In A North State Garden: Autumnal Acts Of Faith: Planting Alliums For Food And Beauty

Nov 21, 2015

The dense spherical head of the ornamental Allium ‘Globemaster’ in a home garden in Chico.
Credit Jennifer Jewell

I am planting bulbs, culinary and ornamental. A heavy box of hope and spring dreams arrived from the heirloom bulb supplier Old House Gardens Heirloom Bulbs arrived last week, and they are now calling me to get them in the ground in the next few weeks. 

The diminishing light and lowering temperatures of the season trigger certain built in responses from animals and vegetables, from trees and perennials. And from Gardeners.

Native wild onion, Allium amplectens, on a rocky slope near Chico, CA.
Credit Jennifer Jewell

I’m compelled to tidy up, to tuck in for winter, and to plant. Especially to plant bulbs. Few things add to the sense of establishment and rootedness in a garden so much as the addition of perennial bulbs. They appear in spring from seemingly nothing, but in point of fact appear from fleshy masses of stored energy combined with a winter of sufficient chill, dark, moisture, nutrients. They appear from that age old recipe of time + faith + nature.

Planting bulbs is a perfect garden task for the winter breaks. Getting them into the ground as soon as you can once temperatures cool at night is best to allow for the longest establishment time before increasing light in spring cues them to begin growing up and setting bloom. In truth, though, as long as the bulbs themselves are kept cool, dry and well-ventilated, they can be planted as long as the ground is workable. I might have been known to be planting the last of my bulbs very close to Valentine’s Day, but that’s in no way ideal.

In my box, a wonderful array of Narcissus, Fritillaria, Crocus, Snowdrops, and Allium fill paper bags little and big. Each variety comes to me with rich backstories from parents, grandparents, aunts, great aunts, friends, houses and gardens of the past. Gardening is after all a shared, pass-along sport/prayer.

From the bags bearing the ornamental Allium — 7 different varieties in all — come the many scents of onion — sometimes bitter, sometimes musky, sometimes almost sweet. These ornamentals after all share a genus with the standard culinary onions, garlic, shallots, chives and leeks.

A swath of colorful wild onions (Allium validum?) enliven a high mountain meadow on Mt. Eddy, in the Trinity Range.
Credit Jennifer Jewell

A gift from my mother-in-law to my new garden, the Allium are what I am perhaps most eager to get in the ground in this garden. When I first imagined parts of this garden, I could see the tall purple spired ones weaving a luminous path through wheat-colored spring grasses in the front dry garden. I could see the white and even deeper purple orbs brightening the early spring green of roses, myrtle and jasmine in the small, watered back garden.

Alliums now comprise the genus Alliaceae, which includes upwards of 800 species, the most well-known of which originate from western and central Asia. However, California is home to more than 40 native species. Linnaeus described the botanical characteristics of Allium in 1753, but the culinary, medicinal and ornamental uses of the onion family is noted as far back as 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Their ethnobotanical uses for food and medicine are well-documented in North America as well.

Edible and ornamental varieties of Allium make sculptural cut flower displays — fresh or dried. Shown here are dried garlic scapes, which flowered and then went to seed and dried in the vase.
Credit Jennifer Jewell

Their multi-flowered umbels at the top of strong, leafless stalks are elegant — celestial, with names like Firmament and Globemaster. Even the dancing-twining necked culinary varieties of garlic in bloom, or the more open-headed nodding wild native onions that dot our spring wildflower meadows have a sense of rhythm, structure and architectural assurance.

Coming in a assorted heights and colors, Alliums should be planted in full sun in good to lean soil with the bulbs at a depth about 2–4 times the height of the bulb. Planting depth depends on climate — in colder climates, you will want to plant the most deeply. Water them in well after planting and winter rains should take care of the rest. The bulbs will be dormant for a good long time after blooming and do not need much water during their dormancy.

While it is almost always clear which side is up on an Allium, a symbolically reassuring thing about a bulb is that it knows its way. If you can’t tell which is the top and which is the bottom of the bulb, plant it on its side and it will take care of things from there — reaching for the light and rooting deeply down, blooming its heart out and then retreating to a season of dormancy and re-building its reserves in order to do it all again.

Life cycles. They never fail to inspire, amaze and give us things for which to be profoundly thankful. Happy Thanksgiving.

In a North State Garden is North State Public Radio (mynspr.org) and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell — all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on North State Public Radio every third Saturday morning at 7:34 a.m. Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 a.m. Pacific time.