Alliums Are Saviors Of The Summer
By Nancy Szerlag For The Detroit News October 23, 2004
Despite the lousy weather, my summer garden was filled with color this year, thanks to the dozens of alliums I planted the previous fall.
Gardeners often overlook alliums, also called flowering onions, because, like daffodils and tulips, they are bulbs and bulblike rhizomes that must be planted in fall in order to color up the landscape the following summer.
In my summer garden, plagued by wet weather, these hardy characters laughed at the cold and danced in the rain.
When the more delicate stemmed performers, such as “Drumstick” alliums, Allium sphaerocephalon, dipped and tipped under the weight of water, I gently shook the droplets from their heads and they stood tall with no additional support. Other thick-stemmed varieties, such as “Globemaster,” took the nasty weather in stride.
Most alliums produce globe-shaped flower heads tightly packed with dozens of tiny blossoms, but Allium cernuum, Allium bulgaricum and A. triquetrum produce pendulous bells that impart a more relaxed look. Allium schubertii looks like a giant star burst.
The handsome strap-like leaves of many alliums begin to wither by the time they come into bloom, but the tatty foliage is easily hidden by planting them behind leafy characters such as tall Sedums, big leafed Heucheras, large leafed perennial Geraniums and Lady’s Mantle.
Alliums gigantium, “Globemaster” and “Gladiator,” are the big boppers in the group. Sometime in June, Allium gigantium rises to 4 feet, producing bright purple heads that burgeon to 6 inches across.
Blooming later, the 3- to 4-foot tall “Gladiator” produces lavender blue clusters the size of softballs. The Big Daddy of the group, presents impressive 8- to 10-inch spheres in May and June. Its foliage remains green when in flower so it can take center stage in the front of the garden.
These large varieties of alliums are all short-lived, so plan on regular replacements. At $3 or more a pop, a big display of these friendly giants will set you back a chunk of change.
A majority of alliums flower in shades of purple, but there are many exceptions. Allium rosem, hardy to zone 5, sports dainty blush pink blossoms.
The heirloom, Allium flavum, produces small yellow bell-shaped flowers on 12-inch stems in a pendulous form in June and July. Hardy to zone 4, these pretties would be a good choice for northern cottage plantings.
The 8- to 10-inch high Allium karativiense “Ivory Queen,” with its 3-inch globes of ivory florets accented with soft green eyes, makes a regal display in May.
If you want blues in your garden, plant Allium caeruleum. Canadian gardeners call it “the blue of the heavens.” This native of the Russian steppes produces small round clusters of rich blue flowers atop 12- to 18-inch stems in June. Hardy to zone 4, it looks great in masses when among Nepeta and other silver plants in the garden.
Alliums look best when planted in bunches. For real impact, smaller varieties should be massed together in drifts. The larger species look best when bunched together in groups of five or six. Single plantings or bulbs set too far apart from one another tend to look like awkward orphans with no one to keep them company.
The blooms of alliums will last three weeks in the garden, and the seed heads of many continue to add interest throughout the year. They make great cut flowers and also are treasured for use in dried arrangements.
To dry, pick when the blossoms first emerge and place them upright in an empty glass or container.
Alliums require full sun and good drainage to flourish. They are best planted in partnership with plants that don’t require lots of water. Most allium bulbs go dormant after they bloom so give them too much water and the bulbs will rot away over the summer.
If you wish to naturalize them, don’t plant them in areas subjected to automatic watering systems.
Most gardening books suggest planting alliums in rich soil and fertilizing once or twice a year, but renowned English gardener Beth Chatto grows hundreds of alliums in her gravel garden filled with lean soil and they thrive and reseed to the point of almost becoming pests.
When planting, Chatto amends the soil with a shovel full of compost and passes on fertilizing.
Don’t overlook the common alliums, chives, Allium schoenoprasum, and garlic chives, Allium tuberosum, grown both as ornamentals and culinary treats, which are available at garden centers throughout much of the growing season. They are staples in the grandest gardens.
Christopher Lloyd, the world famous English garden writer and creator of the famed borders at Great Dixter in England, sings praises of the humble garlic chive in his most recent book, “Christopher Lloyd’s Garden Flowers,” (Timber Press, $39.95) recommending it as a self-sowing fringe for the perennial bed or border.
These charming white clusters of tiny white flowers give the garden a lift in late summer and early fall, providing a fresh look that may be sorely needed at that time of year.
Alliums don’t need deep planting in the soil, like tulips and daffodils. Most are sunk no more than twice the diameter of the bulb, so planting is a snap. Try them. You’re going to love them. I guarantee it.