Saturday, 23 October 2010

Time to Plant the Garlic

by Kate
Living the Frugal Life

I'm re-running this post from the archives of my personal blog.  It's garlic planting time again.  There are a few tips in this post that have given us good harvests of this indispensable seasoning, even in two back-to-back years of opposite weather extremes.  If you've never grown garlic before, it's probably not too late in the northern hemisphere.  If you can't get planting stock at such late notice from a seed catalog, check your local farmer's market for untreated garlic and use the largest cloves you can find for planting.

We finally got our garlic planted yesterday. We aim for a week after first frost, and that event was rather late this year. It's both counter-intuitive and oddly reassuring to plant things this late in the year. I've had excellent results in growing hardneck heirloom garlics in my zone 6 garden. So I thought I would describe my method.

First things first: I prepare a bed that I have not used to grow garlic in the past three years. This helps protect garlic from just about the only thing that threatens it: fungus that attacks the roots. I scrape down any weeds, leaving them in place on the soil. To them I add a few leaves from my comfrey plants to act as a green manure, albeit not a living one. Comfrey is a deep-mining bioaccumulator of many nutrients, bringing these minerals to the surface where they can be made accessible to other plants. I make sure the comfrey leaves wilt for several hours in the sun before burying them. The plant has astonishing powers to root itself from cuttings. After that I work the ground over with the broadfork and then apply the lasagna/sheet mulching method. So much for the bed.

The night before I plant my garlic bulbs, I break down the heads of each different type of garlic into individual bulbs, leaving as many of their papery coverings intact as possible. The wrappings protect the bulb from viruses and other unwelcome intruders. Given the damage to this year's garlic crop from our incredibly wet June, I looked over the planting candidates with a very careful eye, rejecting any that showed signs of damage or rot. Those that made the cut got my standard pre-planting treatment. This consists of a soak in a mixture that is both anti-fungal as well as nutritive. It's a mixture of 1 tablespoon of liquid seaweed fertilizer and 1 heaping tablespoon of baking soda mixed into one gallon of water. The bulbs soak in this mixture overnight, with each garlic variety I plant in a separate mason jar. They soak for 16 to 20 hours altogether.

The day of planting, I pour about two cups of flour into a container and then rummage around in the garage until I locate my planting template. I made this template from a piece of scrap particle board I fished out of a dumpster. The template has 18 holes, each spaced 8" apart, which is slightly generous spacing for garlic. Originally I had intended to plant the garlic directly through the template, but that didn't work out when I saw how large the bulbs of some heirloom hardneck varieties are. Instead, I lay the template down over a well prepared bed, and dust the flour down every hole. When I take the template away, I can easily see where the bulbs should be planted.

Just before it's time to plant, the bulbs come out of their seaweed and baking soda soak, and go into a much briefer soak in rubbing alcohol. This additional disinfectant soak lasts for just 3-5 minutes. We've used 70% rubbing alcohol in the past, but this year it was 91% pure. While the cloves soaked, my husband did the hard work of making a deep narrow hole at each of the floured spots, punching straight through the newspaper in the lasagna mulch. I try to get the cloves about 4" deep, but sometimes it's difficult to tell exactly how deep they are when I have a lot of mulch on top of the ground. This year I added good compost down each hole dug for the cloves. This year's bed was built in late summer over lawn, so I figure the garlic could use some extra help. That's pretty much it. I don't even water the bed usually. We have enough rainfall in our area that it's not needed, and the bed is pretty well protected from drying out. It's raining today.

The garlic shoots have no trouble making their way through the lasagna mulching. They just come straight up through the hole I punch in the thick newspaper layer with the dibble. The key is to avoid walking on the bed after planting, even though it looks like an empty space in the garden.

Garlic requires more advanced planning and a longer time in the ground than other annual plants. But the payoff is that we eat homegrown garlic from July to December at least. This year we planted a softneck variety too, which should store better after harvest, in hopes of extending our homegrown supply into the spring months, or at least late winter. So here I am in October 2009, thinking about whether or not we'll have homegrown garlic to eat in February or March 2011. Although I started growing garlic in 2007, we're now eating from our second harvest of this crop and wondering how long we can manage to store it. No wonder it takes so long to feel like I know anything about gardening.