For many centuries gourmet Chefs have highly prized Shallots for their delicate Onion/Garlic flavour which is considered superior to Onions in many cooking recipes. They are closely related to Chives, Garlic, Leeks as well as Chinese Onions. These bulbs are often considered to be Middle Eastern natives but may well have come from farther afield as wildlings of Central and Sothwestern Asia where they have been harvested from the wild for thousands of years. Shallots feature green, leafy tops that when finely chopped are an excellent substitute for Chives. The chopped or sliced bulbs are wonderful in salads, especially the smaller French varieties. The much larger Russian Shallots are also very popular when preserved as pickles.
Seed can be sown throughout the warmer months outdoors as soon as all danger of frost has passed. They can also be started from seed indoors up to six weeks earlier prior to the last frost. The grassy seedlings are easily transplanted. They are handled and grown in much the same way as Onions. Tops and sometimes even roots are trimmed back lightly when transplanting advanced seedlings into their final growing position. This makes them easier to handle and helps set the bulb into active growth. Seedlings can reach maturity in as little as 90 days but in cool and damp climates may take a little longer. Being true perennials, they can be left in the ground and continuously harvested as necessary when grown in the right environment.
These are basically cool to temperate climate bulbs. They can tolerate light freezing and worse provided they are mulched against freezing ground. Dry conditions later in Spring through the warmer months help them dry out and go dormant. They are not well suited to subtropical climates where hot, humid Summer weather brings frequent tropical rain when they need dry weather. In their growing months they prefer cooler, damper weather and require plenty of moisture for strongest development. Then drier conditions are essential as Summer approaches.
Mid and Late Summer are also excellent times to sow the seed of Shallot direct where they are meant to grow. Alternatively, start them in their own private seed patch or even seedling flats or pots. This gives them time to produce small bulbs during this growing season. These will reach maturity by Summer the following year. Often this method produces bigger bulbs. But these small bulbs must be carried through Winter. So Gardeners in borderline colder/wetter climates usually harvest these small bulbs; store them over the Winter ; then replant them in Spring. If the small bulbs are left in the ground, they will need mulching against ground freezing in colder climates. In climates with wet Winters be certain that the soil and growing position remains perfectly drained. Or consider covering them with a sheet of clear polycarbonate once they are completely dormant to insure that the bulbs remain dry until growth resumes in the Spring. Growing from seed is well worth it if the intention is to produce a large harvest.
A faster method instead of sowing their seed is to start them from large or small Shallot bulbs, called 'sets'. These cost more but save time so often appeal to the home Gardener. Shallot sets become available for planting from late Summer through mid Winter. Shallot bulbs purchased from the local market work well for this purpose. Simply break off individual cloves and press these lightly into the cultivated and prepared soil. Larger mature bulbs can be cut top to bottom into wedge-shaped pieces. Each must have a small section of both the top and basal crown attached. Dust the fresh open cuts in sulphur or powdered charcoal. Let them dry out and callus for a few days before planting. Place them about 10cm apart each way and bury them to about half their depth. Leave the top half exposed above the ground. As the bulb crowns multiply keep their tops exposed to create firm, healthy mature bulbs.
Because Shallots are heavy feeders and fairly small in stature (usually 1-2ft/30-60cm tall) they do not compete well with weeds. Weeds rob their food as well as their sunlight and air circulation. Nor do they like to have disturbance to their shallow root system. Some Gardeners get around this problem by growing them within sheets of weedmat or black plastic. Others prefer to mulch lightly around the growing bulbs. Otherwise, cultivate frquently but carefully and lightly.
Plant the small bulbs either in early Spring in very cold climates or from late Summer throughout the Autumn and Winter. Their growing position must be in a fully sunny, open site in rich and well-draining soil. Prior to planting, enrich the soil with wood ashes, compost, peat and/or 4 handfuls per square meter of general plant food dug in lightly. Much like Onions, in their early stages of growth Shallots require a considerable amount of nitrogen feeding to produce abundant foliage. Each new leaf adds another layer to the developing bulb. So the more leaves; the bigger the bulbs. Liquid feeding with fish emulsion, liquid blood and bone or manure tea is an ideal organic way to grow them quickly. Granular fertilizers high in nitrogen can also be used to side-dress along their rows but keep the fertilizer off the growing shoots to avoid burning tender growth.
In the wild, Shallots naturally grow in airy and open settings in very freely draining soils or sloping sites. The wild varieties also often grow in open fields and meadows that have little other competition from taller plants. Thus they are perfectly suited to raised beds. They are best grown on their own or with plenty of space as they will not tolerate other plants overshadowing them. A raised bed also insures the perfect drainage that they demand. Shallots can also be grown in larger tubs and planter boxes. Here they work best when harvested for their foliage or smaller bulbs. Larger bulbs are usually produced only in open ground environments unless expertly fed.
In heavier soils the bulbs can be planted in a small pocket of sand, river gravel or pumice which will help keep the young bulbs from rotting in wet weather. But be warned that Shallots really demand perfect drainage and prefer soils with an acid pH of 6.2-6.8. They also require a continual supply of moisture, especially in the early months as they develop. Heavy clay soils easily water-log so almost always fail. Once the bulbs begin to mature as summery heat arrives, this moisture must be cut back so that the foliage begins to wither and the bulbs become fully mature and ripe. If Summer rains look imminent, consider covering the bed to insure the maturing bulbs continue to dry out and don't remain wet. Additional rain or wet soil around the bulbs as they reach maturity could trigger additional green growth that might keep the bulbs from fully maturing properly or even ruin the harvest for long-term preservation.
Once the foliage has completely withered the bulbs have entered dormancy. This usually happens around mid Summer and sometimes earlier in a dry year. This is when Shallots are ready for harvesting as bulbs for long-term perservation. Once harvested, clean the bulbs of soil. It is best to do this without wetting the bulbs. Then spread them out flat with space between them and let the bulbs cure in an airy, dry, shaded and warm environment, like a carport, covered veranda or garden shed for about a week. Turn the bulbs occassionally and use this opportunity to examine them. Remove anything damaged or soft for immediate use at that time. Once the outer skin is dry and papery and the bulbs appear to be thoroughly dry they are ready for long-term storage. Store your Shallot delicacies in mesh bags or open boxes placed in an airy, cool, dark and dry location where they will reward the gourmet for many months to come.
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