Vegetable gardening is an enjoyable experience. As a gardener, you determine the size of the garden, what type of plants, and ultimately where the plants are planted… raised beds, containers, or traditional garden beds. Every spring you either sow seeds or plant seedlings. Sure it is work, but you get to enjoy fresh produce from your own garden. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a plant that reliably comes back year after year… reducing some of your work?
Several years ago, a friend introduced me to bunching onions. Specifically, the heirloom variety Allium fistulosum ‘Evergreen’. (NOTE: some sources cite that the Evergreen bunching onion is known as Allium cepa.) This onion can be sown in the spring or fall and on average, 70 days to maturity. It is hardy in USDA zones 3 – 9 and requires full sun. (For those of you in the southern zones, you may be able to harvest these onions year round.)
This onion not only self-sows, but is also considered a perennial. We transplanted seedlings from our friend 5 years ago and the patch is still going strong even with all of the harvesting that we do. The key is to NOT harvest all of the onions. Let some go to seed and/or overwinter.
Now these aren’t your traditional onions that set a bulb. They are non-bulbing (think of the green onion bunches sold at grocery stores or farmers market). For peak tenderness and flavor, harvest them when they are approximately 10″ – 12″ tall. Like zucchini, some may escape your vision and get big quickly. But these larger onions can still be enjoyed. Strip away some of the outer layers and then use just the white and pale green portion of the plant.
These onions will produce small white flowers in a cluster at the stop of a scape (flowering stalk). If you harvest one that is in bloom, please note that the scape green is much tougher than the green leaves. But if you harvest one, remove the outer layers and use just the white and pale green portions of the onion. Or if you are beekeeper, leave the flowers for the bees to enjoy.
To harvest, use a trowel and dig down about 2″ away from the stalk and then wiggle the trowel and slowly lift up. Your goal it to pull up the entire onion without slicing it into pieces. Don’t be surprised if you see several stalks side by side that seem to join at the roots, creating a ‘bunch’. Then rinse the onions outside to remove soil that clings to the roots, peel off any dried layers and cut off the root ends.
These onions are a classic in green salads. Cut into thin slices and toss with assorted lettuce or spinach. In our household, they also make an appearance in pasta and potato salads. They are also good lightly grilled (keep whole using the white through the lower dark green portion of the onion). Season with a little melted butter and salt and you have a sublime side dish. Or if you feel adventurous… one of my favorite ways to eat them is raw on a slice of buttered bread with a slice of cheese (havarti or smoked mozzarella) and a few slices of fresh tomatoes.
If you do not immediately use all that you harvest, you can employ the trick that my mom used for years… place them in a glass of water, white end down, roots removed. Place the jar in the refrigerator, selecting either an upper shelf or door shelf if available. The onions will last for at least 7 days if stored in this fashion. To keep a steady supply on hand, simply harvest every few days and restock the jar.
If you haven’t discovered the joy of bunching onions, buy some this year. Remember that you can do spring or fall planting. If harvested young, they are slightly sweet and very tender and add nice flavor to green salads, grilled as a side dish, and can even be enjoyed raw in a sandwich. Just don’t harvest them all in a season and then you will onions for years to come.