Friday October 12, 2012

If you’ve harvested everything but the kale and Brussels sprouts in the garden, pulled the weeds and shaped your raised beds in anticipation of spring, you may think that you’re all done. But unless you’ve planted at least a little garlic, you are not. If you love Italian or French food as I do, you simply must plant some garlic. It’s the simplest, easiest crop I grow.

First, unless you have saved garlic from your harvest in July, you need to buy garlic. Do not just buy garlic at the grocery store. Much garlic sold is "soft neck" garlic grown either in California or (shudder) China. It is not as hardy as the "hard neck" garlic we grow here in New England. I’ve read that garlic at the supermarket has been chemically treated to prevent sprouting, too. I, personally, will not eat anything imported from China as their regulations about the use of chemicals are much less stringent than ours.

There are two basic types of garlic. The hard neck garlic I grow has a stiff stem in the middle, around which the cloves of garlic grow. It is plenty hardy in our climate, going through the winter unscathed. Soft neck is the type that is braided and hung in restaurants and kitchens. It last longer, but is not as hardy in the winter, and is less pungent than hard neck. I think hard neck garlic tastes better.

Go to your local farm stand to buy locally grown garlic, preferably organic garlic.


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Tell them that you are buying it to plant, and ask if they have more than one variety. Try two or three varieties, and label the garlic as you plant it. Each bulb has from four to eight cloves, so buy enough to meet your needs in the kitchen - if stored properly it should last all year. One clove a day does not seem like much - but it would be 50 bulbs or more, depending on the number of cloves per bulb. I plant a hundred or more each year, as I also save garlic for planting the following year.

If you can’t get garlic at the farm stand, try your garden center. As a last resort, go to a seed company or search online. I like to buy locally, not only to support our farmers, but also because the garlic is best adapted to our local climate.

Mid-October is the proper time for planting. It will grow roots and get established before the ground freezes. Some years it will also send up green shoots that will die back when winter comes, but that’s not a problem.

Here is what to do. First, inspect your garlic and reject any damaged or discolored cloves. Crack open a bulb and pay attention to the shape of the cloves. The rooting end is flatter, the growing tip is more pointy. You should plant the pointy end up, though planting it upside down wouldn’t kill it - just waste energy.

Prepare the bed by working in 4 inches or more of compost if you have it. Garlic grows best in rich, dark, well-drained soil that also holds moisture. If you have sandy soil it will dry quickly in summer, so adding compost or chopped leaves will help to hold moisture. Garlic should not be grown in soggy, wet soil either. Clay soils hold water; if you have clay, amend it with compost and shape up the soil into raised beds for better drainage.

Next I take my favorite hand tool, the CobraHead weeder, and mark straight lines in the soil with its single finger-like steel tip, creating furrows. I sprinkle some Pro-Gro organic fertilizer into the furrows, and then run the CobraHead through it again, loosening soil to a depth of 4 to 6 inches and mixing in the fertilizer. In general, I plant three rows down a raised bed that is 30 inches wide.

Then the fun part: Planting. Just push the cloves of garlic into the soft soil. The pointy tip should be a couple of inches deep. I plant cloves about a hands-width (5 inches) apart. I don’t cover the cloves until I have finished a row, so I can see my spacing as I go along. Then I gently cover the row and firm the soil in place by patting it gently.

The last part of the planting is to cover the soil with a thick layer of straw or mulch hay. I put on 6 inches or more, and the winter snows pack it down so that it becomes a 2-3 inch layer. Garlic sprouts will push right through the hay in spring, but most weeds will not germinate and compete. Garlic, like most plants, does best without weeds.

So that’s all you have to do. In June the garlic scapes, or flower stems, will be tall and curly. Great for use in stir fries. I also use them in flower arrangements as they are very interesting to look at, swooping around in curves and loops. Then in late July or early August I harvest the garlic. Store it in a cool dry place. I just wish growing tomatoes was as easy as growing garlic. Sigh. But that would be too easy!

Henry’s new book is in bookstores! Wobar and the Quest for the Magic Calumet is a fantasy-adventure for children 8-12 about a boy and a cougar. For more, go to www.Gardening-Guy.com.