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OK, I have been attempting to get a shallot bed going the last couple years. I chose to go with seeds, but really have had little luck. If I start inside I have had little luck transplanting. I may have not allowed them to get large enough, but I think the bigger issue was weather conditions that tend to go rapidly between cold/wet to hot/dry with drying winds.

I have attempted direct sow, but with very low germination rates. Those have lived, and I am now up to about 10 live shallots, From about 400 seeds over two years. My definition of very low germination, two years and still I will not have enough to harvest for table and still have sets to replant to really get a bed established.

What I am dealing with for background: USDA zone 3, very cold winters, short growing season, and rapid changes from winter to hot dry summer.

At this point, I obviously would have been better off starting two years ago buying sets or even live plants, but now, I want to get the bed going in earnest next year with enough success that I can harvest and use and still have plenty left for ongoing, so I am looking for advise/thoughts on options. I am thinking I could either try earlier with indoor starts, maybe 12 weeks before last frost dates and hope for transplant survival with bigger plants, or should I try starting seeds now in pots and try to get them to single set size and harvest those in fall to get them a cold rest period and plant in spring, or is there another, better option. (No, none of the other gardeners I know raise shallots and have spare sets to share. When I asked, they are more than eager for me to share with them though as when they have tried they had similar results.)

Am I way off base with either approach and is there a better option I am overlooking? Also, in starting from seed, is it better to tight pack and start as a bunch then separate at transplant as nurseries do with onion starts, or give them room?

  • If they're like bunching onions and regular onions, starting seeds in an unheated greenhouse in the spring should work great (they can sprout in one when it's fairly cold out still; maybe at least by early spring in my area, which is SW Idaho, which is warmer than zone 3). Have you been fertilizing? What with? The hot/dry periods are probably going to be harder on the plants than the cold ones (except I'm not sure if they'll survive your winters). I'd post some of this as an answer, but it's not about shallots. I recommend shading them a bit in the summer if you live in a hot, dry, sunny area. – Brōtsyorfuzthrāx Jul 7 '18 at 3:13
  • Also, have you tested to see if your soil is deficient in anything? – Brōtsyorfuzthrāx Jul 7 '18 at 3:17
  • @Shule Nutrient level in my soil it good. Structural quality is poor as those nutrients are held together by silt and rock. I am adding straw and growing green manures it improve the structure but that is taking time. It makes it very hard to get reasonable germination by direct sowing of anything with small seed as they get packed and go through dry-wet cycles. That will improve given time. Hurdle is getting though the starting stage. Onions do great for me, but those I went with live starts. – dlb Jul 8 '18 at 16:54
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Year and a half later, posting an update as an answer.

My biggest issue appears to have been the silt/rock combo passing as "soil". Rocks as with most seeds made it very hard for those tiny seeds to get going but the find silt was far worse. It would not allow any evenness in moisture. Seeds would get wet, dry, and the silt would turn to concrete. I put in an inch of compost, set seeds and then used windows as a mini-hot frame and got a fair germination. Maybe 30%. Not great, but fair. Once they got past the grass hair stage though, they took off. Even as weak a root system as they have, they fought off the rocks and every one that made it past that early stage thrived and I got plenty to get a good bed going.

We had a milder than normal winter, but I left 1/3 of them in the soil, stored the other 2/3 to replant. The over winters rotted, but the roots stayed viable and both ways are taking off now. The hurdle was definitely getting by the tiny stage that had trouble with the harsh and rapidly changing conditions. Sets in harsh is probably the less frustrating way to go, but once you get past there, they seem more than happy.

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