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Garlic: Fall is best time for planting

Sep 9th, 2011 | Category: Growing

by Marnie Jones

When my husband and I bought our home in Wickersham five autumns ago, various new neighbors greeted us with cookies, pumpkin bread, and a little paper sack full of garlic heads. The garlic came with some vague instructions (plant it soon, mulch it well) and this promise: it will thrive.

Harvested garlic. PHOTO BY CYNTHIA ST. CLAIR

Our neighbor wasn’t kidding! Of all the crops we’ve grown in our years as gardeners, garlic is the one that never fails us. We put that first batch in the freshly-broken ground that October. In July, as the leaves began to brown, we harvested a hundred gorgeous, fragrant heads, flawless and well-developed despite the heavy clay soil and the abundance of weeds in our young garden. The following year, we mulched heavily with clean straw and got similar results. Now, after half a decade of weeding, mulching, adding compost, and rotating crops, our garden is looking better than ever. The one thing that hasn’t changed is our garlic—we liked it so well that first season that we’ve planted the same unidentified cultivar ever since.

There are as many types of garlic as there are ways to use it, but all varieties belong to one of two  subspecies: hard-necked (Allium sativum var.ophioscorodon) and soft-necked (Allium sativum). Other types, including wild garlic, garlic chives, and elephant garlic, are actually not true garlics at all. (The latter is, in fact, a leek.) As for my personal preferences, I continue to grow our neighbor’s large, purple-striped soft-necked variety, planting a hundred cloves for our own culinary needs plus extras for reseeding. I plant a little extra to share—a garlic braid makes a nice, if pungent, present. Hard-necked garlic can’t be braided, but it does produce delicious curling scapes which are lovely stir-fried, pickled, or ground into pesto. It generally has fewer, larger cloves on each head, and is often easier to peel than its soft-necked cousin. I grow a row or two of  hard-necked garlic each year.

While our neighbor’s instructions (plant it soon, mulch it well) were sufficient to get us started that first autumn, my husband and I have learned a little more since then about the particulars of growing this delicious allium. Garlic likes to overwinter, and conventional wisdom says the best planting date is around Columbus Day or sometime in mid-October. A layer of straw mulch helps keep this plant comfortable through the colder months and encourages early spring emergence. The fresh green leaves of fall-sown garlic are a welcome sight in March and April! Plants should be spaced about six inches apart, depending on the variety, and a deeply-dug bed of fertile soil is preferred. A pH of around 6.5 suits garlic well. Wickersham is known for its acidic soil, which might explain how we had such success even before our garden became loamy and rich.

Garlic greens generally begin to brown at the tips of each leaf in mid-summer, and this is your indication of when to harvest. Each brown leaf typically represents one layer of dry garlic skin, meaning four or five brown leaves will give you a garlic head with a sufficient papery wrapper. Harvest too early, and the garlic will be small, damp, and immature.Harvest too late, and your heads will have split open in preparation for sending out the next year’s growth. Once you do harvest your garlic, you can lay or hang it in a cool, airy place and let it air-cure for a week or two before braiding or storing it. This drying period helps prevent mold growth in your stored heads.

Garlic, which originated in the Mediterranean region, has evolved to thrive in many regions and climates. Some cultivars are better than others for this rainy, fertile locale, and it pays to seek out a variety that will do well in our unique climate. Check with local seed vendors or nearby farmers for their advice, or look at what your neighbors are growing. If your first harvest is successful, you can save the best cloves from the best heads to plant in the fall. With a little luck and a little effort, your garlic harvests will only get better.

Marnie Jones gardens, writes, and rides her mule in the South Fork Valley of Whatcom County, where she shares one green acre with her husband and three daughters. Her mule, Fenway, blogs at www.BraysOfOurLives.com.

One Comment to “Garlic: Fall is best time for planting”

  1. Hi Marnie,
    A neighbor gave me a hand full of garlic cloves a few weeks ago and said plant these immediately.
    Unfortunately I didn’t but would like to do that today. Six inches apart is good information. How deep and is it important to point them down or up or is there no down and up to them?
    Our soil and sandy loam and should do quite well. But is it too late for any success?

    Our website is brand new and we will be adding to it as the days go by and as we develop our sustainable farming business.
    Thanks for your response,
    Larry
    Mar. 17, 2013

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