Horticulture Magazine

How To Grow Shallots

numerous shallot plants in a large field

Plant Overview

Official Plant NameShallots
Plant TypeVegetable / Bulb
Native AreaCentral & South-West Asia
Hardiness RatingH4-H5
ToxicityEdible
When To SowJanuary, February, March, April, November, December
Harvesting MonthsJuly, August
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun

Exposure
Exposed or Sheltered

Size

Height
0.1 – 0.5M

Spread
0 – 0.1M

Soil

Preferred
Most Soil Types

Moisture
Well drained

pH
Any

Although they’re similar, shallots and onions lend very different nuances to dishes. Whereas onion brings a distinct heat, shallots offer something sweeter, and more delicate.

If you’re already familiar with shallots you’ll know how much they can bring to your cooking, and if not, then now’s the time to get acquainted.

shallots in a bowl on a wooden tabletop
Shallots: A welcome addition to any pantry

In this guide, we’ll teach you what you need to know to get a bumper crop of shallots growing in your garden. Then, you can ensure a plentiful supply to fuel new culinary exploits, to the delight of your friends and family.

What are shallots?

You may be wondering, are shallots onions? Technically they are, as they’re a member of the same botanical family. But in terms of the vegetable we commonly refer to as “an” onion, there are a few key differences –

  • Firstly, size. Shallots weigh in a lot smaller than onions, usually around 20g a piece compared to over 100g per onion.
  • Next, shape. Onions are round, but shallots can come in elongated oval shapes. You do get round shallots as well, however.
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, is flavour. Shallots and onions bring very different characteristics to a dish. If you’re looking for a gentler, sweeter variation on the onion theme, then shallots are for you.

Why grow shallots?

When it comes to gardening, shallots are easy to grow and perfectly suited to British gardens. If you’ve never grown them before, you’ll be able to get started by following this guide. There are plenty of varieties, too, meaning you can choose the one(s) best suited to your gardening skills and eventual culinary plans.

Then, in the kitchen, you can begin to explore recipes that make the most out of the shallot’s distinct flavour profile. We’ll include a couple of quick recipes in the final section to point you in the right direction.

How to grow them

Like most vegetables that have become staples in British cuisine, shallots are easy to grow here. They’re not fussy about soil type, location, or anything else. Planted properly and with a vigilant eye, you should have no problem between sowing and harvesting your crop.

In this section we’ll introduce the optimal growing conditions for your shallots, along with ongoing care tips, and potential problems to keep a look out for. Soon, you’ll be the proud owner of a healthy and bountiful shallot plot.

purple and green shallots
One day, all this could be yours

How to plant your shallots

You have two choices when growing shallots: To grow from seed, or from sets. Seeds don’t need an introduction, but if you’re not familiar with sets, they’re bulbs that haven’t reached full maturity, and which can be planted out to start a new crop.

Received wisdom when growing shallots is that starting from sets is easier and, usually, will lead to a better harvest. This is because they mature more quickly, are more resilient to cold, and are less appealing to garden pests.

When sowing your shallot sets, you’ve got a wide time window to work with. You can sow any time between mid-November and mid-March. From seed, you’ve only got mid-March to mid-April to work with.

You’ll want to plant your sets in rows at least 40cm apart, with individual sets between 25-30cm apart in each row. This may seem like too much space when you plant them, but it gives the set space to mature and flourish without disturbing nearby growth.

Planting shallots is easy: Just poke the set gently into the ground so that the tip is just visible, then pat down the topsoil to keep them secure.

Where to grow them

For best results, try to find a spot with moist but well-drained soil that gets full sunlight during the day. You can use a rake to get particularly big lumps out of the top layer of soil just before planting: This will reduce obstruction for your growing shallots, helping them to grow better.

Fertilising

Before planting your shallots, fertilise the ground where they’ll be planted with one or two buckets of compost, manure, or similar. Then, after planting, add a small amount of fertiliser to the topsoil.

Watering

Shallots thrive when they get 2-3cm of water per week, especially at the height of growing season. Unless you’ve had an unusually dry spell, they should be OK with minimal watering. Using a rain gauge to check is one way to be sure they’re getting enough.

Harvesting shallots

Because of the long planting season, you can harvest shallots at different times of the year. Generally, shallots planted in autumn will be ready to harvest early the following summer, and those planted in spring should be ready when autumn rolls around. Expect to wait around 90 days.

You can tell when your shallots are ready to harvest because the vibrant green foliage starts to wither, turning brown and drying out, then, eventually, drooping down from their previously erect stature.

