If you don’t defend your garden, it’s easy to grow an abundance of food in your own backyard — for wildlife…
As spring approaches, many thoughts turn to the garden. Whether it is to secure a food source in these uncertain times, or to savor the great outdoors, tending a garden is a nourishing and fulfilling experience. But as you dream of all the wonders that your future garden will yield, you must first take stock of potential pitfalls. Between deer, rodents, insects, and birds, there will be little left of your hard work if you do not take measures to protect it.
That said, not everything requires the same level of fortification. If you want to grow berries, for example, you will need overhead protection; whereas succulent greens will require a sturdy barrier around the perimeter. Since it is still early in the season, let’s start with shallots. This cold-hardy biennial is easy to grow and expensive to buy, making it an ideal choice for the home gardener.
Shallots are like a cross between onions and garlic. They have the flesh of a dense onion, but they form a bulb consisting of a number of large cloves. Also called divider onions, they prefer full sun and well drained soil. They can be grown in zones 3 to 10, and prefer a soil pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Shallots can be planted either in the autumn for a summer crop, or in early spring for a fall crop.
The main culprit with bulbs is neither deer nor birds, but the jolly little chipmunks and squirrels that scamper about in search of food.
Assess your opponent
To outwit a rodent, you need to understand its modus operandi. A squirrel’s life revolves around digging little holes to hide/recover its newfound/lost treasures. The damage they cause can be exasperating because, rather than having designs on your vulnerable young plants, they are often just pulling them out of the way as a matter of business. The plants shrivel up and die, untouched, and it amounts to senseless destruction. An overhead wire cage, or even good sized rocks placed around the base of young plants, can deter the squirrel from this activity.
A chipmunk, on the other hand, delights in the tender shoots of freshly germinated seeds and sprouting bulbs (like our shallots, and crocuses). The Eastern chipmunk lives in an underground burrow system. As a digger, it can access your plants from below, which makes this threat seem insurmountable. Do not lose hope. You can outsmart these tiny terrors.
As long as man has been gardening, he has had to deal with pests, as seen in this excerpt from the Georgics, an ancient poem about agriculture by the Latin poet Virgil, published around 29 BCE:
“…The little mouse
Builds his house and storehouse under the ground.
The mole, down there, digs sightlessly through the earth
To make his chambers. Toads are found in holes,
And many other monsters the earth begets.
The weevil can ravage almost all your grain,
And ants are ravagers too, fearful of being
Poverty stricken when they get to be old.”
Defend your garden with preventative measures
If you want to protect your shallots from chipmunks, you need to have an impenetrable border. A raised bed is relatively simple to make and works well to achieve this aim. While providing a solid wall, it also ensures a flat surface to cover and a space that is easy to work in. If you prefer to keep your garden flat, you can create an underground perimeter barrier, dug to a depth of 10 inches, and line it with ½ inch galvanized steel welded wire mesh, called “hardware cloth.”
Whether you are creating your bed from the ground up, or digging down, it is a good opportunity to amend your soil. Rich mature compost will benefit almost any soil. Peat moss will help retain moisture, and rock phosphate or bone meal will promote root production in these shallow rooted plants. Many municipalities have free composted leaves available for residents. Take advantage of this resource if you have it. The addition of sand will ensure proper drainage. These materials usually come with application recommendations, and can be applied and worked in even if you are not creating a raised bed.
There are a number of ways to protect from above. A wooden framed panel of hardware cloth will work nicely over a raised bed. It looks tidy and is easy to remove and replace. A simpler and equally effective method is floating row cover. Floating row covers are made of a thin white fabric that allows sunlight and rain to enter, while guarding against all manner of pests. In order for them to be effective deterrents to rodents, they need to be secured to the ground along the edges, where they meet your underground barrier. Metal fence posts laid down around the perimeter will easily do the trick.
You will want to leave the overhead protection in place until you see some serious progress in the growth of your crop. If the shallot shoots are very tender, the chipmunk might gnaw them away. If the roots are underdeveloped, the squirrel could uproot them. Once the plants are solid, however, you can feel free to remove the cover and keep a close eye on your young charge.
Planting your shallots
To source your shallots, you really don’t need to go any further than your grocery store, unless, of course it does not carry shallots. If that is the case, try your local Agway or garden center before you invest in the shipping and wait time for an online order. You will find a larger variety to choose from, however, if you do order online. Have your shallots in hand around 4 weeks before your last frost date, and plant them as soon as possible after the ground thaws.
Planting shallots could not be easier. First, be sure that your shallots are individual cloves. If they are still in bulb form, you will need to gently separate them. They should be planted root side down. If you are unsure, check for small root buds on the wider end of the clove. The top will always come to a point.
Plan your rows approximately 8 inches apart, and plant one shallot every 4 to 6 inches down each row. If the soil is loose, you need only press them in until the very tip is just at the surface. If your soil has not been loosened, a trowel or dibble will make quick work of getting your shallot sets into the ground. While mulch is recommended for fall planting to protect the crop through the winter, spring planted shallots should not be mulched, or mulched only lightly without touching the plants, as the combination of retained moisture and warm temperatures can easily trigger rot.
Care and maintenance
While few other animals will care to bother your shallots, you may have to contend with fungal diseases or insect predators. Keeping your bed weeded and clean, and rotating crops to avoid planting alliums in the same bed for consecutive years, are good preventative measures. To combat insect pests like onion maggots and thrips, sprinkle diatomaceous earth around the base of each plant.
Since shallots are shallow rooted, they need frequent watering. If you can make sure the soil does not dry out, that will give the plants a huge boost in self defense. While some recommend trimming the leaves during the growing season to promote a larger bulb, this is not necessary. It can, however, be a means of enjoying your crop before harvest.
It is possible that some of your shallots will go to flower. Since this shifts the growing energy into reproduction mode, it is recommended to remove the flowers to ensure large tasty bulbs. There is no law regarding this, however. You may wish to allow two or more plants to flower as an experiment, and collect the resulting seeds. It is always helpful to understand the life cycle of your plants, and this is best achieved through observation.
Harvest your shallots when the stalks start to yellow and become limp. You can use your shallots right away, but if you want to store them they will need to be “cured.” To do this, shake off any loose soil and spread them out, single layer, in a warm, dry area. After about a week, the leaves should be completely dry. Strip them off and store your shallots in an open container or mesh bag in a cool, dry location, like a basement or garage.
The ways to enjoy shallots are too many to number. Use them much in the same way you would use onions. Raw, roasted, or sauteed, you will learn to love them if you don’t already.
While the aim of this article is to prepare you for anything, the best advice is always to expect the unexpected. Unforeseen challenges are bound to come up, so it is important to remain observant, flexible, and ready to problem-solve. Gardening is not rocket science. It takes a little bit of knowledge and a lot of love. Your attentive care will do much more for your garden than expensive and complicated accoutrements. Live plants are receptive to your sensibility and will respond in kind.