Planting Garlic

Use our step by step instructions to cultivate your own patch of this savory, easy-to-grow, fall planted crop.

| October/November 2001

Before you put your garden to bed for the winter, remember to plant some garlic. Tuck a handful of cloves into the soil this fall, cover them with a blanket of shredded leaves and forget about them. Early next spring, lively green tufts will emerge through the mulch, bearing the promise of warm, sunny days and rich flavors soon to come. By midsummer, your savory garlic bulbs will be ready to harvest.

When to Plant Garlic

Columbus Day, Oct. 12, is the optimum time to plant garlic in most regions of the country. In hotter zones, November and December are the best times for planting. Garlic prefers loose, fertile soils with good drainage. Work in a one-half-inch layer of compost or fresh grass clippings to provide a wellbalanced diet for the cloves, since you want them to root well before the really cold weather sets in. Cloves should be planted 1.5 to two inches deep. Space cloves five to six inches apart in rows spaced nine to 10 inches apart.

Once the cloves are planted, cover with a blanket of mulch (unless you have reliable snow cover) to protect them during freeze-and-thaw cycles. Grass clippings make excellent mulch, releasing nitrogen and other nutrients while they insulate and deter weeds. Shredded leaves and straw are both good second choices. Early in spring, when you notice little tufts of green trying to make their way through the mulch, Huff it lightly with a fork or your hands to help the shoots break through. Unless your spring is very wet, leave the mulch in place to help maintain soil moisture. If you didn't use a nitrogen-rich grass mulch in the fall, apply a light dressing of organic fertilizer, such as alfalfa or soybean meal, in early spring to help increase bulb size.

Hardneck varieties will send up a flower scape, or stalk, in late May or in June. The stalks add a touch of whimsy to the garden, hut if you leave them on, the plants will use up energy that could be spent to grow larger bulbs. So, if you're after big bulbs, cut off the scapes shortly after they appear and use them to garnish your stir-fry dishes.

When to Harvest Garlic

Pull your garlic too early and you'll harvest small bulbs that don't store well; wait too long and the cloves will begin to pull away from the stalk and dry out. The trick is to begin watching for clues in midsummer. When the leaves start to turn brown. Stop watering (and hope for dry weather) to help the skins dry out. When slightly more than half the leaves have turned color, pull a sample bulb every few days. When the cloves fill out the skins evenly, your crop is ready for harvest.

Pull bulbs gently from the soil with your hands or lift them with a garden fork. Brush off as much dirt as you can with your hands. Bulbs harvested from dark soils with high levels of organic matter may be harder to clean. You can wash them with water, but before you do, you should know that this is a controversial practice — some people feel washing the bulbs makes them vulnerable to storage diseases. Extension researchers at the University of Minnesota did not find this to be true. To play it safe, allow the bulbs to dry, then rub off any re maining soil along with the dirty outer layers of skin.

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