We love alliums but particularly onions in our family and the thought of cooking without onions was quite a challenge, especially for my partner, John. When I’d come back in from the garden with food for us to cook for the evening he’d look quite stressed at the thought of a meal without onions!! Of course we can grow ordinary onions up in Northland – the Institute has a Northland strain of Pukekohe Long Keeper that we’ve had very good crops from – but it isn’t easy and the crop isn’t guaranteed and in any case we never seem to be able to grow enough to meet our family’s needs.
Discovering the perennial alliums that the Institute holds in the Back Order collection has been a real blessing. I discovered Welsh Bunching Onions first and we enjoy these clump forming, spring onion-like onions very much – in salads but also used in cooking.
I have to confess though that my favourite of the perennial onions are the Egyptian Tree Onions. The variety that we have called Tree Onions Gerald de Koning are grown here in our garden and we just love them. These came to the Institute from Southland but have produced very good crops even up here in the Far North and I highly recommend them. Tree Onions (also known as “Walking Onions”) are a form of perennial onion. They form a clump of good sized onions over the growing season and often also flower and form bulbils on the top of the stem. This is what gives the Tree Onions their name – the flower stalk is tree-like (kind of!) with the cluster of bulbils at the top and once the bulbils become fully formed the weight can bend the stem down to the ground away from the mother plant and the bulbils can root. Hence the other name of “Walking Onions” as they “walk” across the garden.
We eat the larger of the onion bulbs and save the smaller bulbs for planting. One bulb planted results in a cluster of decent sized, elongated, brown skinned, mild, sweet onions. The bulbils are a bonus as these can also be planted. We use our tree onions in any way that other onions are used but I think my favourite is to roast them along with other veges. They have a beautiful sweet onion flavour when roasted and really compliment the other flavours. A few days ago we roasted Red Kuri pumpkin, Jimmy Nardello peppers, Paraparapara and Poporo kumara, Tree Onions and a few tomatoes together. Visually it was beautiful with all the different colours and the taste was amazing!
I plant my Tree Onions in May and harvest around December or January – this works well in Northland but the best time for planting does vary according to region. Our other Tree Onion grower, Richard Watson, told me he plants his bulbils straight away after harvesting in mid-february and that works well for him in his area (Canterbury). The most usual is to plant as I do in May or June but its good to experiment for what works best in your area.
The Brown Potato Onions are another good addition to our onion supply. These are also a clump forming onion but without the flower stalk. They form clusters of brown onions (can be as many as 12) that are smaller and rounder than the tree onions and also good to eat. Again you eat the largest but save good ones too for seed. These onions are great to eat roasted whole or peeled and added whole to stews but my absolutely favourite way to eat them is as lactic pickled onions. They are a perfect size for this, the pickling is very easy and they are deliciously addictive!
Additional comment – May 2019 – We now also have White Potato Onions in the collection. These are beautiful and like the brown ones make the most amazing pickled onions.
Garlic is of course another really important food and we’ve been growing several different varieties up here. It’s been great getting to know the new additions to the Institute range of garlics. I think the best this year has been Soft Top Pearl. This is one of the garlics that came to us from Henry Harrington so is from the South Island. This is the second year that I’ve grown it. It did well in Kaiwaka the first year and has been awesome up here in the Hokianga this year despite the prolonged drought we had. I grew two beds of it, an early planting (May) and a later one (June). I stuffed up harvesting the early bed – it looked amazing and the ends of the leaves had only browned very slightly so we left it well into January and when we harvested it the cloves had all sprouted in the stems. Obviously we couldn’t store the sprouted ones by hanging them up like or other garlics so we salvaged the disaster by pickling them. This has worked really well and we have jars and jars of garlic pickle to enjoy with our meals! Once I realised what had happened I harvested the later planted bed straight away which ended up just perfect. Big, firm, pearly white skinned bulbs of garlic. They are great because each bulb has several really big cloves that make peeling so easy. I’m very pleased with our crop and how they did in our hot, dry summer but some grown higher up one of the mountains near here did even better. These were grown by Simon and Shantina Land and are even bigger than ours. They are only a few kms from here but up high so colder but also they got all the rain that we didn’t get, so wetter too!
Another very good one this year has been Rocombole Early White. Again big firm, slightly cream coloured white cloves with a great flavour. As its a rocombole it also produces a flower stem that can be eaten. The flower stems on the rocomboles are such a bonus. We harvest them before the flower opens and usually eat them lightly stir fried – its like having a kind of garlicy flavoured asparagus. They are ready when the last of our stored garlic tends to have gone soft so we are missing that garlic flavour and removing them encourages the plant to put more effort into and therefore produce larger bulbs. Its a perfect system – we get an extra and delicious contribution to our food supply and improve the garlic bulbs at the same time!
New Zealand Purple are my favourite flower stems to eat – a good sized stem and very tasty! Great garlic bulbs too with the added bonus of being the most easy peel garlic I’ve ever come across.