When you are shopping for spring-flowering bulbs this fall, keep an eye out for shallot sets. As you plant your garlic, make room for some of these tasty little onions, too. You can even interplant them in your flower bed alongside the tulip, crocus, and hyacinth bulbs. Their oniony odor can keep rodents at bay while giving you early shallots to enjoy.
What are Shallots?
Think of shallots as small, delicate, mild, sweet versions of onions without the strong, pungent, and sometimes hot taste that some onions can have. They are indeed a cultivar of the onion (Allium); the shallots' species name is Allium cepa.
I confess that I have not tried planting shallots from sets in the fall. We have always planted them from seed in the spring. Then I was told that the "shallots" I was growing weren't considered "true" shallots. They were just small, mild onions or crosses of shallots and onions.
Not a true shallot, this shallot-onion variety is called Cuisse de Poulet—"chicken thigh"—because of its shape.
According to many connoisseurs of all things onion, the truest of the true shallots is the French Gray also called "griselle." In terms of "true" shallots, there are also Dutch shallots, red shallots, yellow shallots, white shallots, and even purple shallots.
One reason French Grey Shallots, aka Griselle, is the "true" shallot is because is can only be propagated from bulbs, not seeds. These "true" shallots have an even sweeter, milder taste than the "shallot onion" cross. For cooks and foodies, they are considered more of a "gourmet" shallot, known to have an especially rich, luxuriant flavor and creamy texture.
This year, I am going to try fall planting of some "genuine" shallots and see what all the fuss is about!
Grey Griselle Shallots—"true" shallots are little, teardrop-shaped bulbs with a grey-tan exterior and pinkish-purple flesh.
When to Plant Shallots
Fall planting works for gardens in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 8. Any colder and your sets will probably not survive; you will need to plant them in the spring instead. By planting in the spring, you will still get shallots, but they will be smaller and not quite as flavorful as the fall-planted ones. In warm gardens further south, they will not get the day length they need to produce big bulbs unless you can find short day shallots, which will start producing bulbs with only 10 to 12 hours of daylight.
It's recommended that gardeners in Zones 9 to 11 grow multiplier or potato onions instead. They are very similar to shallots, producing clusters of onions from a single planted clove, and are good for hot climates.
Planting and Growing Shallots
Prepare the bed as you would for garlic. Both like well drained soil with plenty of organic matter, neutral pH and good fertility. It is important that the cloves don't sit in soggy soil all winter or they will rot so planting in raised beds or on raised ridges in the soil will help.
After your first frost, plant the individual cloves 6 inches apart, pointy end up and 2 to 3 inches deep. They are eager to grow and will send up green shoots in 10 to 14 days.
Like most onions, shallots are shallow-rooted and easily heaved out of the ground during alternate freeze-thaw cycles that occur over the winter. To protect against this add a 6 inch layer of mulch over the plants after the ground has frozen. Straw or shredded leaves work well and won't smother the early spring growth. It is up to you whether you want to remove the mulch in the spring or not. If you do remove it, you will have to keep up with weeding because their shallow roots don't compete well. If kept in place, you may want to thin it a bit so the new shoots can push through as they grow.
You can pull a few of the baby shallots from each clump to use as scallions in the spring if you wish; otherwise, wait till harvest time in mid-summer to enjoy them. Should your plants start to send up flower stalks in June, cut them off as you would garlic scapes to send energy back to making big bulbs.
Let the plants grow until the tops yellow and die back signaling harvest time! Your fall-planted shallots will be ready weeks before the spring-planted shallots and onions.
Gently dig up the clusters of bulbs, shake off the dirt, then place them on screens or wire racks in a dry shady place to cure for about a week.
Store in a cool, dry, dark place (not the fridge) for winter. Use the thick-necked ones first, since they will not store well.
Note that these delicate shallots are not long keepers, so we enjoy cooking with them soon after harvest.
Be sure to save the biggest and best cloves to replant in the fall. Like garlic, they will adapt to your growing conditions over the years and give you great harvests each summer. One pound of sets should give you 40 to 50 cloves to plant. They are pricey, but as long as you save some to replant, you will never have to buy them again!