I SAW A VIDEO REEL on social media the other day of a harvest of shallots, and it made me realize that I haven’t grown those delicious little Allium bulbs in forever, and who knows why?
The harvest video was on Hudson Valley Seed’s Instagram account, and one of that New York-based organic seed company’s co-founders, K Greene, talked with me about growing shallots and their more commonly grown cousin, garlic. He also shared some other ideas for succession sowing of edibles whose planting time still lies ahead—whether for fall harvest or to over-winter and enjoying in the year ahead.
Read along as you listen to the Aug. 7, 2023 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
growing shallots and more, with k greene
Margaret Roach: Hi, K. How is this wild weather here treating all of you at the seed farm?
K Greene: I can’t believe you wanted to open talking about the weather.
Margaret: Oh, he’s laughing.
K: Thought we were going to keep this positive today. No, we’re good. It’s just been wet, wet, wet, wet, wet. And so, that’s been a challenge, but… Something every year.
Margaret: Exactly. The new normal. I saw that reel on Instagram, that video, and it was you had this special device, this machine, that was harvesting the shallots. And by the way, I don’t even know if we say SHALL-lots or sha-LOTS [laughter].
K: Yeah. Depends on how fancy I’m feeling. Sometimes we say shallot, but then when we have everything harvested and laying out on tables, drying in the high tunnel, I like to say it’s the shallot chalet [below].
Margaret: Oh, cute.
K: You walk in there and it’s just pungent. You can really smell part of what makes shallots so special in terms of both their aroma and their flavor. But, yeah, we have that special tool partly because our values and ethics as a seed company are about producing as much as we can ourselves in our region. And with shallots, which of course is different than seed production is, we need to grow the actual shallot and harvest it and dry it. People are planting it, almost like planting a clove of garlic.
Margaret: Right. Right. It’s a little bit different from a seed, although it’s a sort of [laughter]... We use it as, like they say, seed garlic or seed shallots or whatever.
Margaret: And you have a couple of different kinds, do you?
K: Yeah, and there’s some differences. I think they’re all really easy, I would say. It’s part of what makes this time of year so exciting is to say to yourself, “What can I plant now? I did all this work and the beds are prepped, and I did all this advanced work and I got some things out of my bed. So what can I do now?”
The two varieties that we have this year are the ‘Dutch Red’ [below] and the French grey [top of page], and they’re both delicious. They both really bring that special somewhere between a sweet onion and garlic flavor, but it’s its own special flavor.
They’re planted the same, in terms of planting it like you plant a clove of garlic, a couple inches deep, good amount of compost, like 8-inch spacing, 18-inch row spacing, really similar, and that they’re going to stay in the ground for the winter. And then, they’re going to produce and be harvested the next year.
Margaret: I think in one of the descriptions on your website, you talked about this sort of umami flavor of one or whatever. So, not exactly the same, but there is a sweetness to them?
K: Yeah, they’re sweeter. They’re more like a sweet onion, but they have that garlic flavor. But you’re always looking for familiar words to describe flavors, when it’s its own flavor.
K: To me, when I think about it, sometimes I think about white wine a little bit [laughter].
K: I’m not sure. There’s just something indescribable about it, which is why they’re sort of gourmet sought after and why they’re really expensive to buy in the grocery store. Actually, it’s one of the things that’s a lot more affordable to grow yourself than it is to purchase.
Margaret: Indeed. Now, because you went and mentioned the word rain. Of course, if you hear a sound, it’s the rain that’s just started pouring down here again for the 2000th time in the last 15 days.
K: Again? That means it’s on the way here.
Margaret: Yeah, I’ll send it over in a minute.
Margaret: But I haven’t grown shallots in a long time, and the last ones I grew were what were given to me, seed was given to me, I think it came from England, from Thompson and Morgan at that time, and this was many years ago. They were called banana shallots, and they were bigger than the average shallot.
Again, I grew them from seed like I would grow onions from seed, and it was kind of fun. They were, I think, a cross between an actual shallot and an onion, I think the breeding. And the taxonomy of all the alliums confuses the heck out of me. I don’t ever see it really explained. I see, even the two that you have, one is in one species of Allium, in the same species is onion, and one is in another species and so forth.
Margaret: You have that grey traditional shallot, yes?
K: Yeah. The taxonomy is things keep changing [laughter]. And so, we think of taxonomy as this thing set in stone, and it really isn’t. I think the only important thing to really think of is it’s an Allium, and that’s enough for most people. We don’t have to overthink too much, but they are a little bit different. The main differences between the French grey and the ‘Dutch Red,’ the French grey is what’s kind of referred to as a true shallot. It’s interesting, you can’t grow the French grey from seed. I mean, you could grow something from seeds from French grey, but the only way to get it to grow true is to plant, basically, a clove.
