One particular type of allium bulb is an essential component to many European dishes – shallots. How to grow them is usually not the first thought on anyone’s mind, but the minute they see the price for them at the market, growing shallots suddenly becomes a whole lot more important.
So today we’re going to talk about Allium cepa, previously known as Allium ascalonicum. This onion produces a large bulb that looks like any old onion until its outer skin is removed, at which point it suddenly resembles garlic with large cloves. Inside each of those cloves, it suddenly looks like an onion again, with layer upon layer of goodness.
Milder than the onion, far milder than garlic, and less likely than either to give you bad breath, you’ll find shallot bulbs to be an easy addition to your garden. And at a fraction of a price to the supermarket shallots, you’ll be able to incorporate them into your regular rotation of garden-fresh veggies!
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Quick Care Guide
|Common Name(s)||Shallot, multiplier onions, eschalot, French shallot, red shallot, grey shallot, griselle, potato onion|
|Scientific Name||Allium cepa aggregatum, Allium ascalonicum, Allium oschaninii|
|Days to Harvest||90-120 days|
|Light||Full sun to partial shade|
|Water:||At least 1” of water per week|
|Soil||Well-draining loose soil|
|Fertilizer||Compost at planting. Dilute fish emulsion no more than 1x monthly.|
|Pests||Onion maggot, thrips|
|Diseases||Downy mildew, neck rot, white rot|
All About Shallots
The subtler flavor of shallot is an incredible addition to your cooking. But the plant itself is also an incredible addition to your garden!
Believed to originate in the southwestern or central parts of Asia, the popularity of this onion family member spread rapidly to India. From there, it jumped to the Mediterranean, and to the rest of the world after that. Rumored to have been transported from these various points by the Phoenicians,
What do shallots look like? A shallot growing in its bed might look like a cluster of young bunching onions at a quick glance. But shallots, growing as they do from a singular clove, actually form a garlic-like cluster of bulbs in a small space. You’ll have a bunch of green tops springing up from the soil.
Like their other allium relatives, they can flower, but it’s much tastier to harvest the shallot scapes once they shoot up. The end of the scape, when ready to harvest, has a distinctive artist’s brush shape. If left alone, the inverted teardrop shape will begin to swell and turn into a round, bristly flower. But if harvested early, shallot scapes are a fantastic bonus of growing these plants!
The tubular leaves can be harvested as well, and are a bit milder than a spring onion or scallion. I prefer to leave them in place as they provide a great identifier for when the shallot is approaching harvest time, but a few clipped off early in the shallot’s lifespan won’t hurt the plant.
Should your shallot successfully flower, don’t expect the seeds it forms to be viable. Most shallots have been cross-bred so extensively that they don’t produce viable seed.
Types of Shallots
While all shallots all grow similarly, different variations exist. Some shallot bulbs are reddish in hue, with a red to red-brown papery exterior. Others are a true brown, and still others are greyish in coloration.
We often refer to these different types as French reds, French greys, or “potato onions” for the brownish variety. To some, the greys are considered a “true shallot”, where the other types are less desired. The French are particularly fond of the greys for haute cuisine.
Popular varieties to grow include Allium oschaninii or the “French grey”, considered to be milder and more creamy in texture; Allium cepa “French red”, common in the US market; Allium cepa “Dutch yellow”, a “potato onion” variety with golden-yellow skin; and Allium cepa “Ambition”, with distinctively purple flesh and red skin.
As the seed is rarely if ever viable, shallots are planted from sets. These sets are dried cloves of shallot that are viable for replanting, often smallish in size, and easy to tuck into the ground.
Typically planted in the fall, shallots are an excellent cool-weather crop. This doesn’t mean they can’t take a little heat, so if you plant them in the very early spring you may have success as well. In fact, some can manage two harvests when planting in early spring and early fall, if they’re in the right climate! But typically, people will plant their shallots out in late summer to early fall as the weather begins to shift.
You’ll want a bed that’s got extremely well-draining and loose soil, packed with lots of valuable organic material. It needs to receive full sun if possible, but can also tolerate shade during the hottest parts of the day.
Plant just the base of each set, with the pointed tip visible just above the soil’s surface. Be sure that the soil is loose enough that the plant can push it out of its way as it grows! Space your plants about 6 inches apart to enable good bulb development. Any closer and you run the risk of crowding the plants out.
So now that you know how to plant shallots, what about growing them? Let’s go over some of the best techniques to grow your shallots well.
Sun and Temperature
In growing zones 4-10, shallots are easy to grow. They’ll need full sun for best growth. In zones 9-10, some partial shade is okay during the afternoon heat.
If you’re planting a fall crop you may want to provide a few inches of mulch around them to protect the bulbs from cold. This is nonessential in zones 9-10, but most other zones will benefit from the added cold protection. Spring crops don’t need the same mulch protection for cold, but will benefit from the moisture retention that mulching provides.
Watering and Humidity
Providing your shallots with about 1” of water per week is usually a good guideline. The soil should remain consistently and evenly moist. Water should not pool up on the surface and excess should easily drain off.
Soaker hoses and mulching can reduce the watering frequency, but they’ll still need enough moisture to produce healthy bulbs.
