Crop experiment: Growing shallots

Have you ever grown shallots? I haven’t, but I’ve just ordered my first sets to plant this fall. I love the way they taste, so I’m excited to try them.

Shallots (Allium cepa var. aggregatum) are botanically related to onions and garlic. They are native to Central Asia and have a very mild, delicate onion flavor that is wonderful in salads and egg dishes. They grow like garlic, forming clusters of offsets (small bulbs that form off the main bulb). Inside the bulb, shallots are layered like onions.

I’m growing French gray shallots (Allium oschaninii), which some consider to be the “true” shallot, and French red shallots, the ones most often found in grocery stores and markets. The red shallots are supposed to be easier to grow, but the gray ones allegedly have better flavor. The red shallots grow larger; the grey produce prolifically.

Like other root crops, they like well draining soil amended with lots of organic matter. My raised beds should suit them very well, as they contain equal parts composted manure, decomposed bark, and washed sand. I’ll perform a soil test before planting to make sure the pH is appropriate. I cannot plant them until mid-October, but if I wait until then to order them, they won’t be available. I made that mistake last year.

What crops are you trying out in your fall garden this year?

Dear Friend and Gardener: August 15, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

Looking out the window this week at all the mud and mess in the garden, I fell into a bit of a funk. But a little something came in the mail today:

seed packet delivery

 

And now I’m feeling a little brighter.

Are you planning your fall garden? Planting your fall garden? What will you be growing?

Gardening as spiritual practice: Waiting

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

 

August in my garden is almost always a time of waiting. The garden is my primary source for renewal and peace. It is where I am creative, and where I have space and quiet to think. But this August, after so much rain, it is a place of weeds, mud, mosquitoes, and rot. When I head out the door, I don’t see the fruits of my labor, or a blank canvas waiting to be painted. I see enemy territory. I see a long list of my least favorite chores. The garden, for a while, is nearly the last place I want to be.

Gardening teaches (and re-teaches) patience in lots of ways. We learn patience through happy anticipation, waiting for seeds to germinate, for flowers to bloom, for snow to thaw. Why is it that I struggle to view my late-summer landscape with the same anticipation? Is it because the lushness I see outside comes mostly from plants growing in the wrong places? (You know.) Their flowers and seedpods mean the same work for me next year–or perhaps even next month. Is it that this season’s relative dearth of butterflies and bees makes the environment seem lonely? Is it mostly the mud and mess, combined with a lack of available cash (see vacation photos…) to ameliorate the problem?

Whatever it is, I remind myself that the feeling is temporary. The humidity will break in a month or two, and the fall blooming plants will take their turn to delight and surprise me. Those weeds will always be with me, and I must learn to change my attitude about them. So many of them offer critical food or nectar sources for wildlife that I cherish. And so much is happening that I cannot see. Remarkable processes and relationships, which have taken ages to evolve, go through their rhythms before my unseeing eyes.

ants on peony thru magnifying glassI remind myself again that in the garden, there is always something to anticipate happily, and there is always something wonderful unfolding before me. The difference in the garden between a time to mourn and a time to dance is in the gardener’s intention to hear a waltz instead of a dirge.

 

Counting my summer successes

Every winter, it’s the same story. I go bonkers with the seed catalogues and order far more packets than I could possibly manage. I try most everything; many experiments fail. But I’ve had a few successes about which I’m very pleased. When I’m in the gardening doldrums this month I will count those successes and plot a reformed seed-shopping future that we know will never actually come to pass.

Nicotiana langsdorfii

I love Nicotianas, the scented, ornamental tobaccos. My collection of Nicotiana packets is second only to my array of hollyhocks. In the past, I’ve successfully germinated perhaps thousands of these plants, but have transplanted them out too early, or forgotten to water them at a critical point in May when the temperature spiked to 90 degrees, or committed some other sloppy mistake. This year, I pledged to thin my seedlings. And, teeth gritted, I did.  I now have one plant that has flowered and is setting seed, and three or four others that are preparing to flower.

nicotiana langsdorfii 1

The plant grows from a lush basal rosette of foliage. Its gangly stems would look much better pushing through, say, a summer-flowering aster or maybe even a low-growing rose. But I’m thrilled that it’s filling in a small spot in a large expanse of plants that are not on their A-game this summer.nicotiana langsdorfiiI adore this chartreuse green color, and the tubular flowers’ charming shape is like nothing else in my garden. Pods of mite-sized seeds have just started to crack open on this plant, which is still flowering like mad. I’ve laid a thick bed of compost around it to catch those seeds as they drop. If I’m lucky, next year I’ll be swimming in these neon green blossoms.

 

Crinums

Crinums are wonderful plants for warm-climate gardeners. Blooming in late summer, graceful flowers on tall stems fill the air with a honey-like scent.

Crinum bloomLooking very much like the amaryllis to which they are related, crinums grow from sturdy bulbs and have wide, strap-like leaves. They will not refuse a good garden soil but will grow just as easily in junkyards, if that is where you happen to garden. Like your friend who refuses to pick a restaurant for dinner, crinums are indifferent to their surroundings: sun, shade, wet, dry–oh, whatever. Just plant them up to their necks someplace and leave them alone. The only thing they fuss about is cold–they’re not reliably hardy north of Zone 7. But mine came through the polar vortex without complaint.

I never feed them. Sometimes they get mulched with shredded leaves if I need to empty my shredder bag nearby. Pinching off the spent blossoms keeps them going.

If you insist on moving one, be sure to get as much soil around the bulb as possible and don’t sever the bulb. Understand before you attempt this extraction that bulbs can grow to be absolutely enormous, basketball size (29 inches or 75 cm in circumference) or larger. Brush soil off the top of the bulb until you can discern its width, give it five inches on either side, and dig straight down. But really, if you’re the uncertain type, better plant it in a nice, large container, and move the container instead.

Crinum sources: