Get started with perennial onions

How to Get Started with Perennial Onions

Perennial onions are a fantastic option for replacing traditional onions with a perennial crop. But there are several types of perennial onions and it can be confusing to know where to start. Some are best used as green onions, while others produce onion bulbs that you can harvest and use. Ready to get started? Let’s dive into these great perennial crops!

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Perennial onions aren’t the same as regular store-bought onions. They’re often a bit stronger, and some are better as green onions, whereas others work great for traditional onion bulbs.

But since they’re perennial vegetables, they have the great advantage of not needing to be planted every year.

Let’s dive into the different options for getting started with perennial onions by looking at 2 core groups:

  1. Native perennial onions
  2. Domesticated perennial onions

Both groups are great options. But when possible, it’s great to grow native perennial onions since, like all native plants, they’re fully integrated into the living world around them. This means they are often better for supporting wildlife—and you can still get a great harvest from them!

And perennial onions aren’t the only perennial root crops you can grow. Make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet that covers 11 different perennial root crops.

Native Perennial Onions

Nodding onions are a great native onion

I just love the flowers on nodding onions—and so do bees and other pollinators!

Did you know that there are native onions that grow wild all over temperate climates? If you’re from eastern Canada or the eastern United States, you might be familiar with ramps, also known as wild leeks (Allium tricoccum).

But there are many other types of native onions.

Here in western Washington, we’ve got 2 great native perennial onions:

  1. Hooker’s onion – Allium acuminatum
  2. Nodding onion – Allium cernuum

Nodding onion is also native across much of the United States and parts of Canada. And Hooker’s onion is native across much of the western United States and part of western Canada.

Check out the links above to see range maps for both of these plants.

Both can be used as a replacement for green onions, and you can harvest their bulbs for use like regular onions.

But the bulbs for both of these types are fairly small.

This tends to be the downside when it comes to growing native onions—they generally have small bulbs making them harder to use than traditional onions.

Though they do have a strong onion flavor. And I’ve found they spread quite easily and tend to grow in bunches.

Wild Tip:

But a big advantage of growing native onions is that they support wildlife, including native bees. Planting native edible plants like these onions is a great way to not only get food for you and your family but also help heal the natural world around you.

But they’re great as a leek or green onion replacement, and they can be used as an alternative to chives, too. You can just mix them in all over around your fruit trees, shrubs and other growing areas and just harvest the greens as you need them.

They really are wonderful perennial onions.

Ready to get started with these great native onions? Here is some additional information about each of these great native onions.

Info on Nodding Onion – Allium cernuum:

  • First Harvest: 2nd year
  • USDA Climate Zone: 3-10
  • Sunlight Requirement: Full sun
  • Plant Size at Maturity: 1.5 feet (0.5 meters) high and wide
  • Purchase: Potted Plants 
  • Note: Does spread by seed but easy to manage. Produces a number of greens for harvest and small bulbs. 

Info on Hooker’s Onion – Allium acuminatum:

  • First Harvest: 2nd year
  • USDA Climate Zone: 5-9
  • Sunlight Requirement: Full sun
  • Plant Size at Maturity: 1 foot (0.3 meters) high and wide
  • Purchase: Potted Plants 
  • Note: Does spread by seed but easy to manage. Produces a number of greens for harvest and small bulbs. 

Info on Ramps (Wild Leeks) – Allium tricoccum:

  • First Harvest: Greens in 2nd or 3rd year, bulbs once the patch has expanded
  • USDA Climate Zone: 4-7
  • Sunlight Requirement: Partial shade - needs spring sun before surrounding trees leaf out and then shade after.
  • Plant Size at Maturity: 18-24 inches (45-60 cm) tall
  • Purchase: Plugs - Etsy is another good place to look for seeds and potentially bulbs
  • Note: Ramps aren't easy to get established and you need to give them time to expand and fill in at least a small area before you start to harvest them heavily.

Domesticated Perennial Onions

Try growing perennial onions like potato onions

This box has 2lbs of potato onions that I can’t wait to plant! While these are small, they should produce larger onion bulbs by next fall.

While native onions are a great option, they do tend to be smaller than the onions you’re used to. But there are domesticated perennial onions that can fill this space.

The reason onions in the grocery stores are big is that they’re domesticated varieties that have been selected to produce large onions.

Wild growing onions haven’t gone through this process, but the domesticated perennial onions have.

A great example is the potato or multiplier onion – Allium cepa var. aggregatum.

These onions produce a bunch of onion bulbs for each one that is planted. Some of these will be fairly small, but some will also be decent sized—up to 3 or 4 inches (7.6 to 10.2 cm). Though they’re still on the small side compared to the onions you’re likely to find in the grocery store.

But they also have a stronger flavor than grocery store onions, so being smaller really isn’t an issue.

And these onions can be stored for a very long time—up to 18 months!

By summer, these onions will likely be dormant, so you can harvest them as you need them. Just replant some of the bulbs as you go or leave them in the ground, and they will keep coming back year after year.

Because of these characteristics, multiplier onions were often grown by homesteaders and in cottage gardens. They didn’t fall out of favor in mainstream society until the switch to more mechanized farming practices and the decline in people growing their own food.

Wild Tip:

Perennial onions like all perennial plants can also help you build healthy soil on your property. You can read more about why perennial plants build soil here.

When you think of it this way, it’s strange to think of people growing anything but perennial onions in a home garden.

But you can bring these great perennial onions back by planting them on your property. And you can start with a small number and just spread them around as they multiply.

Here’s some additional information to help you get started with these great perennial onions.

Info on Potato/Multiplier Onions – Allium cepa var. aggregatum:

  • First Harvest: 1st year
  • USDA Climate Zone: 4+ likely to 9 or 10
  • Sunlight Requirement: Full sun
  • Plant Size at Maturity: 1 foot (0.3 meters) high and wide
  • Purchase: bulbs 
  • Note: A domesticated perennial onion that is really a great option for home gardens.

Moving Forward with these Great Onions

Nodding onions are great perennial onions and native onions

I’ve got perennial onions scattered all around my property, and I’m adding more each year.

I love growing perennial onions. They’re a great way to shift away from annual/biannual vegetables towards perennial vegetables.

Native onions are best grown in other perennial growing areas like food forests, hedgerows or just planted around your ornamental shrubs and trees.

Though you can add them to your vegetable garden. I’ve done this in my kitchen garden and they’re a great addition.

Potato/multiplier onions can similarly be grown in perennial growing areas. But since they’re domesticated, they also do well in regular vegetable gardens.

If you’ve got a bed you normally plant traditional onions in, try switching them out with potato onions. This really is a great way to start adding perennial vegetables to your vegetable garden.

And if you’re interested in getting started with more perennial vegetables, here are some posts that can help you move forward.

Perennial Vegetables Series

Want to learn more about perennial vegetables? Check out this series to learn more about these fantastic perennial foods.

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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, a lifelong gardener, and the founder of Wild Homesteading. He manages the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he applies restoration and sustainable gardening techniques on his family’s own wild homestead. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children. In addition, to running this site Daron manages the restoration program for a local non-profit and is a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to 2 perfect kids.

  • Dee says:

    So lovely to know about these onions!

  • Linda D Evans says:

    Where can one purchase the Hooker’s onions and the Domestic Perennial onion? I haven’t been able to track them down in British Columbia.

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