Easier to grow than onions and with a sweeter, milder flavour – shallots are an excellent addition to any plot. Anthony Bennett reveals how to grow these tasty members of the allium tribe
Shallots are often overlooked in favour of their popular larger cousin, the onion, but there are many reasons why kitchen gardeners should be growing these delicious alliums instead. To start with, they offer a subtler, more refined flavour and are quicker to reach maturity.
Shallots thrive on the same sunny, well-drained sites as onions but can be planted much earlier in the year. Their dainty appearance hides a surprisingly hardy character, and once they are in the ground you’ll need to do very little. Like onions, most shallots are started off from miniature bulbs called sets. Rather than swelling to form one large bulb, however, each shallot set will divide up to form six to eight of a similar size. These reliable, delicious crops can be enjoyed from summer onwards and will store for an incredible length of time; it isn’t unusual for certain cultivars such as ‘Pikant’ or ‘Ouddorpse Bruine’ to remain sound for up to a year.
As with other alliums, shallots prefer to grow in a well-drained spot that has been manured for a previous crop. Good, firm sandy soils are ideal, as is loam. Clay will produce a satisfactory harvest, so long as it’s improved with plenty of compost to ensure adequate drainage.
Pick an area that’s in full sun and prepare the ground as early as possible so it has a chance to settle over the winter. Dig the area in autumn and, if the soil wasn’t enriched with organic matter before growing the previous crop, add a single bucketful of compost or well-rotted manure per square metre.
Over the winter, the ground will settle to form a bed. Before planting, rake the soil level and add a sprinkling of a general-purpose organic fertiliser such as blood, fish and bone. This final boost of nutrition will help the roots to establish themselves and give your crop the best possible start.
The easiest way to grow shallots is by planting sets. These immature bulbs can be bought from garden centres, but for the best choice of varieties it’s worth turning to specialist seed companies. These suppliers will be able to guarantee the healthiest, virus-free stock. As a guide, expect a kilo of shallot sets to yield around 4-5kg of useful bulbs. In ideal conditions, you may be lucky enough to achieve a much heavier harvest.
Traditionally, sets are planted on the shortest day of the year (21 December) and harvested on the longest (21 June). However, conditions in December are rarely suitable for getting crops in the ground, so it’s often better to plant your sets in late winter or early spring, from about the middle of February until the end of March – or early April in colder parts of the country. You may also be able to start the sets off in November to overwinter for an extra-early harvest. Autumn planting increases the ultimate weight of your crop and is reputed to improve flavour. However, this is only possible on well-drained soil, away from frost pockets. To begin, simply push your sets into the ground so that their lower half or three-quarters is buried. On heavier soil you may need to create a drill and space them out before feeding the earth back by hand to bury the bulbs. Place each set 15cm apart with 25cm between rows.
An alternative to autumn planting is to fill 7cm plastic pots with multipurpose compost in January and add one set to each container. Keep the pots lightly watered in a greenhouse, cold frame or polytunnel – they won’t require any additional warmth. When the shoots have sprouted and reached about 5cm the crop is ready to transfer to vegetable beds outside.
Newly planted sets will need to be watched carefully until they have taken root. You’ll know this has happened because they will start to shoot and then grow rapidly. Although frosthardy, repeated freezing and thawing of the ground can force sets out of the soil, so push back any that have moved. Similarly, keep an eye out for those that have been plucked out by hungry birds in winter as they will need re-firming.
Rabbits and other garden mammals can sometimes nip the tops off young shoots. If this becomes a problem, cover your crop with netting or fleece until the bulbs have grown larger and are less at risk from wildlife.
Sets started off in pots under cover will need to be moved to the same spacings as those planted directly into the soil. With their shoots rapidly growing, it is highly likely that the containers will be filled with roots at this stage. Try to transport the sets before they become pot-bound. Simply tap the shallot out of its pot and make a hole in the prepared ground with a trowel. Firm the rootball back into place and water in the plants.
Once your shallots have taken root and are successfully sprouted, there’s very little to do other than wait for a harvest. You can help the process along by weeding between the forming clumps of bulbs. Only use a hoe if you can be sure that you won’t damage the shallow roots; otherwise remove unwanted plants by hand. Shallots are relatively compact and their space-saving nature means weeding shouldn’t take a huge amount of time. You will need to water only in the very hottest weather.
Bolting – or premature running to seed – shouldn’t be a problem for the quick-growing plants unless particularly hot weather occurs. If you spot elongated flowering stems, cut them out so the crop isn’t compromised – if they are left to grow on, the plants will put their energy into reproduction instead of producing tasty veg. Pick a bolt-resistant variety if you want to be sure of avoiding the issue.
