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Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Specializing in colorful, water-conserving gardens

Onions & Garlic: Underground Magic

California Early garlic bears a subtle flavor.

California Early garlic, a soft-neck variety, bears a subtle flavor.

In the kitchen, onions and garlic are a magical combination. But for me, the real magic of the sweet and savory edibles is out in the garden, below ground, where the tasty orbs begin their lives in the dark.

Plant your onions and garlic this fall, and they’ll begin their journey from the earth to your table by next spring or summer. That may seem an interminable amount of time.

But neither crop requires much space. Winter gardens are often empty. These members of the allium family are excellent companion plants, offering safe harbor to beneficial insects and repelling pests. And they’re easy to grow.

What to Choose

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of growing onions and garlic is having the discipline to select the right types for our climate.

Italian Red Torpedo heirloom onions

Italian Red Torpedo heirloom onions are an intermediate-day variety.

Onions, especially, can be temperamental. They fall into three basic types based on how much sunlight they need to mature.

Over a span of about 100 to 110 days, short-day onions require 10 to 12 hours a day; intermediate-day or day-neutral, 12 to 14 hours; and long-day, more than 14 hours.

Long-day onions are out of the question. They’re geared toward northern states and Canada, which have very long summer days because they’re so far from the equator. Here, our 14-hour days run from mid-May through July, a total of 75 days at best. You’ll end up with a lot of neck, but not much bulb.

However, our 12-hour days span mid-March through September. That’s plenty of sunshine for intermediates, which include Stockton Red, Candy, Super Star and Italian Red Torpedo; and short-day types, which are generally sweet and include yellow granex, Texas Supersweet, White Bermuda and Contessa.

Nookta Rose, a soft-neck garlic, packs a pungent punch.

Nookta Rose, a soft-neck garlic, packs a pungent punch.

Garlic is grouped according to type of neck, which also aligns with climate.

Soft necks are typically grown in warm, mild regions across the United States, Mexico, Spain, Italy and France. Papery parchment encases the scale-like bulbs and runs up the necks, making them easy to braid or hang.

They grow well in coastal areas, including Ventura and Santa Barbara.

Hard necks have a woody stem and stiff neck, have been bred for northern climes with cold winters and hot summers, and are popular in Russia and Central Asia.

They’re not suited for the coast, but are worth a try in hotter, inland areas.

How to Grow

Onions sets at planting time.

Onions sets at planting time.

Onions come as seeds, sets or transplants. Garlic is usually grown from cloves.

Good drainage is essential. Without it, your seeds might not sprout and your bulbs may rot. Avoid heavy clay altogether: if you have it, plant in a raised bed or a container filled with potting soil instead.

Best is a site in full sun. At a minimum, the bed should receive four to six hours of direct sunlight during winter and even more in summer. Loosen the top 8 to 12 inches of soil, then mix in several inches of well-aged compost.

Next, for onions, dig a fertilizer trench to run between your rows. The trench should be twice as deep as the recommended planting depth for the seeds, sets or transplants. Sprinkle a high-phosphorous product, such as a 10-20-10, into the trench, then fill it. Plant your onions about 6 inches from each side of the trench.

Break apart the cloves for planting this Early Italian garlic.

Break apart the cloves for planting this soft-neck Early Italian garlic.

For garlic, skip the side-dressing and simply use your finger or a trowel to shape a furrow a couple of inches deep and several feet long in your freshly amended soil.

Break open the bulbs, then plant the individual cloves tip-side up, 2 inches deep and 4 inches apart.

Water the bed gently, then keep it moist until winter rains begin.

Within a few weeks, your onions should begin pushing up green stalks and sending out shallow roots. Your garlic may show signs of life, too.

Next spring, longer days and warmer temperatures will trigger the bulbs to start swelling.

When the rains stop, water the bed about once a week. If the leaves become soft and yellow, you’re watering too much. If the soil cracks and the greens wilt, irrigate more often.

Onions also like occasional doses of nitrogen. Apply a mild, liquid solution every 2 to 3 weeks until 3 weeks before harvest. Late in the season, too much nitrogen may cause the maturing bulbs to split.


Count the rings on these Stockton Red onions. Yes, there are 13!

Count the rings on these Stockton Red onions. Yes, there are 13!

A full-size onion typically bears 13 leaves, which correspond to the number of rings inside.

But more important than counting leaves is watching what they do.

Three to four months after emerging, the stalks should begin to yellow and flop. No longer a watering issue, the yellowing signals that it’s time for harvest.

As for garlic: come spring, the bulbs will begin to produce strappy leaves.

If you’re growing hard necks, harvest the scapes as they rise. When the leaves turn brown in mid-May or June, stop watering and brush away the soil to check the size of the bulbs and the condition of their papery wrappers.

Fall 2013

Fall 2013

Harvest when the bulbs are plump and only a few of layers of parchment remain.

Use a cultivating fork or trowel to gently lift out both crops. Spread them on screens in the shade for a week or two.

After curing, trim the tops to an inch above the bulbs. Store them between layers of newspaper or screens. Or retain the stalks, then braid and hang them in a cool, dry place.

Don’t store onions or garlic in a refrigerator, where the moist air can hasten their deterioration.

This article was first published in the Fall 2013 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Copyright, Joan S. Bolton. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text or photos in any form is prohibited without written permission.

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