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Top-setting Onions, also known as Tree Onions or Walking Onions (sometimes Egyptian Walking Onions), are an unusual, variety of the common onion, Allium cepa, that produces large, top-sets (botanically known as ‘bulbils’) – which make an excellent substitute for spring or salad onions – on the end of the long flower stalks which, on more common varieties, would typically bear the inflorescences. These can also be cut in early or mid autumn, and cured and stored for use over the winter, or for planting in the spring.
The variety we’re offering here is a perennial heirloom originally from Missouri, USA. The main bulbs from which the plant grows are a rich, red-purple colour. These will bulk up underground and slowly divide from year to year, somewhat like shallots or potato onions (both part of the Allium cepa aggregatum group).
Left to their own devices, the clusters of bulbils will eventually flop down to the ground and take root. And if unattended for a couple of seasons, they will live up to their name by walking around your garden or allotment (albeit at something of a saunter).
Plants prefer a sunny, sheltered spot with fertile, free-draining soil, as like most onions they do not appreciate prolonged water-logging. They are fully hardy in most (probably all) of the UK – we are based a few miles outside Middlesborough, in the North-East of England, and have grown them outside, in open ground and in planters, without winter protection, for the last 7 years.
They are generally unfussy, but benefit from an occasional feed with a general liquid fertilizer. If your soil is particularly heavy, it may be worth introducing some compost or manure, which will opens up the soil, retain moisture during drier periods, and provide nutrients for your growing plants.
If the flower stems, on which the top-sets will be produced, are particularly tall, or heavily laden, it can help to provide some support.
It’s generally best to leave at least 15cm between plants, as over-crowding your plants can increase the risk of pests like mildew and leek rust.