Plant Garlic in the Fall

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PHOTO: GORDON SOLBERG
I didn't originally set out to plant garlic in the fall. It was a mistake; this is the original mistake.

I never did have any luck trying to raise garlic. Never,
that is, until I accidentally stumbled onto the “Ultimate
Garlic-Growing Secret”: Treat ’em like daffodils. Plant
garlic in the fall! That way, the plants can start sproutin’
very early the following spring (exactly the way that
crocuses and daffodils do), grow rapidly during the
still-cool days which follow, and “set” their bulbs long
before the hot days of summer that can be so wiltingly hard
on “regular” spring-planted garlic.

Yeah, I know. Most of the gardening books tell you to plant
garlic in the spring and to space the bulbs three
inches from each other in rows laid out 12 inches apart. I
also know what always happened to my crop when I followed
that advice:

The garlic would grow fine during the remaining days of
spring, but then the inevitable hot, dry New Mexico
summers that my vegetable patch has to contend with would
hit the plants like a blast furnace. By the time fall
rolled around, all I’d have to show for my efforts would be
a few shriveled bulbs that measured about half the size of
the “store-bought” kind. And, as you know, being
outdone by the local supermarket riles the heart of any
gardener!

And so I proceeded through life, riled year after year
by one stunted crop of garlic after another. And
then one fall I accidentally missed a bulb as I
was digging up what little garlic had managed to make it
through the summer. And that single, solitary bulb just sat out there in the garden through the following
winter like a smug little time bomb, waiting
for a new growing season. Little was I to know the fortunate consequences of that accident.

It wasn’t until the following spring, about the time
the daffodils started sprouting, that I noticed a
small, suspicious clump of green shoots out in the middle
of the vegetable patch. “What the dickens are you doing
here?” I asked. Naturally enough, the clump didn’t answer—but I swear it had a sly smile on its little green
face.

My first impulse, of course, was to rip out the offending
sprouts, since they quite obviously were going to do
nothing but get in the way of my other gardening
operations. Then curiosity got the best of me (I knew the
foliage was garlic, but I didn’t know how well it would
grow), and I ended up working around it.

As you may have suspected, I was dead certain that the
tight bunch of garlic would never amount to anything. I
mean: How could nine or ten cloves all crowded together
like that ever find the elbow room they’d need to form
full-sized bulbs? Ridiculous! I was sure that when I dug the
clump up, I’d find nothing but a handful of the scrawniest
little garlic bulbs I’d ever laid my eyes on.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I excavated the “mistake” and discovered that each clove in the original “lost”
bulb had formed enormous bulbs of ts own! “Hey! Maybe
I’m on to something!” I thought, as visions of gigantic
garlic pizzas danced through my head.

The following November 9 (as soon as I was sure the
temperature would stay below freezing every night: cold enough that the cloves wouldn’t sprout prematurely but before the
earth froze solid) I put a somewhat more systematic
autumn-planted garlic patch in the ground.

First, I used a spade to dig up an area about one foot
square (this took approximately 20 seconds). Then I worked
in plenty of compost to make a mellow growing “bed.” After
that I stuck whole, fat cloves of garlic—spaced two inches
apart each way—into the loose soil and covered them
with about an inch of dirt. And finally, I spread a little
mulch over the bed and edged it with rocks so I wouldn’t
forget and accidentally tromp on it during the winter.

The first foolhardy shoots from the planting appeared two
and a half months later (on January 23) after two
consecutive days which were so rainy that the ground began
to thaw. Personally, I was convinced the cold winter air
would soon do the tender little sprouts in. They
seemed to have their own ideas. By the first of February it
was apparent that the tiny plants very definitely were
serious about poking their heads up through the mulch which
covered them. And, since the daffodils had come up by then
too, I figured the shoots knew what they were doing and
left them alone.

The garlic’s tops grew slowly until early April. Then, as
the nights turned warmer, the foliage quickly doubled in
size. Almost immediately, bulbs began to form on the
garlic’s roots. By the first of June (when those
bulbs were nearly as large as they were to get), the leaves
had already started to dry out and yellow.

I harvested those bulbs in mid-June (when the
spring-planted garlic in nearby gardens had barely gotten
off to a start), and was I ever pleased with the results!
Each individual clove was as big as any you’ll ever find in
a supermarket. Take that, Piggly Wiggly!

Needless to say, I’ve stuck with my “mistake” ever since and have always seen outstanding results. So, garlic
lovers and gardeners everywhere: Plant your crop in the
fall this time. And, next June, just see if you don’t agree
with me that autumn-planted garlic is the best and the most
successful garlic of all!