I am an onion addict. I use them in everything from soups to salads to sides and more. Back when I used to buy my onions, I went through about 5 pounds a week.
Now that I am trying to grow our food at home, I have learned just how hard it is to produce a year-round onion supply. Storage onions have to be planted in February. Then they have to be weeded, watered and nurtured until July. After that, they must be stored and cured.
To make matters worse, when spring rolls around, stored onions like to sprout and rot before I have a new harvest to replace them. Spring and bunching onions help cover the gaps from late spring to early summer. However, they take a lot of work too.
That's why, when I discovered Egyptian Walking Onions, I couldn't believe every gardener on the planet didn't have these. Who wouldn't want a perennial supply of delicious, entirely edible onion plants? Especially when they are so easy to grow!
What Are Egyptian Walking Onions?
Egyptian Walking Onions, also called tree onions and winter onions, are a cross between a shallot and a bunching onion regarding taste. These perennial onions also look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. They make a great addition to an edible or permaculture landscape.
All parts of the plant are edible. In early spring, the greens and young bulbs can be used as scallions. This plant also produces edible bulbs both above and below ground.
As a perennial, it takes longer to get started than annual onions. In the first year, the plant primarily produces onion greens. However, in the second year of growth, the magic begins.
First, the onion tops will start to grow taller than your typical onion greens. As the tops get taller, they gather at the tips as if they are going to make flower heads and seed.
They may develop a few small flowers. Generally, the thing you will notice is these beautiful little mini-onions clustered in a bouquet, growing out of the greens. The bulbets will increase and intensify in color.
Soon, the weight of those top set bulbets begins to fold the greens over toward the ground. When this happens, if left to their own devices, those top sets will replant themselves and grow more onion plants. This process is why people call these Egyptian “Walking” Onions.
Below ground, the original bulb divides and makes more bulbs. Like multiplier onions, you can harvest the bulbs around the outside to eat. As long as you leave at least one bulb in the ground, the plant will grow the following year again.
Egyptian Walking Onion Varieties
You may come across three different Latin names for Egyptian Walking Onions including Allium cepa var. proliferum, Allium cepa var. bulbiferous, and Allium cepa var. viviparum. There aren't multiple “varieties” of Egyptian Walking Onions. These are all just different ways of describing the same plant.
Despite being an “old-time” kind of onion, these are a bit of a novelty vegetable today. As such, growers have not cultivated lots of different choices. I suspect, given their increasing popularity, we might see new varieties emerge in the future.
For now, just finding bulbs to plant can be tough. Check places like Etsy, Amazon, edible and permaculture focused nurseries, and specialty vegetable offerings from reputable seed companies.
How to Plant Egyptian Walking Onions
These perennial onions can be started using either the top set bulbs that form above ground or by planting the bunching bulbs from below ground.
Planting the underground bulb will usually produce larger greens in the first year. However, by the second year of growth, both underground bulbs and top sets tend to produce similarly-sized onion plants. The top set bulbs are usually the easiest to buy.
Tip 1: When to Plant
You can plant these perennial onions any time the ground can be worked. Bulbs for planting are easier to find in late summer and fall when they are harvested.
Tip 2: Planting Requirements
Egyptian Walking Onions are hardy for USDA planting zones 3 – 9. Some people say they can grow in zone 10 as well.
These plants begin growing green tops in late winter, even in cooler regions. They can also withstand early frosts and snow falls in colder areas.
Tip 3: Sunlight Requirements
Egyptian walking onions prefer full sun. They can also tolerate partial shade. Though, they will not be as productive as full-sun grown plants.
Tip 4: Soil Requirements
Egyptian Walking Onions are related to the annual onions you grow in your garden. As such, they very much appreciate good vegetable garden soil. Lots of organic matter and a soil pH that oscillates around 6.5 will give you the healthiest, most productive plants.
That being said, these plants are also relatively tolerant of less than perfect soils. As a test, I planted some bulbs in a heavy clay area, overrun with weeds, on a slope. I covered about a square foot area with two inches of compost. Otherwise, though, I left the plant alone.
Those bulbs had a much slower start and never grew quite as tall as my plants in good garden soil. However, they still produce bulbs above and below ground every year. Even in less than ideal soil to start, by adding compost to your onion patch each year, you can get good yields with Egyptian Walking Onions.
Like most other members of the allium family, these plants do better with good soil drainage. Again, though, many growers have reported that these plants have even survived flood conditions.
Tip 5: Ways to Plant
Since these plants are so cold and heat hardy and will happily replant themselves to expand your crop from year to year, the best way to plant your bulbs is direct in the ground.
You can plant these in raised beds, prepared garden rows, edible landscapes, permaculture food forests, and more. If you have boggy soil, you may want to consider planting them in large containers for better drainage.
You can also plant the top set bulbs as annuals to harvest for the greens during the summer and the bulb in fall. I prefer them as perennials though. Treating them as annuals is about as labor intensive as planting spring, scallion, or long-storing onions. Also, yields are better when plants are grown as perennials.
Tip 6: What to Expect
Depending on what time of year you plant, it can take days to weeks for the onion greens to break ground. In the first year, you most likely will not have any top set bulbs. If you plant in fall or early spring, you may be able to harvest the underground multiplier bulbs in year one.
In the second year, top set bulbs should appear. They may be small in size their first year, but the bulbs tend to increase in size every year. Often, you will even see top sets growing out of other top sets as the plants grow older and stronger.
Around year three, you will need to divide the underground bulbs to avoid crowding. This involves digging up and harvesting the bulbs around the outer edges to eat (or replant).
