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?

What to plant next?

It’s counterintuitive, to me, to think about planting new vegetables in August, when heat and humidity typically overpower even the most enthusiastic gardeners.

But one of the blessings of gardening in Zone 7b is that it seldom gets so cold (polar vortices notwithstanding), that we can’t work the soil. We don’t get much snow. And root crops and greens can be harvested all winter long, assuming the gardener gets them started and into the ground at the right time.

seed packets of winter vegGreens like lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, collards, mustard greens, and Asian greens can be started now. It’s a bit early for spinach–I expect temperatures to zoom back over 90 at any time, so I’ll wait until after Labor Day to start that crop. Transplants of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage can be set out. Root crops like carrots, turnips, radishes, and beets can be sown as well. Planting those at the feet of taller crops like tomatoes or beans makes good use of restricted space.

And speaking of tomatoes and beans, I still have time to get a final crop of those in, if I have a variety that matures in under 80 days. My average first frost is around October 20.

An important tip I’ve learned in recent years is that after the midway point of the season, it’s critical to add extra days to the time-to-maturity of a given crop, to allow for the increasingly shorter day lengths. The amount of time is a matter of trial and error and observation, but you might start with a week or ten days at this point and make notes from there. So, for example, if I’m looking to get a crop of tomatoes before October 20, I should count back the days-to-maturity from October 10 or 13. Fortunately, my ‘Sophie’s Choice’ tomatoes mature in 55 days, which should be plenty of time. Many varieties of bush beans and cucumbers also mature in under 80 days.

There are many online calendars that can help gardeners find what to plant when.

  • If you’re not sure of your USDA hardiness zone, The Vegetable Garden’s site will help you and then point you to a calendar suited to your area. The site also has links to all US Cooperative Extension websites, where you can further narrow your search and find resources tailor-made for your area.
  • Almanac.com’s planning calendar is a good general guide, but you’ll need to know your first and last average frost dates and be able to take your soil temperature.
  • Extension.org gathers research and best practices from US land-grant colleges via their cooperative extension services.
  • A simple internet search of “month by month” planting calendars may yield additional results, but bear in mind that they may not be appropriate to your gardening area.

For a successful harvest, use guidelines published by your local extension office. The resources are free and extension master gardeners are available to help you.

 

Dear Friend and Gardener: August 1, 2014

Dear Friend and Gardener,

How on earth can it be August? The summer is flying by, and I must start thinking about my fall garden. Already I am somewhat behind (what else is new?).

This past week I planted baby bush lima beans and pulled out the ‘Contender’ bush beans. The flea beetles abused the ‘Contenders’ horribly; next year I’ll do a better job of protecting them at the outset. I have two small eggplant growing, but something’s making eyelet out of the leaves. I do hate to spray but it may be time to pull out the neem oil. Oh, how it smells!

flea beetle damage beans

Flea beetle damage on ‘Contender’ bush beans

The tomatoes, however, are performing well. We’ve had cooler weather lately, in the mid-80s, which means the plants have a better chance of setting fruit. While the fruits do taste better when they ripen hot, I have to wonder, how hot is hot? What’s the optimal temperature for good-tasting tomatoes? The other challenging factor is that we’ve had lots of rain. I have to really keep an eye out and harvest the ripened fruits before they split.

I got my first fig on Wednesday! It was, I tell you, the best fig I have ever eaten. Do you grow figs? I intend to plant another one this fall because I have heard that they set better when there is another fig close by. And I also have ambitions to grow some more blueberries. Well, I have lots of ambitions.

One of my lingonberries died during a heat wave but the other is chugging along nicely. I’m starting kale this weekend and some lettuce as well. I should make room for carrots, garlic, and shallots. I’m fortunate to be able to harvest food year-round here, if I get organized in late summer and through the fall. How long is your harvest season?

Hope the weather is treating you well and the late blight stays at bay.

Best,

Amy

 

Tropical punch: Ground cherries offer strong flavor in a tiny bite.

ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa)

Related to tomatoes, and more closely to tomatilloes, the ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) goes by many names, including ground tomatoes, husk cherries, and cape gooseberries.

The fruits grow under the plant’s large leaves, encased in a thin calyx that dries to a crispy, papery husk. The husk and fruit fall to the ground when they are ripe (hence the name).

husks and fruit

Ground cherries grow encased in calyces that turn brittle when the fruit is ripe.

Large fruits measure about the size of an adult woman’s thumbnail, with a texture resembling a firm grape, and taste strongly of pineapple. I look forward to experimenting with them in cooking, if I can stop eating them by the handful, like popcorn.

In my Zone 7b garden, I transplanted seedlings about one month after the average last frost, or mid-May, and got my first fruits about six weeks later. This plant does like it hot–it seemed to double in size every day the temperature hit 90 degrees or higher.

For those who practice permaculture, this plant seeds itself easily and seems to require no inputs except for hot sunshine and whatever rain may fall. Do allow space for them–halfway through the growing season, mine are five feet tall and wide–or were, before the 8-year-old ran over a few inconvenient stems with a bicycle. The stems are rigid but not woody, a bit like basil in mid-season, and may crack or break under their own weight. Because my space is limited (and shared with bicycles), my plants are now supported with slings of garden twine, tethered to a bamboo pole.  You could perhaps grow lettuce beneath them, or root vegetables, if you wished to implement companion planting.

This is a fruit that has made it into my garden’s permanent rotation. I’ll share recipes later in the summer–assuming I can quit snacking.

ground cherries physalis fruits in bowl