Time to plant the garlic

October is not only the month when we harvest many of our fall crops, but also a time when we plant certain things in anticipation of next year’s harvest. Upstate New York winters can be tough on a person’s psyche, but anticipating good things to eventually happen in the spring, as a result of a little work now, makes them more tolerable.

I planted garlic last weekend in the raised bed that grew bush beans this past summer. The bean harvest was excellent for most of August and September and I felt no guilt whatsoever pulling out the still flowering plants. One can only eat just so many green beans in a season and they just don’t seem worth the effort to freeze or can. Unlike many home grown vegetables, green beans from the super market taste almost as good as those I grow in my garden.

There are basically two general types of garlic; soft neck and hard neck. Soft neck garlic lends itself to braiding and makes wonderful winter gifts for those of you who enjoy making home-made gifts. I find hard neck varieties easier to grow and store and large bulbs also make great gifts. Few people who enjoy cooking will be disappointed by a gift of home grown garlic this Holiday season.

It pays to take the time to prepare the garlic bed prior to planting. After removing the spent bean plants and whatever weeds that were present, I turned over the soil and worked in a few inches of peat moss, with a couple of pounds of dried blood mixed in. Garlic is a heavy user of fertilizer. Tilling in 2 or 3 pounds of dried blood per 100 square feet of surface area will ensure adequate fertilizer next summer, as this organic source of nutrients slowly become available to the maturing plants. Although I don’t think it is absolutely necessary to add phosphorus fertilizer, adding a pound of bone meal cannot hurt. The peat moss or compost, if you have any, is also important to replace the organic matter in the soil, which decomposed while the beans were growing. Most vegetable crops deplete the soil’s organic matter significantly, even after only one or two seasons. Organic fertilizers alone are not adequate to replenish the lost organic matter.

After thoroughly incorporating and mixing the organic matter with the existing topsoil, rake the bed to a smooth surface. Select the largest garlic bulbs you can find and separate them into individual cloves. A typical garlic bulb may contain as many as a dozen or more cloves, but plant only the biggest ones, pointy side up. They should be pressed into the soil with the pointy tips only an inch or so beneath the soil surface. Space the cloves about four to six inches apart, depending on how large they are. Elephant garlic cloves can be spaced 6 to 8 inches apart.

Water the newly planted bed to allow the cloves to settle in. Cover lightly with soil and apply a two inch layer of straw on top. Straw has become rather expensive in the past few years. I have seen it for sale for as much as $21 a bale and I will not pay that much. The past few years I have used two year old hay that is already beginning to decompose. Try to avoid using fresh hay, since it will contain many viable weed seeds. After two or three years of sitting outside, far fewer weed seeds remain, but you will still need to weed the bed diligently next spring. Garlic does not compete well with weeds, particularly grassy weeds.

If all goes well and if we have an extended, mild, fall season, the garlic will sprout and may send up green shoots by the time the ground freezes and the snow falls. If chipmunks or other critters dig up the cloves, use your choicest swear words and simply replant the beds. The critters may eat a few of the cloves, but rarely will they eat all of what they uproot. This year I left a dead chipmunk on top of the newly planted bed as a warning to its kin to keep away. It seemed to work as I noticed the dead chipmunk had been moved, but the bed was not dug up.

If the garlic sprouts, this a good sign since it indicates that the cloves have rooted in the soil and are not likely to “heave” when we get freezes and thaws. You may add another inch or two of straw on top of the sprouts but it is not absolutely necessary.

Next spring the green garlic sprouts will be among the first signs of life in your garden. In late April or May I will sometimes apply a liquid fertilizer such as Miracle Grow to spur vegetative growth, but only if the shoots appear stunted.

Reach Bob Beyfuss at rlb14@cornell.edu.

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