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Cool weather signals the time to plant onions, garlic

Garlic, onions, shallots, chives, leeks and other savory members of the Allium family hold a singular crown of honor in many kitchens. And the coming months of cooler weather in central Florida make growing them a cook's dream come true.

Related to lilies, all the Alliums similarly love rich, pH neutral soil in full sun. Before planting, spread over your garden a 3-inch layer of organic matter like compost, old leaves, bagged humus, or alfalfa pellets from a feed store, plus a generous sprinkling of cheap clay cat litter to trap moisture and provide the clay Alliums love.

Have your soil's pH tested. For inland acid soil, apply a liberal sprinkling of dolomite. Alkaline coastal soils can be acidified with a light annual sprinkling of agricultural sulfur. Encourage earthworms by adding a 50-pound bag of cheap dry dog food nuggets over a 10- by 10-foot garden before turning the soil, and keep it all moist with generous mulching.

For patio gardens, fill 3- to 5-gallon pots with drainage holes with a good compost and potting soil mix, adding cheap clay cat litter 10 percent by volume. Try one-half "spent mushroom compost" sold at garden centers and one-half of your favorite potting soil. Into each pot of the mix blend in the shells of a dozen eggs to supply calcium, plus two cups dog food nuggets. Mix it all together, fill the pots to within 2 inches from the top, water deeply.

Whether you garden in the ground or in pots, let your improved soil age for two to three weeks before planting.

Scallions are simply the tasty results of planting ordinary onion sets (Allium cepa) "too deeply" and harvesting them "too soon." It's fun to grow your own "custom scallions" by buying the sets of red Bermuda or Spanish onions, yellow or white onions, or even Vidalia sweet onions, and planting them about 6 inches deep in a furrow, spacing them about 2 inches apart, then fill in the furrow with the soil you had dug out to create it. You can do the same with garlic and shallots.

Most of us think of the bulbs of the various Alliums as the edible part; the leaves are delicious too, snipped into dishes. I always plant a few entire garlic bulbs (Allium sativum) just to snip off their leaves to use as you would chives in salads, simple broths or rich casseroles. The flavor is warmer, richer and less biting than the bulb cloves themselves. Harvesting the leaves will slowly exhaust the bulb, so plant one new garlic bulb per month from October through March for months of culinary bliss.

Stuff a few fistfuls of garlic leaves into your blender, pour in some extra-virgin olive oil, and buzz it all into a kind of "garlic pesto." Pour it into ice cube trays and freeze, then store the cubes in freezer bags for an anytime fix of fresh garlic flavor.

While Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum) can be an acquired taste (they remind some folks of the related edible ornamental "society garlic" Tulbaghia violacea), they are very productive and will multiply quickly by fallen seeds and self division into a massive clump in the vegetable or flower garden (they produce lovely tall white flower stalks reminiscent of petite agapanthus blooms).

I cut off handfuls of the semisweet, oniony-garlicy straplike leaves and chop them with my kitchen scissors into soups, stir fry and casseroles, or raw as part of the filling in spring rolls.

The underground portion resembles a narrow scallion and can be used as such if peeled, though the flavor is more potent, hence the nickname "garlic chives" usually seen in garden centers.

The true chives (Allium schoenoprasum) are tough to grow in Florida. But that unique flavor is wonderful in cheesy pasta dishes so I try them annually. I'd love to hear from someone who has learned how to get vigorous perennial growth from them in Central Florida.

John A. Starnes Jr. can be reached at johnastarnes@msn.com.

Cool weather signals the time to plant onions, garlic 10/24/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 5:03pm]
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