The changing of leaves and pumpkins on every corner signal to most people that fall has arrived and winter is just around the corner. For me this is my second favorite season and one I look forward to for many reasons. It signals to me that my electric bill is going to return to its lowest monthly cost of the year, baking can once again double as heating my apartments, and its time to plant garlic. If I had to think of one thing in my garden that is a must have item it would be garlic. You can combine it with almost anything and produce an amazing meal in my opinion. You can dry it, roast it, or just chop it and use it how you wish.
Annually I raise 3 different varieties of garlic for their flavor and to hedge my chances of not losing my whole crop. (Seems weird to worry about losing a harvest and living within city limits, but this is how much I love garlic.) The 3 varieties are a mix of hardneck and softneck garlic. Each has its benefit and disadvantage such as hardnecks can withstand very cold temperatures and softnecks tend to store much longer then hardnecks. You have to weigh the options when planning how much you want to plant of each type. I personally go for a 50/50 split between the two types because I know I can dry it and make garlic power if I can’t use it quick enough. (A coffee grinder is an amazing thing that can be used for so many different purposes, except grinding peanuts. Horrible mistake!) This year I planted 60 cloves of garlic with the hope that 50 of these will produce bulbs in the coming year. I normally won’t use this much garlic in a year, but it does make great gifts/barter items to trade with people you know. For someone who has never had fresh garlic once they have tried it they are hooked for life. Next year’s garlic bulbs will also become the seed cloves for next fall so planting extra allows me to cover this need as well.
I’m not sure why more people don’t raise garlic because it’s easier then raising onions or anything else for that matter. All you need is some loose soil and a little preplanning to have a fantastic addition to your home cooked meals.
Steps to a Great Garlic Patch!
1) Plan early. If you’re looking for a special type of garlic your normally going to have to preorder it in June or July because as soon as fall arrives its going to sell out. About 6 weeks ago I explored the option of adding a 4th varieties of garlic to this year’s planting but after checking 6 or 7 different online sources I gave up. Everything was sold out. In a pinch you can plant the garlic from a local store, but keep in mind some of these have been treated to prevent them from spouting. This is one of the few times I would pay the extra money for organic garlic. (Garlic Sources Seed Savers Exchange seedsavers.org, Bakers Creek Heirloom Seed Company rareseeds.com)
2) Develop the site where you plan to plant your garlic. Garlic loves loose well drained soil which can be hard to come by in some areas. Over the years I’ve added organic matter and sand to my community garden space to the point that I have pretty good soil. It didn’t start out that way by any means, but it’s there now. I normally tell people to think about their soil during the summer. Is it hard and packed in June and July? Is so then you need to add something to loosen up the soil. Toward the end of May and into June/July decreases in the amount of rain trigger garlic to produce a bulb. This is when you need the soil to be loose to allow it to push the soil away and produce those nice pretty bulbs you see in pictures.
3) Once you know where you want to plant your garlic and have the soil ready it’s time to wait until it’s planting season. In Southern Indiana I find the best time to plant is around Oct 15th, but the weather doesn’t always cooperate. I normally end up working in wet ground doing my best to get my garlic planted without incasing it in a tomb of mud. This year in my area I had a 2 week dry spell around the end of Sept and I took this as a sign to plant my garlic early. We quickly had a cold snap and rain so I timed it perfectly for a change. Planting early just like planting late can be a problem though. Plant it to early and the tops will grow to large and you will end up with major frost/freeze damage. If you plant it to late the ground may be frozen or the cloves doesn’t have time to produce a large root system leading to small bulbs at harvest.
I tend to plant 4 cloves per square foot of garden space. (I’ll give more details later on my actual garden methods, but for now I use the square foot system. http://www.mysquarefootgarden.net is a good source without having to buy a book) I plant each clove 2 to 3 inches deep and cover the whole area with straw or leaves. Leaves seem to be easier to come by and free is always a plus.
4) In spring your garlic will send up shoots, if it didn’t before winter, and begin the rapid growing season. Keep it water with an even amount of water. When I say even, I mean, not to wet and not to dry. Either direction can be harmful to your garlic. Around the end of May stop watering your garlic so that it will start to produce a bulb. I like to dig down with my finger in the soil and see the size of the bulb in early May and then check it again in late June. You’ll see a noticeable change in size but those last few week before harvest will see some major bulb size increases.
5) Harvest! Garlic is ready to harvest around the middle of July in my area. You can tell it’s ready for harvest when 3 sets of the leaves have turned brown and the rest remains green. If you leave it any longer the cloves will continue to increase in size and eventually pop out of the individual clove wrappers. This decreases the storage life of the garlic. It’s also best to dig your garlic when the soil is dry so the wrapper around the garlic isn’t stained by the wet soil.
After digging the garlic you can either leave the soil on it and place it in a shady well ventilated dry area for a few weeks or you can wash the soil off the bulbs and dry them in the same way. I place my garlic on the dinning room table or on the kitchen counter. I leave the tops and roots on each bulb until each has dried down almost to the bulb. Leaving the tops and roots on the bulb help to dry it out by pulling moister out of the bulb. Once the garlic is dry it’s ready to go into a well ventilated area or mesh bag with the tops and roots removed. I store my garlic in my pantry with my canned goods. Never store garlic in a refrigerator unless you plan to use it quickly. Garlic actually will last longer sitting on your kitchen counter then in your refrigerate.I tend to put the bulb I’m using at the moment on top of the coffee pot so I know where it’s located.