Fall is the perfect time for planting garlic

By Anza Muenchow

Special to The Voice

As we edge into fall, I feel the urge to plant the garlic for harvest next summer. Garlic is such a stalwart crop and so simple to grow in our wonderful maritime climate.

Plant your garlic at the end of October or early November. If you are late and the weather is mild this year, you could plant as late as Thanksgiving.

This deep-rooted crop likes well-drained soil, preferring raised beds. Check the pH of your soil to keep it above 6.8. You can add lime as you prepare the planting area. Add compost and/or a balanced fertilizer, but don’t add fertilizer with high nitrogen. The nitrogen will wash out of the soil with winter rains and be unavailable when the garlic needs it to grow in the spring.

Now select your favorite varieties: hardneck or purple garlic, or softeneck or white garlic. Hardneck garlic (Ophioscorodon) is generally grown in cooler climates and produces relatively large cloves, whereas softneck garlic (Sativum) is generally grown closer to the equator and produces small, tightly-packed cloves. White garlic is generally easier to grow and has more cloves than purple garlic.

Elephant garlic is actually a wild leek (Allium ampeloprasum), and not a true garlic.

There are so many cultivars and to tell you the truth, I like them all about the same. I guess I generally like a diverse mix. Just make sure you have clean, disease-free bulbs. Buy from a reliable source, either online or from a good nursery.
If the garlic cloves look patchy grey or black or are soft and wrinkled, do not plant them. There are some nasty soil-borne diseases that attack garlic and can live in soil for years.

Separate the cloves from the bulb, eat the small cloves and only plant the large ones. These will give you the best chance for getting large bulbs next year. Plant these cloves at least 2-3 inches deep allowing 8-10 inches between plants. I always plant in a diagonal or ‘cookie sheet’ pattern. In a typical 3-foot wide bed I plant four across, then three across, then four across proceeding down the whole bed while spacing rows 10 inches apart.

My friend, an expert at growing garlic, recommends covering the beds with light straw “blanket” for the winter or until you see plants peeking through. I often just leave the beds uncovered. You will see the green sprouts of garlic leaves in 8-10 weeks, depending on the weather.

In spring, you will need to fertilize the garlic with high nitrogen like liquid fish fertilizer or blood meal. Keep your garlic beds weeded as this crop does not compete well against weeds. Optimally we weed only once, but maybe twice in an area with heavy weed pressure.
In June, watch for the garlic scapes (the slim, serpentine flower stems that grow from the tops of hardneck garlic). Cut off these scapes above the leaves just when they begin to curl. The hardneck garlic scapes can be chopped and used in salads and stir-fries. Once I pickled the scapes in jars with vinegar and dill and they were a delicious treat. Scapes also make a fabulous addition to flower bouquets.GARLIC

In June, about the time our rainy season typically ends, there’s no need to continue watering garlic. This is one of the reasons I love the garlic crop. The roots are so deep, they get enough water such that we don’t need to add more. I am not going to predict the rainfall totals for next spring or summer, but just keep an eye on your crop and remember that garlic can often be hurt by too much summer water rather than too little.

One of the most important steps is to know when to harvest your garlic in July or August. Watch for the older leaves to turn yellow. When three or four leaves are dying off, wiggle the garlic stalk and feel the resistance. If it feels limp or weak, dig up the bulb and check that it is fully mature but not yet splitting. If you miss the timing of your harvest and the bulbs are splitting, they will not store well.

Carefully dig out the garlic plants and hang them in a warm, dark, well-ventilated area. Don’t clean off the dirt until the plants are dry, maybe four weeks after hanging. The bulbs continue to swell as they hang.

When the plants seem dry, clean well and inspect for damaged bulbs. Eat those first. The softneck varieties can last for six months though the hardnecks should be eaten in three-to-four months. Storing them in a cool, dark and dry place will preserve their longevity.

Muenchow lives on Whidbey Island where she has a small farm and is an active Master Gardener. A frequent guest writer for The Voice, she also helps build food gardens in schools and at Whidbey Island Air Naval Station.

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