Little Egyptian onions and big elephant garlic

The Egyptian onions that have made it to the table in our home of late have been roughly golf-ball size or slightly smaller, which means they barely rate a mention alongside all those giants from the commercial fields of Texas. But I am delighted with them just the same. Not only are they almost perfect dinner-plate size, but they are a whole lot larger than usual for the breed.

I mention this because the waning weeks of summer are an appropriate time to divide and replant Egyptian onions. Then when fall rolls around you can turn your attention to garlic and elephant garlic.

Egyptian onions, sometimes known as the poor man's onion because they bear a cluster of miniature onions on the end of a seed stalk each fall, are generally used as green scallions in spring salads. Or they can be cooked and served as ''miniature leeks'' early in the year.

That was the way we used them in our home until a reader contacted me one day to say that I wasn't getting nearly as much mileage out of my Egyptian onion bed as I should. His message: Prune off the flower heads as soon as they form and all the energy that would go into forming the top bulbs is diverted to the bulb at the base.

It's an effective technique, and whoever prepares the dinner will tell you how much simpler it is to peel a ''decent onion for a change.'' In my opinion, too, the onion at the base has more flavor than the top onions.

My approach with Egyptian onions is to remove the seed pods from a majority of the plants in the bed, leaving two or three to flower in the usual way. These form the stock for the following year's crop through division of the parent plants and by planting the bulblets as well.

Garlic, as most of us know, is a far-from-gentle member of the onion family. There's bite and fire in every clove, and chefs who seek the subtle flavor of garlic in their dishes know that one clove goes a long way - unless you're using the elephant variety. As the name suggests, elephant garlic is big, but it's also mild. While mine don't reach the size of some growers', they are considerably larger than the conventional garlic I also grow.

Garlic (elephant or conventional) can be planted in spring or fall, but in the cooler regions of the country the fall-planted crop gives the heavier yield. That's because garlic requires a long growing season and the fall-rooted plant is all geared up and ready to go the moment the spring thaw rolls around.

Garlic requires a month of mild soil temperatures if it is to root effectively before the deep freezes roll around. So many growers set theirs out at the same time they plant their tulips and other spring-flowering bulbs.

On the other hand, garlic will tolerate earlier planting. My elephant garlic went into the ground in early September last year, several weeks before the optimum planting date. The result was a flush of tall green leaves, which naturally died back in winter, on every plant. Even so, the plants sent new leaves up again in the spring and the harvest was moderately good. For best results no more than one or two small leaves should be poking through the ground when the cold weather arrives.

All members of the onion family seem to thrive in an organically rich soil. Compost and aged manure dug into the top 4 inches of soil, together with a dusting of wood ashes or lime (if your soil is not alkaline), will give satisying yields.

Plant the garlic 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart (a little deeper and somewhat wider apart for elephant garlic) in raised beds so that poor drainage is never a problem. I set out the Egyptian onions 4 inches apart and just deep enough to cover the bulbs. Both garlic and onions are mulched with shredded leaves over winter. This is removed in the early spring so that the soil can warm up and then be replaced again in late May.

Egyptian onions and garlic cloves are available from several mail-order seed houses, but elephant garlic is less easy to come by. Two sources in the United States are Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190 North Pacific Highway, Albany, Ore. 97321, and Parks Seeds, PO Box 31, Greenwood, S.C. 29646. A Canadian source is Dacha Barinka, 46232 Strathcona Road, Chilliwack, British Columbia V2P 3T2.

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