Gosh I love growing shallots. Maybe more than I enjoy growing potatoes? No. Not quite that much. But I do enjoy growing them. Quite shallot, actually. I love growing them because they’re easy. In fact, I would say they are hands-down the easiest thing I grow in my garden.

I grow Henry’s Flowering Shallots. I purchased a couple of bags from Koanga Institute in 2020 and planted them amongst the garlic. That first year, I planted them too deep, and I planted too many. But by the time I pulled them up, I had more than I knew what to do with!

I learned a few lessons, and last year I planted in half a dozen good quality shallots I’d put aside from my first harvest. Once again, this summer I probably pulled out more than we needed for the year.

Not quite an onion

I use shallots primarily as an onion substitute in my cooking. I find them considerably easier to grow, and their milder taste suits Richard’s palate more.

I don’t grow onions for a couple of reasons: firstly, onions are super cheap to buy at around $2/kg. Even though I have a very large garden, I have limited space like everyone. I tend to prioritise my space for things that are better fresh, or which will save us money over a year.

There’s no benefit to consuming onions fresh, and the space they would occupy is better put towards our potato or leek growing.

Secondly, I can never get my onion seed to germinate and thrive in the garden. When I have succeeded in germinating onions, they’re either tiny, or they get big and rot before I can harvest them. I’ve never had any luck, and $3 worth will last us a few months, so why bother?

But shallots take up hardly any space in the garden (around half a square meter for 6), and they grow mostly throughout the cooler months. By the time I’m pulling them up in December, the space is ready for a second round of summer veges like tomatoes or cucumbers to run us into autumn.

They also retail at about $12/kg. Within 2 seasons, my original purchase investment has been paid off a few times over. Growing shallots is both a money saver and a convenience. They aren’t regularly stocked in our supermarket, so if I didn’t grow them I’d have to go out of my way to source them when they’re called for in a recipe.

Planting shallots

I plant my shallots on or around the shortest day, but anywhere from May to July will work. They take about 6 months to grow, and each planted shallot will multiply into 12-25 shallots by the end of the season.

Shallots like a nicely drained soil (not boggy) in full sun. They will appreciate some fresh compost and lime around them when planted.

I space mine the same way I space my garlic – 20cm apart in rows 30cm apart.

When they go in, bury two-thirds of the shallot in the soil, with one-third above the soil. Make sure the root-end is facing down and the leaf-end is facing up. You’ll notice new green leaves appearing within a few weeks.

Try to keep weeds off them, but that’s really about all the care they need until harvesting. You can mulch them for bonus points, but they’ll grow happily without this step too.

Harvest

You can generally harvest around Christmas (or a bit earlier or later if you didn’t plant in June). You should see the tops starting to die back.

Lift the shallots after a sunny period. You want them to be as dry as possible. Harvesting after rains reduces their ability to keep. 5 or 6 days of sun should be enough to dry them out enough to store.

Tidying up last year's shallot harvest

Lay them out to dry off in the sun for a bit, then separate them, removing soil and old skins to tidy them up. Lay flat in an airy warm dark place until the tops dry off.

Store in a cool dark place in an old onion bag or paper bag. Storing with the tops on will help them keep longer.

Seed saving

One of the things I do as I get them through to storage is look at saving a few for next year. Last year I did 6 and I’m pretty sure that’ll be enough for the year for us.

Once the shallots are dry, I look for 6 medium-sized, plump, damage-free shallots. I always save my best shallots for planting on.

This year, I’m trying something a bit different. Not all shallots have flowers, but Henry’s Flowering Shallots sometimes do. They did in the last season for us. Those flowers produce bulbils – like miniature shallots at the top of the flowerhead.

Bulbils harvested from the flowering shallots

I’ve saved those bulbils this year. In a few months, I’ll set them out in trays to sprout. Once they’re growing, I’ll be putting them out in the garden alongside a my normal 6 shallots.

Because bulbils are rarer in shallots, there’s not a lot of information out there about growing them this way. I’m planning to compare how the two methods have gone at the end of the season. Sign up to the mailing list below if you’d like to follow along with that!