When they’re ready to pick, gently remove your shallots from the ground. You can do this by hand or by using a fork or similar implement to shimmy them out of the soil. It’s easiest to harvest when the soil is dry, so unless you’re forecast for a lot of rain, wait until the weather is conducive.

Storing shallots

We figure you’re not planning to eat your entire harvest in one go, so unless you’re feeling generous and intend to give them all away, you’ll need to learn about shallot storage.

The first step is to dry them out. The ideal way to achieve this is by leaving your harvested shallots on top of the soil they came from for a couple of days, so they can dry out in the sun. If wet weather is forecast, leave them to dry indoors instead.

Then, once dried, trim any remaining foliage from the top of your shallots, and store them in a cool, dry place. Stored properly, you can expect your shallots to keep for at least two months. If they start to look mouldy or dishevelled, or they begin to sprout, this can indicate that they may have passed their best.

Troubleshooting common problems

Shallots are prone to a few problems, but by staying vigilant and familiarising yourself with the risks, you should be able to avoid anything particularly disastrous happening.

As a general rule, try to keep the foliage on your shallots dry when watering them. Lots of the common problems they face arise from getting wet and staying damp.

Weeds

Any gardener knows that weeds will find their way into pretty much any part of your garden, whether ornamental or edible. And while shallots are no exception to this avarice, you can grow them beneath weed suppressing membrane to reduce the chance of invasion, and effort required to hold an invasion at bay.

Shallots will grow stronger and healthier if kept free of weeds, so try your best to keep on top of the weeding.

Birds

Inquisitive beaks love nothing more than to pull up bulbs in an attempt to determine whether they’re edible. If they are, say goodbye to your bulbs. And if not, don’t expect the birds to plant them again for you.

To stop potentially disruptive bird visitations, grow your shallots beneath a layer of netting. Birds won’t be able to get a purchase, but the plant will still get enough sunlight and moisture – win win!

Onion white rot

This fungus damages the above ground foliage as well as the roots and bulb, causing a lot of damage to your fledgling shallots. Unfortunately there’s no cure for infected soil, so be very careful to plant your shallots in fresh soil, or in spots you’re certain are free of infection.

an onion with white rot
That’s shallot of damage

Onion mildew

This is another fungal disease which can wreak havoc upon foliage and bulbs. Unlike white rot it’s possible to curb the damage in an infected plant by removing affected areas, but you need to act early to avoid too much damage.

Onion mildew is particularly prone to affect shallots growing in overly-damp conditions – an important reminder to only water when necessary, to only water the soil (rather than the entire plant), and in allowing proper drainage.

Cooking with shallots

As we touched on earlier, shallots bring a subtly different set of flavours to cooking to their onion cousins. Gone is the vibrant heat, replaced instead with a gentle sweetness. Lots of classical French recipes use shallots instead of onion to avoid overpowering elements, alluding to the quality and versatility of this ingredient.

Below, we’ve rounded up a few shallot recipes to get you started. They’re light on specifics because this is a gardening article rather than a cooking blog, but they should serve to point you in the right direction.

Mignonette sauce

Simple, delicious, and a perfect showcase of shallots’ unique charm, mignonette sauce is the favourite pairing with oysters. Simply chop shallots finely, marinade in red wine vinegar, and add salt and sugar to taste.

oysters and mignonette sauce on ice
The only way to eat oysters

Roasted shallots

While we can’t imagine tucking into a whole onion, shallots’ gentleness makes them perfect candidates for roasting. Peel and trim the ends off, then put into a roasting tin with olive oil, brown sugar, and balsamic vinegar. Roast on medium heat for about 20 minutes, and enjoy.

Salads

Adding onion to salads is a contentious decision. Some people love it, but others see it as an inherent violation of everything a salad should stand for: Gentle flavours, delicate harmony, and not detectable on your breath an hour after eating.

If you’re not a fan of onions in salad but want to add a little extra zing, then shallots could be the answer. Chop one or two very finely and toss into a salad, and you’re good to go.

Shallot of fun

Growing shallots is an excellent endeavour for any gardener, whether you’re an aspiring newbie or a seasoned pro. They’re cheap, easy to grow, versatile, and often delicious, and promise to open up whole new opportunities in your kitchen.

This guide has outlined what you need to know to get a healthy crop of shallots established and thriving in your garden. Now it’s up to you – we wish you the best of luck in getting acquainted with this excellent little vegetable.

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