Towards the end of June or early July you can help the clumps of shallots mature by gently teasing back the soil from the bulbs. This will expose them to the sun and encourage ripening. If you don’t want to risk damaging the roots, leave the soil in place – you’ll still have a good harvest, though it may take a little longer.
Shallots are ready for lifting when the foliage has turned yellow and is beginning to wither. This will be any time from July to late August. To harvest your crop, angle a border fork beneath each clump and shake the bulbs free of the soil. If the weather is warm and rainfree, leave the shallots to dry on the ground; otherwise place them on raised racks in a wellventilated, warm spot such as a greenhouse.
After a few days, they should have dried off enough to flake away excess mud and loose skins. At this stage, cut away the now completely withered foliage and store the shallots. Separate them into individual bulbs or leave them as clumps that can be broken up when necessary.
Only keep healthy shallots that are clean and dry. Store them in an open net or an old pair of tights and hang them in a cool, dry place. They can remain like this until the following spring and the longest keepers will last right up until the next crop is ready for lifting. Alternatively, pickle small shallot bulbs in vinegar for a crunchy addition to salads.
Plant an early crop of shallots into individual 7cm pots of multipurpose compost under cover. Keep these carefully watered as they put down roots.
Begin planting outdoor shallot sets into prepared ground. Add a dressing of general-purpose fertiliser before you begin.
In most parts of the country, the best time to plant shallots is the beginning of March. Cover the sets so only the top quarter of each one pokes up through the ground.
Tease away soil from the base of each clump to help the bulbs ripen. Lift them as soon as the foliage has turned completely yellow.
Dry off lifted clumps in an airy place. This 'curing' process is essential if they are to store successfully for a number of months.
This should be the latest that your shallots will be ready. Store the bulbs in nets or tights, or pickle the smaller ones in vinegar for enjoying with salads and sandwiches.
Pickled And Sliced
Most shallots are either preserved in vinegar or stored for slicing fresh as a tasty base for soups and stews. Different cultivars will lend themselves to different uses, so be guided by a variety’s description to make sure you pick a shallot that’s suitable. Elongated larger bulbs are the ones to choose for slicing. These can reach up to 4cm in diameter and will make a luxurious substitute for onions. ‘Mikor’ and ‘Jermor’ are both good examples.
Pickled bulbs are prepared using smaller shallots – either tiny slicing varieties, or types specifically grown for this purpose such as ‘Picasso’. Peel off the skin then pack them into sterile, lidded jars before topping up with pickling vinegar. The latter is widely available in supermarkets, but if you can’t find any just sprinkle some pickling spice onto your prepared shallots and top up the jars with a quality malt vinegar. For a mild heat, drop in a few whole chillies.
Related Forum Topics
Shallots: Varieties To Try
Grow this bolt-resistant, virus-free performer from seed. It is highly productive and the bulbs taste delicious.
Hative De Niort
A very attractive shallot with a smooth, perfect skin and a beautiful shape. Choose these if you want to exhibit your bulbs at vegetable shows.
This highly-rated variety is one of the best to cook with, thanks to its intense flavour and long, easy-to-slice growing habit. It’s a good choice for French cuisine.
Shallots such as this RHS Award of Garden Merit-winner can also be grown from seed. The reward here is high yields of delicious, deep-red bulbs.
Pick this cultivar for French-style dishes. It boasts a reddish-copper skin and pink-tinged flesh, plus it has bags of taste. It is particularly suitable for storing, too.
The very longest-keeping variety, it can be kept soundly for months at a time in a dry, airy place. The deliciously aromatic bulbs have a pale-pink colour.
With its beautiful red skin and mild flavour, ‘Picasso’ is the perfect choice if you are growing shallots specifically for pickling. It is highly resistant to bolting, too.
Plant this cultivar as early as January for a fine crop of excellent-flavoured, early shallots. The small red-skinned bulbs keep very well, too.
These mild-tasting, versatile bulbs are great cooked or pickled. They are bright golden and store well.
Early to ripen, ‘Yellow Moon’ is a good choice to plant very early in the year and is resistant to bolting. As their name suggests, the round bulbs have a bright-yellow skin.
Shallots From Seed
More and more shallots have become available to start from seed. While sets are almost worryfree, sowing seed has its advantages, too: the bulbs won’t have the quality issues of a crop raised from vegetative material. This means that your harvest is guaranteed to be free of the viruses and bacteria that can sometimes taint sets. Seed-raised, F1 hybrid shallots have been bred to give the highest vigour, biggest yields and, in most cases, the best storage abilities. They are also much slower to bolt.
Sowing may take place in March or April into drills 1cm deep, with seeds spaced around 1cm apart. Each one will grow to form a single shallot bulb (not a full clump), which will be ready for lifting from around the end of August – a few weeks later than a set-raised crop. Both yellow and red-skinned shallots such as ‘Matador’ F1 are available to grow from seed.