Margaret: Oh. It’s like you have to have a clone, a division. O.K.
K: The ‘Dutch Red’ you can do either way, but we still recommend just doing the clove. It’s just so much easier for folks, especially this time of year. But some of the differences, because there’s so many similarities in terms of depth and planting space and time: time-wise there’s a little bit of a difference, which is ‘Dutch Red’ stores a lot longer in your kitchen than the French grey. That also means that the Dutch Red, if you wanted to hang onto it and plant it a month before your last frost date, like early, early, early, early spring, you could still get a harvest from those, even though we still recommend planting it in this window of October for our region.
Whereas, the French grey doesn’t store as long, and so you really have to plant it when you get it. For us, that means people are ordering now. We ship in October so that people get them when it’s time to plant them and don’t have to worry about storing them at home.
I would say French grey, only fall planted. The Dutch Red, better fall planted, but can be done in the spring. And I would say, for most people, they’re doing both.
Margaret: Oh, interesting. They’re trying a little of both. The French grey, I’ve read about it in other places and, again, it’s the one that’s called the true shallot. I’ve read that it has kind of a harder…not a shell, but a harder skin a little bit. Is it a little bit different in texture on the outside?
K: Yeah. Yeah. It almost feels like a shell.
Margaret: Yeah, that’s what I’ve read and I’ve never had it. I mean, I’ve never had it in my garden, so I’ve never seen it raw, unprepared.
K: It’s beautiful, too. The skin almost has this copper sheen to it. They’re so pretty. And then, when you break it open, it has this pink, white, purple-y kind of ombre hue from the tip to the base. They’re really, really elegant.
Margaret: Again, the red one is in, I believe, Allium cepa, the same genus and species as onion, but I think this one has, and the names are just impossible, oschaninii, Allium oschaninii, something like that.
K: Yeah [laughter]. Oschaninii.
Margaret: Yeah, whatever. If that’s even the way to pronounce it but who cares? It’s a French heirloom, I think, as well. It’s a very traditional beloved crop.
K: It is. Sometimes you’ll hear it called Griselle.
Margaret: Griselle. Right, right, right. Of course. You gave us the quick version of fall planting: We have a bed that had something else in it; we pulled our tomatoes and we cleaned up the bed a little bit, and our shallots could go there the way that our garlic could go there. Yes?
K: Yep, exactly. I would always say add compost. Whatever’s been in there has used up a lot of nutrients. Whether we’re talking about the shallots or garlic, they want good, rich soil. So definitely add compost.
The other things that they really like, they love water. They like good drainage and they like water, you know, that thing? [Laughter.] If you happen to be somewhere where you’re not underwater for the whole season, you do want to keep them watered in the beginning. Once it’s winter, as long as there’s snow and precipitation happening, you don’t really have to worry about it.
Margaret: What’s the yield like? How much do I plant? If I’m a person ordering shallots, how much do I plant and how much does it turn into? Because that’s always the thing with garlic [above] is each clove theoretically has the capability of becoming a head, a whole cluster so to speak. And so, what’s the yield like in these different shallots?
K: It’s similar to garlic in that way. It’s different when you’re planting onions because one seed is one onion bulb or one onion set is one onion. Whereas, with the shallots, when you plant one clove, it’s going to multiply. So we sell it in half-pound, pound, and then it goes up from there. But for a pound of sets, basically, you’re looking at 40 to 50 cloves in a pound.
Margaret: Oh, O.K.
K: From there, you can do the math.
Margaret: I see.
K: Your yield is going to be six to 10 times what you planted.
Margaret: Oh, all right. All right. And so, the grey doesn’t store so well, the red stores better, so that’s one that is going to be a good keeper, and I probably would use the grey first if I was-
K: Yeah. It’s still a good keeper. It’s just not going to last you until the next planting season. Whereas with the ‘Dutch Red,’ and probably I shouldn’t say this out loud, but with the ‘Dutch Red,’ you really could hang onto it, harvest it, and just keep replanting it. Save some to plant the next season and some to eat, once you get it going.
But the yield is one of the really exciting things about it. The way to wrap your head around it is that that one clove is going to turn into six or even 10 or 12 cloves. It’s going to grow and split, so there’s going to be a cluster. And you’ll be able to really see it because it’ll be all these leaves, multiple leaves coming up.
