Best Practices: Growing Onions, Shallots and Leeks

I love eating my storage root-type crops for most of winter. Onions, Shallots and Leeks are some of the best and easiest crops to store for winter use. Below are suggestions for growing these items and getting the most out of your garden. There will be another page about root-cellaring later this season. Onion Plants Vs onion Sets? It’s a matter of biology, onions are biennials, they grow one season and bloom set seed then die the following season. When you plant a “Set” it has already had one short season so it doesn’t usually size up very well and never stores well. But, Onion Plants spend all their energy forming the bulb and aren’t concerned about flowering and creating seed.

Care must be taken to NOT plant onions or their cousins near Bean or legume crops. Or to NOT plant beans where onion family plants grew the year before. Onions and their various family members inhibit the growth of bean family members. Nor should you plant onion family members in the same location more recently than three years, as diseases will likely destroy your crop.

Onions, Shallots, Leeks, Scallions and Garlic are all related. The first four are planted during early springtime here in the north country, but GARLIC is planted in the fall, usually mid-October. None of these crops likes any weed competition. If you are going to succeed with them you must be prepared to stay on top of the weeding or you will be very disappointed with the outcome.

Leeks can be planted any time the soil can be worked in the spring. They should be planted in a shallow ditch, about 6″ deep. As the Leek plants grow, soil should slowly be added to the trench, then mounded or “HILLED” as with potatoes. This insures very nice, long white stalks at harvest time. We plant leeks about 4″ apart in rows 24″ apart. The only problems we’ve encountered with leeks is that if the soil remains too wet for too long, they get pink rot disease.

Shallots generally grow in small clusters of 2/3/4 and even 5 bulbs together, similar to garlic but are more onion-like in flavor and growth composition. It’s rare, but not unheard of, to get a single bulb from a shallot plant. They store extremely well and will usually last well into May. Our Copra and Patterson yellow onions are champs when it comes to longest storing bulbs, usually into later May or even June. Our Red Bull sweet RED onions are some of the best storing Red’s available, but they usually don’t make it much past later February or early March, so plan and plant accordingly. Onions, Shallots and Garlic are all best stored between 50 and 60 degrees and relatively low humidity. They should preferably be laid out on wide shelves made of wire mesh for good air circulation. Care should be taken to not let the bulbs touch to prevent one bad one spreading the rot to many around it. They can also be braided in small bunches of 5-7 and hung in the open air. Leeks are best stored in buckets of slightly dampened sand or right in the garden under a 24″ thick mulch of hay or preferably STRAW. The ground under the straw won’t freeze and you can dig them all winter long as needed. The waste hay/straw can be composted the following spring. Scallions are for fresh eating only and cannot be stored very long, best to plant smaller quantities every 2 weeks or so for continuous supply.

When you purchase our Leek, Onion and Shallot plants, they will be growing in “Clusters.”  Once you are ready to plant them, you must separate them from those clusters. You will need a small bucket of water. You will take the cluster of plants and gently shake them apart in the bucket of water, the soil they are growing in will fall away and the individual plants can be separated for planting. This process takes mere minutes to accomplish. Onions may be successfully planted in groups of up to 3 individual plants with no loss in final size or quality.

Top Recommendations: Grow your own onions and shallots by plants not “sets or bulbs” for the best and longest storing harvest. Only plant Garlic in Mid-October for harvest the following July. Onions and their cousins must be very well weeded to thrive. They can’t take ANY weed pressure. They need well-drained sandy loam soils high in nitrogen for best growth. Two of the very best yellow storage onions are Copra and Patterson, one of the best Red storage onions is Red Bull. Treat shallots as you would onions when in storage. Leeks may be stored right out in the garden under a 24″ thick mulch or in buckets of lightly dampened sand. The sand/bucket method works very well for root crops such as carrot and beet also. Scallions are for fresh use/eating only, plant multiple smaller batches every 2 weeks or so for continuous supply. Store onions/shallots on wire mesh shelves or braided with a temperature of 50-60 degrees and lower humidity for best storage success.

Bon Appetite!

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