Growing Shallots to a High Standard
5th Jan 2000
Determination to Grow Better Shallots
I am determined this year to have a really serious attempt at growing shallots to a fairly good standard, something that I have been unable to achieve ever since I have been growing vegetables for the show bench. Shallots are extremely hardy in that they can withstand several degrees of frost without seemingly coming to no harm. Traditionally the shortest day used to be the correct time for planting them directly outdoors, but from my experience the ground is rarely in good condition at that time. At this time of year it's better to start them in a greenhouse or cold frame.
Last year I informed you that a grower down in the South had planted his shallots towards the end of September giving him good early growth together with strong root development prior to the Winter weather setting in. This proved to be of no use to me as the only area of ground that I had spare was along side my polytunnel resulting in the winter rains running off the polytunnel causing most of them to rot off. Some growers however have had success doing this and were able to harvest the bulbs earlier giving them better shaped specimens.
Shaping the Shallot
The eventual shape of the shallot as it is displayed on the showbench is crucial and satisfying this criteria undoubtedly is the problem that most growers get. The majority of bulbs very often end up misshapen or bulging out, not having good form. This is the main reason that the large exhibition type shallot is now awarded a maximum of 18 points because of the degree of difficulty in achieving a perfect specimen. In the latest RHS show handbook which is now available, 'shapely bulbs of good form" is considered meritorious. The NVS judges guide goes even further and states that ‘single bulbs of good shape with circular outline' are meritorious.
Preventing Bulging Shallots
How can we then prevent these bulbs from bulging out or getting ‘pregnant' a word often used by exhibitors to describe this very real problem. I intend to start mine off during the next week which is later than usual and each bulb will be individually potted up into 3 inch pots in Levington M2. There have been a number of theories put forward when planting the bulbs that should prevent the shallots from doubling up. Some will use a knife to cut right through the bulb from the neck down through the centre of the root plate. Others tell you to start them into growth and then when they have about 50mm of green top they are shaken out of their pots and split into single specimens.
This is best done very carefully using a sharp knife cutting through the outer flesh or layer of skins until you get to the single specimens that eventual make up the whole bulb. As the shallot would normally grow in the garden it would eventually split up into a number of bulbs, the quantity being mainly dependant on the weather and growing conditions the previous year. So what we do is thin the bulbs down prematurely in the hope that this will prevent them going double. Once the you have exposed the single young shallot plants, still attached to the mother root plate, you must then split between each shallot and through the root plate using a razor blade.
You must be sure that each young shallot seedling has some roots still attached to the root plate. From previous experience this is a very delicate operation and great care must be exercised when potting each one up into single 3 inch pots so that the roots do not snap off. Another way is to do nothing until the bulbs are growing in their beds and thin them down when they naturally begin to split away. My father has had some measure of success in the past by taking drastic action and thinning them down to just one single bulb. The bulbs admittedly were bigger but he still had a lot that eventually went double. The infuriating thing about this is the fact that very often when you harvest them they appear to be perfectly round only to go misshapen over the following weeks as the dry out.
The answer therefore must lie with the timing of their removal from the soil and not to any of the above criteria, and I feel that there really is no fixed date as such but depends on when the bulbs start into secondary growth. The problem is that once the bulbs have started into secondary growth it's impossible to prevent it happening and the bulbs will still grow out of shape when lifted. It is therefore critical when the bulbs are lifted, a careful watch on their growth pattern must be the order at this time. The timing will depend on the season but the critical sign is when the bulbs have stopped pushing up any new leaves from the centre.
Once this happens it's too late and inevitably you will end up with miss shapen specimens, the rule therefore must be to lift them earlier than usual and not wait for increased growth by which point it may well be too late. Another thing to remember is to grow them quickly without any check to growth so that they attain their optimum size in the shortest possible time.
Some Good Books for the Shallot Grower
There are two good books that I would recommend you try and get hold of on this subject, I'm not sure whether they are still in print but you might be able to get them from your local Library. The first was by the late great showman Tom Fenton and called ‘Growing and Showing Vegetables' (1984) which was part of a series by the publishers David and Charles Ltd, Brunel House, Newton Abbot. ISBN0 7153-8577-1.
The other is called ‘Growing Onions and Shallots' (1986) with Bill Rodger and Jim Kirkness and written by Daniel a Calderbank. At the time it was published by Ross Anderson Publications of Bolton. ISBN 0-86360-027-1. There is an excellent section in this book by Jim Kirkness covering every angle of growing shallots and if you can get hold of it, it is really good reading as you will also have an insight into how Bill Roger grew his heavy onions nearly 15 years ago.