The very first time I grew shallots from sets I knew I was on to a winner. Whereas onions produce just one bulb per planted set (immature bulb), shallots commonly produce anywhere between four and 12 bulbs per set. And their flavour is meltingly sweet, perfect in rich stews or topping an uncomplicated puff pastry tart – I’m thinking beetroot, shallot and goat’s cheese drizzled with balsamic vinegar…mmm!
When it comes to size, the shallot is a runt compared to the mighty onion, but then size isn’t everything! Shallots are handy if you only have a couple of mouths to feed and they’re quicker to cook than onions. But since they’re so diminutive, it’s well worth taking steps to ensure your shallots are primed to be as productive as possible.
Best Growing Conditions for Shallots
Shallots are pretty picky about their soil. For good yields, they need to be grown in rich, light, well-drained soil. Lighter soils allow the newly-emerging sets to expand and swell into fat bulbs, while heavy soils are less obliging. Shallots will rot in wet soil, so if your soil is very heavy and wet, you’ll be better off growing them in raised beds or perhaps containers.
The technique I use for planting shallots ensures light soil around the sets and plenty of nutrients for the growing plants to gorge themselves on. It’s also very simple!
A couple of weeks before planting, I spread about 5cm (2in) of garden compost onto the soil surface. A bulb planter, of the type used for planting tulips and other ornamental bulbs, makes an excellent tool for planting shallots and other alliums. Use it to excavate a plug of soil just a bit deeper than the size of the shallot set. I then drop a handful of organic poultry manure pellets into the hole, release all of the soil in the bulb planter back into the hole then plant the shallot set into the loosened soil. Only the elongated tip of the shallot should be left poking above the soil.
Alternatively, if your soil is on the heavy side, only put half of the soil back into the hole to start with. Position the shallot gently but firmly on top, then add the rest of the soil. This prevents potential damage to the set’s basal plate, from where the roots will grow, when you push it into the soil.
Inquisitive birds may pull up the odd shallot before they’ve had a chance to root in. A layer of fleece over the planting bed will prevent this from happening and will also help to protect your shallots from frost while they’re busy putting down those first anchoring roots.
Depending on your climate and the variety you’re growing, you can plant shallots in either autumn or late winter. Autumn plantings tend to yield better if your climate isn’t too cold or you can provide them with winter protection.
Improving Yields of Shallots
Spacing your shallots too closely will result in fewer, smaller shallots, while wider spacing encourages a higher yield of bigger bulbs. Equidistant spacing of 18cm (7in) is about right.
Weeds can quickly swamp shallots. You can scythe them down with a short-handled onion hoe, but weeding by hand is best to avoid accidentally damaging the developing shallots. Mulching regularly with organic matter will help to keep weed numbers down too.
As soon as your shallots are large enough you can harvest them for immediate use, but if you plan to store them they need to be left until the foliage starts to go yellow and keel over. Cure in the same way as for onions.
Lift your shallots carefully with a fork. The shallots can be separated into individual bulbs at once, or left together until you need them. Avoid bruising them, as damaged bulbs won’t keep. Perfect shallots should easily store until spring.
Saving Shallots for Replanting
My stored shallots are finally all gone, apart from those I set aside for replanting. The first time I bought shallots for growing I remember being appalled at the price for just a few sets. I soon found out that they do represent good value for money because each set begets up to a dozen harvested shallots.
If you save a few for replanting it makes the initial investment pretty much irrelevant. They don’t need any special care beyond the curing process; just replant in the exact same way as the original sets. You don’t even need to use the biggest, most beautiful shallots – just eat the big ’uns and replant the tiddlers. Despite their size they will still produce a good yield next year, honest!
Which variety you choose is important when planning for a bumper yield of shallots, as some are markedly more productive than others. ‘Golden Gourmet’ for instance is a yellow-skinned, bolt-resistant variety that produces larger bulbs that are less fussy to prepare in the kitchen. A staple in my garden is ‘Longor’ which, as the name suggests, is elongated in shape. I’ve found that it typically produces eight to ten decent-sized shallots per planted set.
We’d love to know your best tips for growing masses of shallots. Drop us a comment below and share them with us!