Essential winter vegetables; garlic and onions.

In maintaining a household there are some things that you should never run out of—like flour, salt, sugar, toilet paper, onions and garlic. Onions and garlic are pretty essential ingredients of most culinary efforts and both are easy to grow winter vegetables. I start my onion seeds in a flat of compost

Garlic maturing in the garden shed. Always a good annual happening. Photo courtesy Lee Miller

in August and transplant the seedlings about the end of October or the first of November. I cut back the tops to about a 4-6 inch plant and use a dibble to punch holes through newspaper mulch which keeps the weeds at bay through the winter. Neither garlic nor onions tolerate weed competition well, so mulching with newspaper helps reduce weeds without tedious weeding. A dripline under the mulch is practical way to irrigate with a row planted on each side of the dripline.

Garlic cloves are even easier to plant through 3-4 sheets of newspaper as there are no roots to deal with. Garlic should be planted earlier than onions. I usually aim for October 1 or certainly before Columbus Day. Garlic planted in November or December will not establish or grow as well as October planted garlic.

Both onions and garlic tolerate lots of different soils, but for best results, plant in a loose soil that is well drained and enriched with organic matter for nutrients. If you don’t have well drained soils then using containers or raised beds will solve that problem. Soil can be loosened by adding compost or manures which allow the onion or garlic heads to grow unimpeded. Planting larger cloves of garlic usually results in a larger heads at harvest. Garlic cloves should be spaced about 6 inches apart and watered frequently during rainless periods, as they are shallow rooted.

Not all garlic is equal in performance. Some do better in California than others. There are two kinds of garlic, softnecks (Allium sativum ssp. sativum) and hardnecks (Allium sativum ssp. ophioscorodon). The softnecks are mild flavored and good choices for warm climates. California Early White and California Late White are two softnecks commonly planted. Hardneck garlics are more numerous and develop the largest heads when exposed to 40-50 ºF cool temperatures for several weeks in the winter and before spring temperature reach 90ºF. Hardneck garlics produce scapes (leafless flower stem) which when harvested while tender can be sautéed and eaten. Eaten or not, scapes should be removed to concentrate bulb growth.

Garlic can be mild in flavor or on the hot side and lots in between. Some dependable ones that I like are: Lorz Italian, Spanish Rojas, Chesnok Red, Russian Red and Kazakhstan Pink, which is an early maturing variety. For a rundown on the many varieties and characteristics, see: .

Onion varieties to plant include mild red onions which are great raw in salads and sandwiches. They don’t store well so after harvest in June they are only good for about 3-4 months. Yellow and white onions will store longer, with white onions storing a little less well than yellow onions. White onions tend to be somewhat milder in flavor and can also be used raw in sandwiches and salads.

For this region, one should plant long-day onions. We are close to the line that separates long day from short day growing areas. Southern Californians should plant short-day onions. Most storage onions are long-day varieties with thicker skins and are higher in sulfur content and lower in moisture. The sulfur compound in onions is released when chopping or slicing and goes through several enzymatic transformations to a component that makes the tears flow. Using a sharp knife helps reduce cell damage that release the tear compounds and to further reduce this reaction, cut the onion underwater or near a flame, such as a candle or gas burner. Chilling onions in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or 15 minutes in the freezer will also help make the chemicals less volatile, hence fewer tears.

Seeds for onions can be found at most big box nurseries or at Lockhart seeds, our local seed store. Onion starts can be purchased around November 1 at Port Stockton Nursery. Lockhart also carries some common garlic varieties for planting. Garlic varieties can also be purchased from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply: . Happy onion and garlic growing!

If you have a gardening related question you can contact the UC Master Gardeners at 209-953-6112. More information can be found on our website:


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