Margaret: Yes, and that was what was fun in that video, your harvest video. You were using this mechanized tool to turn up the strip of soil that had all the shallots in it. What was happening is that, at each place where a clove had been inserted, was a cluster of fading foliage, but underneath a whole cluster of bulbs. It was just fun to see the multiplication that had happened underground in this way.
K: I often talk about seeds as something, or plants, as being generous and sort of exponentially generous. Usually, I’m talking about seeds. You plant one seed that makes a tomato plant. Think about how many seeds are in all the tomatoes from your tomato plant. It’s more than anyone could ever keep for themselves and plant. And so, we wind up sharing seeds. We’re kind of sowing it forward when we’re part of the full life cycle.
But garlic and shallots are like that, too. It’s an incredibly generous plant.
Margaret: The only other thing I didn’t ask you about is once we do harvest the next July or whenever, I guess sort of like garlic, we do cure them in a dry place, airy place, but out of the sun, correct? We want to cure them, yeah?
K: Yeah. The process, and you can see it at a larger scale for what we do, but this is for home scale as well: You want to leave the leaves until they start to die back. You want to cut the scapes the same way that you do for garlic so that it’s putting more energy into the bulb.
You can eat the scapes; different flavor than garlic scapes [above, at Margaret’s]. I think it’s really good in a pesto with a few other things in it. Cut the scapes, but don’t cut the leaves. They’re going to signal you, “O.K., the leaves are done putting their energy into the bulb.” They’re starting to die back. But you don’t want to cut the leaves when you harvest them. You want to keep the whole thing intact. All the cloves that are attached to each other with the dying leaves. Like you said, you want to put that somewhere with good airflow, but not in direct sun, to cure.
The leaves will get kind of brittle, and then you’ll see the skin on the bulbs kind of color up. When those leaves are totally dry, then you can cut the leaves above the tip of the clove. You don’t want to cut into the bulb itself. And then, you can bring them into the kitchen after that.
Margaret: Right. So transitioning: It is very similar, as you said when you were describing depth and spacing and so forth, very similar to garlic. Even the curing sounds very similar. The signal, learning this slightly different signal of at what stage to harvest, depending on what kind you’re growing, whether it’s the shallots or which type of garlic and so forth, and when the scape is going to come (which, with hard neck garlic, which is why I like it, you get a scape, too). And kind of learning the exact timing and everything of the one you choose to grow is always interesting.
I’ve grown garlic for decades and decades, and I lost my garlic for the first time. I lost all of it this year to the white mold of-
Margaret: Yeah. Which is this horrendous, it’s the really most deadly horrible fungal pathogen of all alliums, potentially, but mostly affects garlic and onions. For a number of years, it has been in our region, in New York State and in New England and so forth, and it’s a worldwide thing. I don’t know. I did buy, not from you [laughter], I did buy seed garlic recently. And so, maybe I got it that way, or maybe it came in who knows how else. I have no idea. But I won’t be able to grow garlic in that area anytime in the next 40 years, and I’m not going to live that long [laughter], so that’s the end of that.
But it sounds very much like growing garlic. Any other tips or ahas that are very different about garlic that you want to share with people? Because I know a lot of people are probably going to be planting garlic this fall, and they’re probably ordering now. I love the hard neck stuff because you get that extra harvest with the scapes.
K: Yeah. I mean, I love garlic. Again, I like to grow a little of everything for the kitchen. Our variety pack actually is our most popular.
Margaret: Oh, that’s a good idea. That’s-
K: There will be different varieties but, yeah, there’s the variety pack that people love. They’re really not that different. One thing I’ve learned, though, from folks who are colder than us is that they mulch more in terms of their garlic and shallots than we do here. I don’t really think about mulching that much, and our winters have gotten more mild in terms of temperature, not in terms of other things [laughter]. I do know that some folks who are colder find that they’re successful getting them through the winter by mulching.
Margaret: Depending on your zone and so forth. It’s a great thing to grow, and there’s so much else. I just want to remind ourselves, because at this time in the seed company, do people check in for a packet of this and that because they realize they don’t have enough to do a succession of something? I mean, obviously, spring is probably the biggest seed-ordering time, but I bet you see some repeats now, at this time of year.
K: Oh yeah. This is such an exciting moment to feel like your hard work for everything you did to get yourself set up, and then you’ve been eating and enjoying your harvest, that this is the second spring now.
Margaret: What are people after around now? What do you hear? I would imagine salads and other greens would be one thing that people are always after, because you can do so many successions of those. But what kinds of other things are people after?
K: Yeah. In terms of seed, it’s like you said, a lot of mixed greens. Arugula [below], spinach, all the mustards. Radishes; great time to throw in another round of radishes. [Above, China Rose winter radish.]
