by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Really! I know the photo doesn't look like normal planting weather. I woke up this morning to a dusting of snow. Autumn's definitely here, and winter is just around the corner. The snow melted away by mid-day, but it reminded me I need to get back out in the garden soon. It's time to plant my garlic and shallots.
They grow best like tulip bulbs - planted in the fall, after the soil cools off but before it freezes solid. I try to have a bit of finished compost stashed away, and add a bit of my all-purpose fertilizer mix (equal amounts of bone meal, blood meal, and greensand), to dig into the soil before planting. My soil leans a bit to the alkaline side, but if yours is acid add a dusting of wood ash too.
You can start with garlic and shallots from your local grocery, and then, if possible, save some of your harvest each year for future planting. I put aside my biggest, prettiest bulbs when I harvest each summer's crop. Doing this year after year means I now grow garlic and shallots perfectly adapted to my own particular micro-climate.
Garlic comes in soft and hard neck varieties (elephant garlic is a member of the leek family, but you can plant it the same way). Softneck garlic usually has multiple layers of cloves of differing sizes. If you want to braid your garlic, you'll need to plant a softneck variety. Hardneck garlic makes just one layer of similarly-sized cloves around a stiff inner stalk. That inner stem also grows up into a (usually) looping seed stalk called a scape. Garlic scapes are good eating on their own, so if you want to harvest scapes too you'll need to plant a hardneck variety.
Wait until you're ready to plant to break apart the garlic bulb, and then push each clove into the ground, pointy end up and an inch or two beneath the surface, six to eight inches apart. Bigger cloves will make bigger bulbs, so I take the littler cloves back into the kitchen. Shallots are planted the same way, but each shallot bulb will multiply into a clump of six to eight shallots, so they need a 12" spacing.
For the two of us for a year, I plant about four feet of a three-foot wide row with garlic, and another four feet with shallots (and then in one more four-foot section I'll scatter spinach and arugula seeds - they'll winter over and be up and growing very early next Spring, giving me a much better yield than Spring-seeded plants). Everything gets a couple inches of straw mulch, and then a flat piece of wire laid on top to hold the mulch in place and keep the birds out. Winter snows provide enough water, and by March the first sprouts pushing up make a lovely start to my real gardening season.