Long about October, when thoughts turn from vegetable gardening and move reluctantly toward preparations for winter, there’s still one crop that can be planted: garlic. Depending on where you live, garlic is usually planted during the first or second week in October, covered in at least 6 inches of a good mulch of shredded leaves or grass clippings, and harvested the following July.
- Getting the soil ready is an important and often neglected prerequisite for successful garlic growing. Although garlic evolved in poor soils (most likely in the desert regions of Siberia), application of organic matter to the soil prior to planting will definitely increase your yield. Late summer is the best time to add compost or well-rotted manure to the site where you intend to plant. To prevent weed growth between when you are finished with preparations and when you plant, cover the bed with black plastic or heavy mulch. You can add a little more nitrogen to your garlic bed in the spring in the form of compost or rotted manure, but lay off after that; too much nitrogen may cause premature yellowing of the leaves.
- When you’re ready to plant, it’s best to divide your garlic bulbs into cloves before starting. Plant the cloves 6-8 inches apart, in rows or double rows with room to weed in between. You may have to remove some of the mulch in the spring if it is compacted and impedes your plants’ growth. Often, though, the mulch breaks down enough over the winter to allow the garlic to push through.
- Planting garlic is a joy because the days are crisp and cool and there are few bugs to intrude on your revery. There are few pests that bother garlic. In fact, it may even deter some insect invaders, and is often used in companion plantings to protect other plants from pests.
- Selecting the type of garlic you want to plant is a matter of individual taste, but be aware that there are many species of garlic out there other than the California white you usually see at the supermarket. There are dozens of exotic varieties available with names like Russian Red, Purple Stripe Porcelain, Rosewood, Kabar and on and on. So-called “hardneck” varieties develop a flowerhead on the stem called a “scape,” which curls and then extends upward, eventually becoming woody (hence the name “hardneck”).
- Garlic scapes are considered a delicacy in their own right. They are harvested soon after they appear, and are often sold in bunches at farmers’ markets.
- Cutting the flowerheads off of garlic when they appear also allows more of the plant’s energy to go into producing larger bulbs. Many commercial operations “pop the tops” off of their garlic for this reason.
- Your garlic is ready to harvest once the cloves have distinctly formed. When the bottom leaves of the plant turn brown, it’s usually a good indication that the bulbs have nicely divided into cloves. You will need to cure the harvested bulbs by hanging the whole plants in bunches in a dry, airy location for a couple of weeks. A barn, garage, or shed is ideal, but you can also lay them on a screen under cover of a tarp or porch roof. Once your garlic has cured, trim off the stem and store at room temperature, because refrigerated garlic tends to sprout more quickly.
So, get planting this fall for a gourmet treat next summer!