Hundreds of shallots, hanging on new racks in our dining room, looking beautiful. We had grown them from October to May, cured them over the chicken coop, tied them into bundles. Given many away. Been cooking with them regularly. Two days ago, a black aphid hanging out at eye-level on the wall by the piano; '“hm, what’s an aphid doing in here?” then yesterday, passing by the rocking chair which is underneath the hanging shallots, noticing the floor littered with black things. I look up. The shallots are covered, simply covered, with allium aphids.
We cut them down, we take them outside, we clean the floor and the walls and the rocking chair thoroughly. We sit and talk, what to do now, can they be saved. Allium aphids will eventually eat the bulb, in storage, if the greens are gone. We decide to chop them all up and freeze them. In the process of that, noticing them everywhere, in the bulbs too. Some bulbs are already rotted. Frustration and annoyance and pure disgust. We throw them all in the green bin, unwilling to put them in our compost and possibly breed more aphids.
Neotoxoptera formosana, the onion aphid, or allium aphid. Dark red to black. They do not lay eggs; the females give birth to pregnant females. Populations increase very rapidly. The aphids carry viruses and can cause disease in the plant. They prefer juicy green leaves but will eat bulbs in storage.
So. Failure. Again.
What happened? I was too angry and disappointed at first to think about this from a logical standpoint, but after a good sleep and some time to calm down, I can start to figure out the chain of events that led to this.
Much like the disaster of Chernobyl (have you watched this on HBO yet? SO GOOD), there wasn’t just one thing that caused the problem, but rather a group of things.
One, the soil was probably not sandy enough or loose enough to keep the bed well-drained. Two, I grew them alone, without another crop - intercropping with a flowering herb or annual (such as clover) would have brought more predators down in to the bed. Three, we had a hot spell (a week of temps near or at 100) in April that caused the plants to start bolting, which caused me to think (reasonably) that the plants were done growing. Four, I didn’t remove the irrigation the last 2-4 weeks of growing, which would let them dry out in the soil before harvest. Five, I harvested them too early, with too much green growth still on them (it’s hard to leave them in the ground long enough, with the summer garden needing to go in). Six, I didn’t let them cure long enough, and I had so many that they were crowded in the curing space (preventing good airflow). Seven, and final nail in coffin, I brought them into the house where predators couldn’t keep the aphid population in check. If even one aphid was left alive on a stalk, the population would grow exponentially until finally covering the shallots completely.
Our garlic crop was also compromised by these same mistakes, though we haven’t yet (knock on wood) noticed an aphid explosion. The Spanish red garlic came out ok, though the size of the bulbs and cloves is too small. The German red garlic came out ok (though very small), but somewhere in the curing step, about 90% of them started to soften and rot, and we were able to keep only about 10%. Not ideal.
The amount of expense, and really TIME, that it takes to grow these crops is huge. This is not a small loss. It is extremely frustrating. At first I said to Tom, maybe we just can’t grow them here, maybe they just take too much time and we’ve had too many failures, maybe our first few successful years were just luck? But after figuring out the list of reasons why they failed, I see that I can do better growing them. I can’t do anything about the weather, but I have a plan for that too.
So, this Fall, here’s what I’m going to do. One, order seed bulbs directly from the grower (Filaree Farms has been recommended to me). Two, I’m going to plant them later, in November rather than October. Three, I’m going to plant less of them, only one bed for shallots and one bed for garlic. Four, before I plant, I’m going to break my no-till rule and make sure the soil is loose and that I’ve added plenty of compost and maybe some grit to increase drainage. Five, I will interplant with crimson clover, which should add a place for the good bugs to proliferate. Six, I will plant them in a place that has more shade in April (and maybe cover them too), and not in the place where I want to put tomatoes next year, which need to go in May 1, which is part of Seven, I will leave them in the ground until June. Eight, I will remove the irrigation lines for the last month of the growing season. Nine, I will make sure they are totally ready before harvesting. Ten, I will cure them differently, in a different place, allowing more airflow and more time (this will be difficult because they need to cure in shade). And finally, I will allow them to cure for longer, and inspect them thoroughly, before I bring them in the house.
Having a plan makes me feel better, but I’m still extremely pissed and sad about the fact that I’m going to have to buy shallots for another year.
I’ve been preparing a talk for some students that are coming to visit this coming week, and it has become clear to me that I need to talk a little bit about failure, because it happens. Even when you’re doing everything right (which I wasn’t this time), some things just don’t work, and it’s hard to figure out why. It can be difficult to weather those failures and still keep going. And so I’m interested; how do all of you, my readers, handle these disappointments in the garden? If you have a story to share, please do so in the comments.