It’s All About Alliums

When you come across pungent, sinus clearing vegetables, they’re probably Alliums and hail from the Allium genus.

That description doesn’t necessarily conjure up images of a delicious meal, but Alliums are some of the most commonly used vegetables in South African cooking. Onions and garlic are two household staples, with leeks, chives and spring onions also  forming part of this genus.

The versatility of Alliums makes them a number one choice for vegetable gardens and  guarantees you will be able to enjoy the fruits (or in this case, veggies) of your labour regularly.


Thankfully onions (Allium cepa) are typically as easy to grow as they are to eat, although some patience is required as the whole process takes about 4 – 7 months. When sowing seeds, sow in rows with 15cm between each row and 10cm between seeds. Make sure they are planted in full sun and are not shaded by any other vegetables in your garden. As they are a ‘longer’ crop to grow and have high nutrient requirements, onions need to be fertilised regularly before harvesting. They also need to be watered well and regularly.

Harvesting can begin once the leaves start to fall over or turn yellow. While they may look tough, onions can bruise easily so take care when digging up the bulbs to ensure a long shelf life.

Leave the onions in the sun for a day or two to dry out before storing. There are endless savoury dishes that use onions as a base. Although many people typically use them for their strong flavour, onions are nutrient-dense vegetables that have a high vitamin and mineral content with few calories, making them great for overall wellbeing. They are also a healthy alternative to other flavour enhancers that usually contain either fat, salt or sugar. Sprinkle them fresh over salads, roasted on sandwiches or throw a few chunks into a stew for the unmistakable onion tang.

Spring Onion

The clue is in the name here – spring onions are the same as regular onions but harvested in spring before the bulbs swell. As onion seeds don’t last very long when unplanted, you can potentially use any leftover seeds from previous onion planting to grow spring onions. The process is the same with the only difference being harvesting time.

While the flavour of spring onions is much milder, it is still powerful. Both the bulbs and the stems can be eaten, and the tops make a punchy garnish to add to eggs or stir-fries. It is also an essential ingredient in many dipping sauces, pairing well with soy sauce and honey. Make sure you use the spring onions soon after harvesting as they only last around five days.


Garlic (Allium sativum) can be used to enhance the flavour of almost any dish. Your taste buds certainly will appreciate your bounty of fresh garden garlic.

To plant garlic, split the head into individual cloves and plant 15cm apart with the tip of the clove facing upwards, then cover with a layer of mulch. Leaves should develop within a month or two and indicate how many cloves the bulb will have. If flowers begin to appear, remove them as they can affect the growth of the garlic.

Like with onions, it is time to harvest once the majority of the leaves start turning yellow or brown. Dig out the bulbs, being careful not to pull or break the stem as this can lead to rotting. To cure, tie a few together in a bundle or plait the stems and hang to dry for 4 – 6 weeks. Trim the roots and stems and store in a mesh bag for later use.

Garlic works particularly well with the classic Italian dishes of pizza and pasta. Garlic not only tastes great but has unbelievable health benefits – boosting your immune system, lowering blood pressure and preventing heart disease – and it can even be used as an antibiotic of sorts. As my family would say, you can never have too much garlic!


Leeks are often overlooked as they tend to be pricier and seemingly more difficult to use than their more common cousins. However, leeks grown from your own garden cut the costs and give you quick access to a milder and sweeter alternative to onions and garlic. Plant seeds in deep holes to allow space for the roots and thick, juicy systems. Keep the seeds moist during germination to allow leaves to form – this may take time. When the plants reach 20cm high, begin fertilising regularly. To keep stems white, gather soil around the stems up to the leaf sheaf.

The great benefit of leeks is that they can be harvested whenever you need them. You can typically just pull them out of the ground but if there is resistance, dig them out gently with a fork. If you are after the chunky white stem, wait about 4 months before harvesting for the plant to reach full maturity.

Leeks are most well known for their use in leek and potato soup, but many people miss out on the other uses of this unusual vegetable. The whole plant can be used in a multitude of dishes, some favourites being pies, egg dishes and pastas. It also carries the properties of other alliums in fighting colds and flu (hence the association with soups). One of the chief benefits for wannabe chefs is that out of all the veggies in this family, leeks are arguably the ‘prettiest’ and can instantly make any simple dish more glamorous.


As raw garlic pieces are not usually anyone’s idea of a great fresh garnish, chives are a herb alternative with a much milder flavour. Depending on what tastes you want to emulate, you can choose to plant either onion chives (Allium schoenoprasum) or garlic chives (Allium tuberosum).

Onion chives have tubular, hollow leaves with purple flowers and garlic chives have flat leaves and white star-shaped flowers in summer.

Chives are easily grown from seeds or seedlings when planted in full sun and moist soil. Keep soil moist throughout the growing period with a layer of mulch. If flowers appear and bloom, make sure to remove them before the seeds spread as they tend to take over gardens, but don’t throw them away as the flowers are also edible. Chives can be harvested in only 1 – 2 months. When harvesting don’t cut only the tops off as this damages the plant – cut down to just above the base.

Only harvest when you plan to use your chives as they tend to lose their flavour when left to dry. Divide the plants in spring as they grow better when divided regularly.

Almost all egg and cheese dishes pair well with chives, which are best added at the end of cooking to retain the flavour. Asian-inspired foods like stir-fries or soups typically contain chives, and they can also be chopped and added to fresh bread. If you’re feeling adventurous, try using your chives in herb butter or add to summer cocktails.

Even though your morning breath may suffer, alliums are rewarding plants in their flavour and variety, taking your gardening and your cooking to the next level.

Alliums are the flavour of the day, every day!

The Gardener