March 13, 2010

Ode to alliums -- so much to love about garden 'lollipops'

— When most gardeners think of fall-planted bulbs, they picture the early bloomers such as daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and crocuses.

But alliums, or ornamental onions, can be planted now until the end of October, and provide blooms in late spring or summer.

''Alliums are just a little surprise -- or sometimes a big surprise -- in the garden,'' said Kathleen Carr Bailey of Portland, who runs a gardening company called Finishing Touches and recently taught a class in planting bulbs at Skillins Greenhouse in Falmouth.

Alliums are onions. The ornamental varieties have a more pronounced blossom than the chives, garlic or garden onions -- all alliums, by the way -- that you grow for food, but they all are related.

The ornamental types would be edible, but they are not grown for their taste and would be a lot costlier than the typical garden onions.

Carr Bailey likes to mix alliums with other plants in the garden, having the blossoms peek up over perennials like shasta daisies and baptisia.

''It is just great when you see these little purple lollipops hovering on top of those plants, in groups of three or five,'' she said.

Using companion plantings has the advantage of hiding the allium foliage, which can sometimes start to turn brown even before the blossom emerges, Carr Bailey said.

Alliums have a lot of variety to them -- in size, shape of blossom and color.

The standard allium is a purple ball on top of a stalk, and the purple can range from lilac to a deep, dark purple. But the blossoms can be white, pink, red and yellow as well.

Some alliums can grow to 3 or 4 feet tall with globes that are 14 inches in diameter, while other low growers have bulbs that are less than an inch in diameter.

This summer, Nancy planted allium schubertii right by our back door. This plant was about 18 inches tall, and had an airy blossom with long tendrils that looked a bit like a communications satellite with antennae going out in every direction.

Carr Bailey especially likes the large alliums, which she says can look like a low palm tree in the garden and make a strong statement.

With the smaller alliums, Carr Bailey likes to run a lot of them along walkways and along the edge of a garden border. She says the small ones can spread over a large area if left unchecked, so you want to keep an eye on them.

Alliums should be planted in sunny locations in rich, well-drained soil. As a general rule, you plant alliums three times as deep as the bulb is wide.

Many bulb packages will say how far apart to plant the bulbs, but Carr Bailey likes to plant them more closely. She says it doesn't seem to affect their growth, and she likes the effect of having a mass of blossoms together.

Being onions, alliums do emit a strong onion odor. That means deer and rodents will not eat them, and the odor will help keep deer away, Carr Bailey believes.

Because the alliums bloom so much later than the other bulbs, you can plant them in the same areas and have a succession of plantings over the course of the summer.

The alliums also make good cut flowers, looking great in a vase with other seasonal blossoms.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

tatwell@pressherald.com

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)