Shallots are a type of small, sweet onion, and are equally easy to grow, with a similar need for full sun and free-draining soil. They’re usually grown from small immature
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There are many shallot varieties to choose from, producing bulbs of various shapes, colours and sizes, with different flavours and levels of sweetness. Bulbs can be rounded, teardrop shaped or elongated. Some varieties store particularly well, others may be resistant to disease or bolting.
Varieties with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) should produce a reliably good crop – see our list of AGM fruit and veg.
Sets or seeds?
Shallots can be started from seed or more usually from sets (immature bulbs). Each set produces a cluster of new bulbs, whereas a seed produces just one.
Sets are easier and quicker to grow, fare better in colder regions and are less likely to be attacked by certain pests and diseases. However, they are more expensive and must be planted soon after buying. Choose heat-treated sets to reduce the risk of boltin (flowering).
Seeds are cheaper to buy and a packet should last several years. Seed-raised plants are less likely to bolt, but grow more slowly and need more attention in the early stages.
What and where to buy
Preparing the Ground
To produce a good crop, shallots need a sunny, sheltered site with fertile, well-drained soil. Avoid growing in damp soil, as this makes the crop more prone to fungal diseases.
Shallots have a limited root system, so improving the soil with organic matter before sowing or planting is invaluable – fork in a bucketful of well-rotted (not fresh) manure or garden compost per square metre/yard. This adds nutrients, improves the soil structure and helps to hold moisture in the soil.
Also apply a high potassium general fertiliser, such as Vitax Q4, at a rate of one handful per square metre/yard.
Shallots won’t do well in acid soil (below pH 6.5), so reduce acidity, if necessary, by adding lime in autumn or winter.
Shallots are best suited to growing in the ground, but you could grow a short row or two in a large, deep container or raised bed. However, they’re not suitable for growing bags.
Growing from sets
Prepare the planting site as explained above. Then plant the sets 2cm (¾in) deep in drills or gently push them individually into loose soil, so the tip is just showing at the surface. Space them 15–20cm (6–8in) apart, in rows 30–45cm (12–18in) apart. Firm the soil around the sets and water well. Birds have a tendency to peck newly planted sets out of the ground, so cover with fleece until they’ve rooted in.
Another planting option is to cover the ground with black weed-suppressing membrane, then plant the sets through slits. This reduces the need for weeding, which both saves time and avoids any accidental damage to the bulbs when hoeing.
Growing from seed
Although usually grown from sets, shallots can be grown from seed, sown either indoors or outside. Seed is cheaper to buy, but slower to grow and the seedlings need more careful attention, however seed-grown plants can be less susceptible to bolting (flowering).
To ensure a good crop, seed-raised plants must be growing strongly by late spring, as the lengthening days trigger the formation of bulbs – the more leaves that plants have at this time, the better the bulbs will be.
Sow shallot seeds in late winter into modular trays filled with seed compost. Sow five or six seeds per module, then thin out if necessary to three or four seedlings. Each seed will only produce one shallot bulb, so multi-seeded modules are a good way to produce a clump of bulbs.
After sowing, place the tray in a heated propagator in a greenhouse, or on a warm sunny windowsill, at 10–16°C (50–60°F). Seedlings should appear within a couple of weeks. Remove from the propagator, place in a warm bright spot and keep the compost moist.
In spring, harden off indoor-sown plants to acclimatise them to outdoor conditions, before planting into the ground or a large container. Don’t split up multi-seeded modules into individual plants – just plant them as they are, to form a clump of bulbs. Space the clumps 15–20cm (6–8in) apart, in rows 30–45cm (12–18in) apart. Gently firm the soil around the seedlings and water well.
Sow the seeds thinly, in drills 1cm (½in) deep, spacing rows 20cm (8in) apart. Protect the seedlings from slugs and snails, especially in damp weather.
Thin out the seedlings first to 5cm (2in) apart, then later to 10cm (4in). Closer spacing will result in more bulbs and a heavier overall crop, but smaller individual bulbs.
Water shallots in prolonged dry spells every fortnight, but stop watering once the bulbs have swollen in mid-summer. Watering spring-planted crops after mid-summer can mean they store less successfully.
Try to avoid overhead watering, as this can encourage fungal diseases.
In late winter, give autumn-planted shallots a nitrogen-rich fertiliser, such as sulphate of ammonia, at a rate of 35g (1oz) per square metre/yard. This not only enhances growth but can also suppress premature flowering (bolting). Alternatively, use dry poultry manure.
You can also give an occasional feed with a general liquid fertiliser, from spring to mid-summer.
Weed between plants regularly, taking care not to damage the bulbs or foliage if using a hoe – ideally, weed by hand.
As the leaves cast little shade, weeds grow readily and can soon swamp the crop, which would reduce the plants’ growth and subsequent bulb size.
To avoid the need for weeding, consider planting through weed-suppressing membrane.
Remove any flower stems as soon as they start to form (bolting), otherwise the plant’s energy will go into producing the flower, rather than swelling the bulbs. It also means the bulbs won’t store well.
Use a hand fork to gently lever the clusters of bulbs out of the ground, taking care not to bruise them, as this could lead to rotting in storage. Carefully separate the clusters into individual bulbs. The bulbs can either be used straight away or dried and stored for later use.
Shallots generally store really well, for at least six to eight months.
When ready for storage, all the foliage should be dry and papery. Only store perfect, undamaged bulbs. Trim off any remaining dried foliage, then place the bulbs in net bags or trays in a single layer and store in a light, cool, dry and well-ventilated place. Avoid storing in the dark, as this encourages sprouting.
Shallots are easy to grow and relatively trouble free, although they can be affected by various fungal diseases, especially in damp growing conditions or if poorly stored. These include onion neck rot, leek rust, onion white rot and onion downy mildew.
Potential pests include onion fly, as well as slugs and snails, which can eat the foliage. Birds tend to pull up newly planted sets, so cover them with fleece until well rooted.
Flowering (bolting), triggered by low temperatures in spring, means bulbs won’t store well.
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