The biggest problem that most growers have with shallots is harvesting them at the right time so that, when they are ready for staging, they will still be perfectly round and showing no signs of doubling.
Traditionally shallots were planted and harvested with the seasons. They would be planted on the shortest day, 21st December and harvested on the longest, 21st June. Of course these are mere guidelines but they are still a good indicator of when they can be planted and harvested. The biggest problem that most growers have is harvesting them at the right time so that, when they are ready for staging, they will still be perfectly round and showing no signs of doubling.
My shallots were potted up during the Christmas period and were planted out on 20th February during a very mild and dry period. In fact the bottom end of the garden where they are planted (and where the celery grew last year) was completely rotovated over to a lovely tilth, the first time that I can recall being able to treat the soil mechanically so early on in the year. However there was a sting in the tail as the weather changed dramatically with late March and April giving us all sorts of weather; for instance the foliage of the shallots was pummelled with hail stones on at least three occasions.
During mid April I gave the bed a thin scattering of dry blood which was lightly hoed into the top surface and watered in. The nitrogen released made a great difference as the foliage began to take on a lovely deep green colour, right through to the very tip of the leaf. Over a period of time from the end of March, the clusters of bulbs were reduced leaving two on each plant. My father, for the first time ever, actually reduced his clumps to leave just one bulb to develop and he swears that they were the best and biggest shallots he has had.
As a result of the changing temperatures during March and April a couple of bulbs bolted but more worrying was what was to follow later on during mid May. On my return from Chelsea the beds were slightly weedy so they were hand weeded as the roots of the shallots were very close to the surface at this point and using a hoe between the clusters would have damaged the foliage as well. It was at this point that I realised there were a few bulbs going double, and as always, sods law means that the biggest and best bulbs appeared to be the casualties. However with 60 shallots planted originally I should be able to stage a reasonable set.
A close watch was kept on the bed from early June onwards to make sure that a new leaf was still being pushed out by the plant. I am sure that the reason a lot of bulbs that appear to be perfectly shaped when lifted from the bed eventually end up misshapen, is because they have been left in the ground too long after the plant has completed its growing cycle. This means that it has started on its secondary growth and is about to split again in order to throw up seed heads if left to their own devices.
The trick therefore is to get the plants growing fast enough and big enough so that they can be harvested at their optimum condition which is usually around the middle to the end of June. My bulbs were all harvested a week ago and the tops were removed as were the roots and they are now being dried off in the greenhouse covered over with some fine white hessian to prevent scorch. The reason for removing the tops and roots is to prevent the nourishment from the dying foliage going back to the bulb, possibly making them go out of shape.
They will be removed from the greenhouse after two weeks or so when they have dried out enough and will then be placed on some saw dust in my garage to complete the ripening period. I will already have removed all the split skins down to one whole one skin and, just before the show day when the bulbs have really dried out to a crinkly condition, you can then remove the very thin dried up outer layer between your finger and thumb. The exposed new skin is then something to see as it will be perfectly unmarked and usually possesses a bright brownish colour. Care however must be exercised when doing this because if the bulbs are not in the correct condition they will leave a white section of unripened skin around the base which will most certainly down point the exhibit.
Try this out first on a few spare bulbs when you are really positive that they are thoroughly ripe. The new re-vitalised skin colour is well worth the effort. A few years ago my father wrapped up each shallot separately in some kitchen paper towelling and kept them in the airing cupboard which also produced some beautifully finished bulbs.