Tip 7: Plant Spacing
If you are planting a patch of these perennial onions with the intention of harvesting both the top sets and the underground bulbs, give plants about at least one square foot of space each. This will allow for proper air circulation and a wide zone for roots to access minerals and nutrients.
To make harvesting easier, keep a one-foot wide access path between each row.
If you are planting a patch so it can “walk” and expand on its own, note that these plants can walk about 18-24 inches in a year. Your prevailing wind will likely influence the direction that they walk in (as in away from the wind). However, you can also direct where they replant by re-positioning the seed sets where you want them.
Now, there is some controversy over how to deep to plant the bulbs. Since the top sets are designed to plant themselves, I plant those about 1 inch deep to encourage faster sprouting.
If you are willing to wait a while for germination, you can also just put the top sets on the ground and cover them with compost. With a few showers of rain and time, they will plant themselves deeper and begin growing.
The underground multiplier-type bulb seems to do better when I start them deeper in the soil. I set those at about 2 inches deep to get the best results.
Some growers even plant their bulbs in as deep as 3 inches.
How to Care for Egyptian Walking Onions
You have probably surmised by now that these onions won't need a whole lot of care to keep them growing. This is absolutely true. However, a little extra attention goes a long way toward making these plants more productive.
I have had plants go dormant during a summer drought. The leaves died back to the ground, and the plant did not re-emerge again until spring.
Based on this experience, I recommend weekly watering to simulate one inch of rain when rain is sparse.
Mature Plant Fertility Management
Most onions don't like the direct application of nitrogen. Egyptian Walking onions are no different.
My favorite method for fertilizing my perennial onions is trench composting. I'll dig a 6-inch deep trench between my rows or about 1-foot up-slope from my patch. Then, I'll add some browns and greens to the trench and cover it back over with soil. As they compost, they'll feed the plants and feed the surrounding soil.
If you don't want to use your own compost materials to fertilize your onions, you can apply an inch or two of finished compost to the top of your beds each fall to add back organic matter and nutrients.
Also, consider adding organic matter to your beds every year or two. A few inches of mulched leaves, straw, or hardwood mulch are good slow-nitrogen options for perennial onion beds. Apply in fall, after you have harvested. Mulching can also minimize weed pressure and increase yields.
When growing annual onions, rotating your rows annually is a good practice to prevent pest and pathogen problems. This is a bit more difficult with perennial onions.
If you have more than the occasional instance of root rot in your underground bulb, or if you have persistent pest problems, consider relocating your patch every 3-4 years.
Common Problems with Growing Egyptian Walking Onions
Egyptian walking onions are one of my favorite kinds of onions because they are so easy to care for and have almost no problems. However, plants under stress may be susceptible to issues that healthy plants can resist.
1. Onion Thrips
Thrips are tiny fly-like critters with four wings. They have sucking mouthparts that puncture the onion greens and suck out plant juices. Mostly, these insects are too small to damage mature, healthy plants. Large infestations of thrips, though, can take out an entire crop.
You can identify their damage by the whitish spots or streaks on the leaves where they have been feeding.
For large infestations, regular applications of neem oil can help deter these pests.
If this is a recurring problem, avoid mass plantings of onions. Instead, plant in smaller plots surrounded by plants from other families to confuse these pests. Also, avoid planting onions near cabbage or other brassicas since onion thrips feed on those plants as well.
2. Fungal Diseases
Egyptian Walking Onions can also be susceptible to various fungal diseases like Black Spot and Powdery Mildew.
Fungal diseases are commonly found in the soil. Thankfully, they generally cause plants harm only when plants are in poor health, are over-watered, or do not have enough air circulation. Since fungal pathogens can live in the soil a long time and may already be present, prevention is the best answer.
Give plants enough space for proper air circulation. Plant in well-draining soil. Mulch underneath plants to prevent transmission of the pathogen to the plant leaves. Water the soil, not the plant leaves.
Best Companions for Egyptian Walking Onions
1. Use as a General Pest Deterrent
Egyptian Walking Onions make great companions for most fruits and vegetables. Plant them on the southside of fruit trees and bushes as a natural pest deterrent. Use them around your garden area to repel vermin, deer, and rabbits.
Egyptian Walking Onions are one of the few plants that can grow in proximity to walnut trees. Jugulone in walnut roots prevents many other plants from growing. This plant makes an excellent companion for Walnut-based food forests, as long as you give it sufficient sunlight.
Worst Companions for Egyptian Walking Onions
1. Anything in the Brassica Family
Harvesting Egyptian Walking Onions
Harvesting your walking onions is easy.
- Cut the greens in early spring to use like scallions or chives.
- Cut and break apart the top set bulbs from mid-summer to fall and use as you would chives or garlic.
- Dig around the root mass in late summer or fall beginning in the second year of planting. Harvest the outer multiplier bulbs to use like other onions. Leave one or two bulbs in the ground for next year's production.
Storing Egyptian Walking Onions
Storing your onions is also easy. You can cure the bulbs and top sets by storing them in a place with good air circulation and temperatures of about 75 – 85ºF for three days to two weeks (depending on bulb size). Keep them out of direct sunlight during the curing period.
Store the cured bulbs in a cool basement or cellar for several months. Because the bulbs are so small and delicious, you can also use these fresh from the garden.
If you love onions, then trust me, you will want to add these incredible perennial beauties to your landscape or vegetable garden. They also make a great conversation piece if you plant them near your outdoor dining area.
Kids love their shapes and adults love their flavor. Think about starting your patch today!