Rich, well drained soil with lots of organic matter is ideal for your shallots. It should have enough organic material that it easily retains moisture. Worm castings, aged composted manures like horse manure or cow manure, or plant-based composts can hold moisture for the bulbs to access.
The bulbs can’t develop in hard-packed clay. Ensure your growing medium is loose when you plant. Mulch around the shallots to prevent weed growth, as weeds can negatively impact developing bulbs.
The pH of the soil should be relatively neutral. The ideal range would be between 6.0 and 6.8 pH, but shallots can tolerate slightly higher or lower pH ranges for short periods of time.
Most of the fertility your bulbs will need comes from your preparation of the soil. If there’s a plentiful amount of organic material in the soil, they will grow well without additional help. At most, a diluted fish emulsion can be used monthly to provide an extra spike of nitrogen, but unnecessary if you prepared well.
No pruning is required for shallots. You may want to harvest some of the green tubular leaves for fresh eating, but be very selective if you do. You should be able to see individual stems coming up from the soil. To be sure they continue to grow to a reasonable size for harvest, don’t remove more than one leaf per stem.
Most shallots are sterile, and thus don’t produce viable seed. As they form in cloves, planting dried cloves that are sold as sets is the easiest way to propagate.
Plant sets in the fall or spring. As they start to put up green growth, mulch around them to retain moisture and protect the bulbs from cold or excess heat.
Harvesting and Storing
So your shallot garden has been producing, and it’s time to harvest your bulbs. How do you know when to harvest shallots? Is there a way to store them properly? Let’s talk about that.
When your shallots are ready to harvest, the green tops will start to droop and turn yellow. Once they’ve softened up and are yellowing, it’s time to get your shallots out of the soil.
Take a cultivator fork and loosen up the soil around the bulbs. They’re relatively shallow-rooted, so loosening the soil shouldn’t take too long. If they’re spaced 6 inches apart, you’ll be able to go along and loosen up the soil for the entire row all at once.
Dust off any remaining soil clinging to the roots, and place your shallots onto a tray to allow the outside to dry off. Then place them into an onion bag or other mesh container with lots of ventilation in a cool, dark place for further drying.
Store shallots in a cool, dark location in an onion bag or other mesh container at room temperature. You can use them at any time after harvest, but if they’re fresh, they will need to remain dry.
For longer-term storage, you can dice and freeze shallots. You can also caramelize and freeze them. Dehydration or frying can also be used for dry storage. If you’ve used part of a shallot, you can refrigerate the rest and use it within a day or two. They don’t store for long once the outer papery skin has been removed.
What problems will you encounter while you grow shallots? Are there any dangers to watch out for? Let’s talk about garden issues you’ll encounter while cultivating this delicious crop.
If your shallots are not spaced at least 6 inches apart, you may find they won’t grow to their potential size. The closest spacing you should have them at in your garden is about 4” apart, but even that may be too close together. For best growth, a minimum of 6” is recommended.
Weeds are a major issue for shallot growers. Not only do they compete for moisture and nutrition, but they also compete for space. As shallots really need their space, this can become a major issue. Keep weeds far away from your developing bulbs.
The onion maggot is the larvae of the onion fly. This maggot burrows into most allium bulbs as well as a few other bulbing plants. Where one maggot is, there’s always more, and as many as 50 can be consuming the inside of a shallot. Beneficial nematodes will attack and consume the larvae, rendering them no longer a problem. It’s best to apply these in the spring to give them time to clear the garden of maggot larvae in the soil.
While only really common on shallots in humid regions, downy mildew can become an issue. Regular applications of neem oil should keep this at bay.
Neck rot is a form of botrytis, Botrytis allii. This isn’t readily apparent while the plant is growing. However, once it’s in storage, the top of the shallots can begin to break down quickly. This disease is soilborne and once it’s already in the shallot, there is no way to eliminate it. Rotate crops to prevent the buildup of this form of botrytis in the soil. If you can, use fresh soil for your alliums every year.
Finally, white rot is caused by the fungus Stromatinia cepivora. This fungus can live in the soil for many years, and causes damage to all forms of allium. A whitish fungal mass will appear around the plants, sometimes speckled with black spots. Once infected, the soil is no longer safe to plant alliums in, and there are no remedies easily usable by the home gardener.
To avoid white rot, avoid planting alliums in the same location year after year. Place future crops at a distance from previously-infected locations, and sterilize tools. Use resistant seed sets for planting.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How long does it take to grow shallots?
A: Initially, your shallot sets will need about 30 days of cool temperatures to get established before growth. Once they begin to grow, you can start harvesting between 60-120 days later depending on the cultivar.
Q: Can you grow shallots from store bought shallots?
A: Yes, but there is some risk involved. Store-bought shallots may have been exposed to neck rot. That can infect your soil. It’s safer to buy disease-free sets from a reliable seller.
Q: Why are shallots so expensive?
A: In the United States, shallots are often treated as if they were tiny onions. And, as most people want big onions, that means they’re often ignored at the supermarket. As a result of the low demand, the supplies are smaller, and the prices are higher. They’re worth the effort!
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