We are coming up on garlic planting season, around here mid-October to early November. Most of my garlic seed is going into a bed currently occupied by the bush beans. Up until this week the bush beans were showing a second burst of production and I did not want to pull them yet, then things changed suddenly. While I did not expect and did not have a frost around my house, there apparently was one in the community garden this week, just 2 miles away, and the beans are now black while the pole beans struggle on. So I can now pull the beans and get on with preparing my garlic bed.
I have a general idea what I need to do but it was very timely that this week’s Vegetable Notes from the UMass Extension (available here) had advice on preparations for planting garlic. I guess I am not the only one doing it. These preparations are important to getting a good garlic harvest next summer. Here is a summary of what I know from experience and what I gleaned form the newsletter. This advice applies to New England and probably Canada but can be modified for other areas of the US other than the deep South.
- 1. Select healthy, disease-free seed garlic, either from your own harvest from this summer or from reputable growers who certify their garlic to be disease free. While we kind of think of garlic as being relatively trouble free, there are a number of diseases and pests that affect garlic and once introduced into your beds, can be hard to impossible to eliminate. In fact, the newsletter talks of a new pest in NE garlic fields, the garlic bloat nematode, which is spread by transport on seed garlic. That is why it is important to inspect each bulb and select only firm, healthy bulbs. Then when cracking the bulbs into cloves (which should only be done shortly before planting), carefully inspect each clove. Look for unhealthy-looking basal ends, discoloration, any dents or lesions, and cloves that seem lighter than normal. Discard these cloves in the trash, not the compost bin.
2. Select a bed that did not have alliums in it this year (they suggest a 4 year rotation) and prepare it. Garlic likes a light, well-drained soil with good fertility. Before planting, add a general purpose organic fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Commercial farmers test their soil and add only what is needed. I doubt any of us home gardeners do that, but the advice stands. For the Fall, use fertilizer types that will release nutrients slowly over the fall and winter (e.g., use alfalfa meal for N rather than blood meal). Reserve the quick-release nitrogen fertilizers for the Spring side dressing. The newsletter also notes there is some research that shows adding sulfur with the Fall nitrogen application can significantly increase yield.
3. Plant the garlic in the prepared beds in October in northern parts of NE to November for southern New England. For me, I aim for sometime in the last 2 weeks of October. Garlic, just like tulips, requires a period of cold treatment to grow properly. The goal is to plant early enough to allow roots to develop before the ground freezes, but late enough to avoid sprouts from emerging and being damaged by freezing.
4. Each clove is planted 2-4 inches deep depending on the severity of your winters. I probably plant mine 2-3 inches deep. Since I use Square Foot Gardening techniques, I think in squares, not rows. For the larger garlics like German Red and Spanish Roja, I plant 4 per square, which is effectively 6 inch spacing. For the others I plant 5 or 6 per square.
5 You can mulch the garlic after planting. I use about an inch of chopped straw, which helps a bit with cold protection, moisture retention, and weed control. I don’t remove it in the Spring but if you are going to bury your beds in a foot of leaves, you need to remove them in the Spring to allow the beds to warm up and the sprouts to emerge.
6. When the foliage is about 6 inches tall in the spring, side dress the plants with a quick release nitrogen fertilizer. Follow up in 3-4 weeks with another dressing of nitrogen. After this, do not fertilize the garlic again. Do not water the garlic as you approach harvest time to ensure the wrappers are as dry as possible when you dig the garlic.
Thanks to an unforeseen early frost, my designated bed for the garlic is now available. All I have to do is clean it up, add some compost, and then apply some fertilizer. It will be nice to have the garlic in the ground and tick another item off the to-do list. And thanks to the UMass Extension, I have an even clearer picture of what I need to do to help ensure a good crop in 2015. Add to that I am planting 2 new varieties this Fall (Duganski and German Red) and I am pretty optimistic. While you have to exercise a little caution, garlic is still relatively easy to grow and has a huge payoff relative to effort invested.