Want to have your onions and eat them, too? Good news.
I haven’t bought green onions since early 2013, even though I use them weekly.
No, I’m not a savvy shoplifter about to share heist advice — just a cheapskate who planted her food scraps once upon a time, and who now has a garden bed that supplies free food throughout the year. With alliums like leeks, garlic and green onions, it’s simple to duplicate this success in your own garden. And for the gardenless, in some cases, a small vase in your kitchen will work.
When it comes to growing new food from your cooking scraps, green onions are the fastest, least troublesome starting point. They’re sold with short roots still attached, and typically recipes have you trim anywhere from half an inch to 2 inches of their white bottoms. Instead of tossing those little leftover pieces into the compost (or to the chickens), place them root-side-down in a small bowl or vase, then add water to just below their tops — you don’t want them completely submerged. Green shoots will sprout within a week, faster in warmer weather, while their roots grow at the same time.
You then have two choices: Continue growing them in water, or move them to a pot or garden bed. If you opt for water, change it out at least weekly, and trim the tops every few days to keep their size in check. These shoots will stay fairly delicate, but kept in clean water, they will keep regrowing for several months before exhausting their oniony little souls. To give them a longer life, give them a home in well-drained soil with moderate sunshine. The goal is nothing waterlogged and shady, or too desert-like; in general, green onions are a good fit for Western Washington’s climate.
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Once they’re in soil, growth takes off to the point where it can be hard to keep them in check. To keep them the same diameter as small, grocery-purchase-sized greens, barber them regularly, down to a point slightly above the soil line, where the green turns to white. If you don’t, the shoots will grow to 1½ inches in diameter and 18 inches long, and they’ll produce a fist-sized ball of edible, tiny white flowers annually. I let most of mine flower, as the blossoms have a pleasantly mild onion flavor and I like how expensively fancy they feel in my spring salads and pasta bowls. After they flower, which happens in a weather-dependent fashion between April and early June, I give them a crew cut and start the green shoots all over again. If you ever need a quarter cup of onion, just pull one up; after a year’s growth, the bulbs are about the size of a golf ball, like what’s sold occasionally as spring onions at grocers. Again, trim off the roots attached to an inch of onion, and you can replant it, your very own endless green-onion factory.
Garlic is also an easy plant to grow, and it comes with more interest for gardeners, thanks to different varieties with a range of traits. The most basic choice is between softneck (the kind sold at grocery stores year-round) and hardneck (generally at farmers markets in early fall). If garlic scapes are your goal — they’re the long, spiraled, garlic flower stems available in late spring — you should plant hardneck varieties like Spanish Roja, as softneck won’t grow scapes. If scapes aren’t your thing, just plant the sprouting leftovers the next time you buy a head of garlic and don’t use the cloves quickly enough.
Plant each clove individually, with its papery skin still on, directly in a full-sun garden bed or pot; push the cloves about 4 inches below the soil. Each clove will sprout a green stem called a garlic chive within a couple weeks; you can use them just as you would chives or green onions, but their flavor is soft and garlicky.
If you want to harvest new bulbs of garlic, it’s best to start with varieties from a farmers market; these will be better matched to your climate, unlike grocery-store varieties from California or China (the latter grows 80 percent of the world’s garlic). For a sizable bulb, mid-October planting is best. You’ll harvest chives or scapes in the spring, then water occasionally through the summer for harvest around Labor Day. The leaves will start turning yellow, a sign that the bulb is now dormant and ready for harvest. (Garlic has a high demand at local food banks; if you have the space, consider growing some specifically to donate to the food bank in your neighborhood.)
Like green onions, leeks are typically sold with stubby roots attached. My experiments with them began about eight months ago, so it remains to be seen if they are as robust as their green-onion cousins. Placed in a dish of water, leek tops will regrow quickly — but the more usable white part won’t get going in just water. Planted in a garden bed, they’ll take root quickly and then grow slowly, even through a winter that comes with several snow showers and hailstorms. A rude squirrel gnawed one of my leeks to a nub, but it’s been slowly regaining height ever since. Further squirrel interference aside, I expect to be able to harvest my first baby leeks by mid-May. Baby leeks are tender enough to grill or roast whole, with a punchy onion flavor. While I hope to regrow them from the rooted stub I’ll trim off before cooking, I’ll have to see how it goes, and perhaps work out some rodent protection for their tops.
In general, when purchasing produce you plan to regrow, there’s no need to buy certified organic vegetables. While rumors abound that conventionally grown produce is treated with growth retardants, I have experienced no difference between certified organic and conventionally grown garlic when planting the cloves, and the green onions I bought all those years ago were conventional. There’s no reason to avoid organic — just buy whichever you prefer, and can afford. Given that it may be your last purchase of that item ever, you might be inclined to splurge.