Rake or trowel soil back over the holes, making sure the garlic is covered.

  5. No need to cover it....the snow will protect it nicely.

  6. Watch for pointy green shoots in the spring and weed the area gently as the summer progresses, watering only if it is very dry and refrain from mulching.

  7. By mid-summer you should be able to harvest the bulbs; check by loosening and bringing up one to check it's size.

  8. Once pulled from the ground, dry the plants in the sun for a few days by turning them regularly and keeping them dry at night.

  9. When they feel firm and finished and the stems are very dry, trim off the root hairs and cut off the stems a couple of inches above the bulb. If you want, keep the stems and braid them to hang.

  10. Garlic can be stored for months in a cool, dry temperature (about 7 C); use up the softer ones first and keep the best for last.

Alliums are among the most versatile bulbs for the spring and summer garden, bringing beauty and versatility to the garden and your dinner table!  I hope the students at Via Vita Academy invite me back for lunch and to sample their harvested garlic next summer.