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?

Salad bowl garden

I’m fortunate to live in an area where it doesn’t get terribly cold during the winter–or at least, it doesn’t stay cold for very long. Four-season gardening is possible here without the aid of a greenhouse (although who would say no to a greenhouse?), although I find it does help to have row covers or a cold frame.

I built my cold frame out of cast-off parts from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and in a future post I’ll show you how I did it. But for now, I’ll show you what’s going into my cold frame these days: salad bowl gardens.

A salad bowl garden, as one might suspect, is simply a large container potted up with a variety of edibles, most especially greens, that one might find in a salad. The one I’ve just planted up is comprised of ‘Red Sails’ lettuce and directly-seeded arugula.

How to Create a Salad Bowl Garden

Any garden container or other food-safe container can be used for planting; I have seen these gardens cleverly planted in old colanders (no need to punch drainage holes).

  1. If your container has one large drainage hole, cover the hole with a bit of a broken pot, a bit of gravel, or a folded paper coffee filter. The idea is to keep the soil from washing out of the bottom. If you’re using a colander or something similar, with many small holes, you don’t need to bother covering them. If your container doesn’t have a hole, drill one, but be sure to use a drill bit that matches the material your container is made of.
  2. Fill the container two-thirds full with a mixture of potting soil and compost.
  3. Blend in some organic slow-release fertilizer to nourish whatever you are planting. Greens, like lettuce, spinach, kale, or chard, need plenty of nitrogen to fuel leafy growth. Look for a fertilizer with with a relatively high first number, such as 12-0-0 (blood meal), to provide sufficient nitrogen. In my 12-inch clay pot, I mixed in about 1 tablespoon (1 Tbsp.) of blood meal.
  4. Remove your transplants and arrange them in your container. If you are pulling seedlings out of a flat, like those pictured below, pull the plants gently by their seed leaves (the first set of leaves to appear). Never handle seedlings by their stems, which are fragile and will bruise or break easily. red sails lettuce transplants
  5. Fill the container the rest of the way up with compost, firming gently around the transplants.
  6. 'Red Sails' lettuce planted up

    Lettuce seedlings, just tucked in. Arugula seeds are in the center.

  7. Water thoroughly, until water drains out of the drainage hole.
  8. Mulch if desired.
  9. Depending on the amount of exposure to cold your seedlings/transplants have had, you may need to harden them off. Set the bowl outside in a sheltered spot for an hour, then bring it back inside. Each day, increase the amount of time the container spends outdoors. After about 10 days, you can put the salad bowl container in your cold frame or under horticultural fabric.
Salad bowl garden with light mulch

Salad bowl garden with light mulch. In my experience, arugula doesn’t have trouble finding its way to the light.

Montrose: Asters done brilliantly

I have always felt ambivalent about asters. They bloom at a time of the year when things are winding down, so their bright colors are welcome. They provide choice food for bees. But I haven’t often seen them grown well enough (certainly not in my own garden), I suppose, to firmly persuade me that their autumn benefits compensate for their rangy, dull, and unattractive appearance during the rest of the year.

Nancy Goodwin’s aster border at Montrose may have changed my mind.

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium 'Fanny's Aster'

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘Fanny’s Aster’ at Montrose

One side of a long border holds masses of Symphotrichum oblongifolium ‘Fanny’s Aster.’ Pruning the plant aggressively in summer before the flowers set encourages dense growth and lots of blooms. Just across the way, a combination of smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve or Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’) and Chrysanthemum x morifolium ‘Ryan’s Pink’ blazes so intensely you forget that summer is over and frost is in the forecast.

Chrysanthemum x morifolium 'Ryan's Pink' with 'Bluebird' aster

Chrysanthemum x morifolium ‘Ryan’s Pink’ and Aster laevis ‘Bluebird.’

These might be worth a little square footage in the garden after all.

Aster laevis 'Bluebird'

Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’


A week or two ago I made a visit to Montrose, a garden on the National Register of Historic Places.

Montrose house front

The 61-acre property has been owned and maintained by Nancy and Craufurd Goodwin since 1977. Although lovely at all times of the year, it is supposed to be particularly attractive in the winter. Although the Goodwins don’t work strictly organically, they don’t use pesticides extensively, and they do relatively little supplemental watering, choosing to rely instead on the “right plant, right place” concept.

Nancy is particularly interested in cyclamen. She grows then from seed (a project I am hoping to undertake myself this winter with advice from bittster), and has allowed them to naturalize over the property.

dawn redwood with cyclamen

Two massive dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) grow to the left of the house. Beneath the sequoias, which are deciduous, are masses of naturalized groundcovers including aquilegias, minor bulbs, and Cyclamen coum and Cyclamen hederifolium.

It’s a clever pairing: The cyclamen like it dry during their summer dormancy, when the redwoods are in leaf and glad to soak up the soil moisture. And when the redwoods are dormant in the winter, the glorious cyclamen flowers can show their stuff.

cyclamen foliage

Cyclamen hederifolium (ivy-leaved cyclamen) in flower in October.

I have always assumed cyclamen to be difficult to grow and quite tender, but Nancy advises that is not the case. She allows the redwood leaves to fall and mulch the ground, slowly decomposing and building up the spongy soil the cyclamen like. She loves the yellow winter blanket the redwood leaves make; they set off the marbled green leaves elegantly. I shall have to go back and see.cyclamen hederifolium