Stop And Smell The Garlic

When in the kitchen, my thoughts are always “toss a little garlic in the pan.” Well, the same goes for the garden: “Toss a little garlic in the plant bed.”

I love garlic, and now is the time to plant for next year’s harvest. Look for a sunny spot that has loose, well-draining soil. Prep the soil by mixing in organic matter. Taking time to do this step in the beginning will pay off later.

Garlic is related to onions, shallots, leeks and chives, and grows from a bulb, which is made of small cloves, sometimes as many as 10-12 cloves. The bulb itself is protected with a thin layer of sheathing, and so is each individual clove.

I’m not sure how you buy your kitchen garlic, maybe in a powder, maybe chopped in a jar, but it all starts as a bulb. You can buy garlic bulbs in the produce department; these are good for the kitchen but not the garden. Bred for a longer shelf life, they are slow or resistant to sprouting. When planting your garlic, it is best to buy high-quality bulbs from a nursery.

Look for big bulbs that have big cloves to plant; these will give you robust bulbs next summer when you harvest. Before planting, take the bulb, separate the cloves and let them rest a day or two. Because garlic likes organic soil, they are ideal candidates for raised beds or deep containers. I grow mine in raised beds where they get late afternoon sun.

Place the individual cloves a few inches apart and 2 inches deep in the soil. You want them in the ground about six weeks before freezing, giving them time to develop a root system before winter. Once in the ground, especially as temperatures dip, cover them heavily with mulch.

There are two reasons this is important: one, the mulch will protect the cloves from moving and coming out of the soil as it contracts and expands from freezing and thawing through winter; and two, to help retain moisture in the ground.

The most common types of garlic are hard neck and soft neck. Hard neck is mostly grown in cooler climates. Soft neck grows in warmer climates and because of their soft neck, you see this garlic braided and hanging for storage.

In late spring when the ground is warm, remove the mulch. This is a good time to fertilize and give the plant extra nitrogen. Bone meal is an example of fertilizer heavy in nitrogen. I tried this in the gardens at the little house on a big hill and the pup went nuts.

For my sanity and to keep the pup out of the “doghouse” for doing what pups do — rolling and digging in irresistible ground bones — I have moved away from this form of fertilizer.
You will begin to see tall, green stalks, with pink and purple blooms in the summer. They are pretty, but take energy away from the bulbs forming below ground. It’s okay to pinch them off. Keep the plants watered until late June. Then ease off the water and let them begin to dry out. Harvesting will be easier with a dry bulb.

By July or August, when garlic plant leaves begin turning yellow and brown, the bulbs are ready to harvest. Dig carefully around the stem to find the bulb and carefully lift it from the ground. Shake off excess dirt and let them rest in a cool spot before final storage.

To store over the winter, choose a location that is dry and away from direct sunshine. Use an open container such as a wire basket or a flat screen. You might want to save a few of the big, beautiful bulbs for next year’s planting. With careful storage, you should enjoy homegrown garlic until your next harvest.