Just to be able to continue to have that fresh eating, that brightness, on your plate at home and that joy of going out,. But it’s things that are quicker. Also, because the day length is getting shorter and shorter, which means that the days to harvest are getting longer for things. And so, that’s why we focus on these quick sow-and-harvest, something like arugula which is going to be really fast.
Whereas, even right now for us, we’re just outside of the window of doing a second round of peas. But we could have done peas in the last month and gotten a harvest but now, because of the number of hours of daylight, we just wouldn’t get to the point. But pea shoots, you can sow lots of peas and for a quick harvest, I mean, if you want that flavor, you can still put in peas and do pea shoots.
Margaret: Well, you were one of the first places that I ever knew about, Hudson Valley Seed was, that had organic field peas, the kind of peas that you could use for cover crop. In other words, a bag that was big enough, not a little tiny packet of peas, which would barely give me enough for a couple of salads if I was using them as shoots [laughter]. You had them in these bags but yet they were organic. I don’t know if you still do that but.
K: Oh yeah. Austrian winter pea. The flavor of the Austrian peas. It’s great for your soil. Speaking of things to put in now, cover crops. I like to say you can garden naked, but don’t leave your soil bare [laughter]. It’s just one of these things where it’s you put in the work, now take care of it.
Even if you don’t want to get a harvest out of it, whether you’re putting in an oats and peas mix or the Austrian winter peas or buckwheat, or you’re thinking something that you want to over-winter, like winter rye. What we’ve put together is the amounts of those types of cover crops that people who have a home-garden scale need, rather than what we used to see, which is just 50-pound bags, which is great for small farms or medium-sized farms, but not so great for home gardens. Our cover crops are very popular right now, and come in different amounts.
Margaret: Well, and again, with the peas, the great thing is that you can… It’s much bigger than a single little packet of pea seeds that you’d use at another time, and so you can almost broadcast them. I don’t mean-
K: Oh, yeah.
Margaret: And then, let it grow as shoots, and it’s quick and what an incredible flavor and texture to make a salad.
K: I love them.
Margaret: I mean, they’re just so delicious. I know people who stir-fry them. I know people who just use them raw, again, as a salad material, and they’re fantastic and they’re gorgeous looking. And then, you can do another one. I think you can even get multiple cuttings off them, I suspect.
K: Absolutely. Cut-and-come-again peas.
Margaret: Right. A little bit south of here… There’s still time for peas and farther south absolutely.
Margaret: Because this is ideal time because it’s going to be cooler than bumping up into the heat of summer farther south. But, I mean, like you said, there’s that “fall factor” as some places call it, the almost two weeks’ difference, up to two weeks’ difference that it can take for something to mature with the shorter day length and so forth, the less intense sun.
The other good thing, I think, besides the sort of salad-y greens, even something like kale. Baby kale is really delicious and super-expensive at the organic produce section. A bag of baby kale is umpteen dollars a pound, but you can grow that. Even if you’re not going to grow it all the way through, which you could if you covered it, if you took care of it over the winter, but you could even just harvest baby greens that way.
K: Oh, absolutely. Some of the mixes, like our braising greens mix or our ultimate salad bowl mix, mesclun mix, those are great to do right now because you’re going to get a diversity of flavor and texture and color. You can sow them really dense, and then just, like you said, as a baby mix, cut them. You could probably do two or three rounds of that still.
Margaret: Right. Still even in the north where we are. The last minute, just give us a reminder as an expert seed person, we should not store our leftover seed in the pocket of our gardening jacket or out in the garage [laughter]. Correct?
K: We get this a lot, Margaret.
Margaret: I know.
K: It’s cool, dark and dry.
K: And so, if it freezes, you don’t want it there. There’s very few seeds that you actually want to freeze. You don’t want them to freeze. You don’t want them to have a lot of humidity and moisture, and you don’t want them exposed to sunlight and heat, because those are all the things that the seed is looking for to be like, “Hey, it’s time to grow.” We’re just saying let’s not give them those cues just yet.
Margaret: Cool, dark, dry. O.K. All right. Thank you. Well, I’m so glad to reconnect on the podcast, K Greene from Hudson Valley Seed, and thank you. I’m excited about the shallots. Fun ahead, I think, and thanks for making the time. Thanks for coming in from the field [laughter] to make the time. I’ll talk to you soon, I hope.
K: Always happy to. Thanks so much, Margaret.
(All photos from Hudson Valley Seed except as noted.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 14th year in March 2023. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Aug. 7, 2023 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).