YOU’RE PROBABLY BUSY planting tulips, hyacinths and daffodils right now, but don’t forget that garlic, too, is an autumn-planted bulb. I’d nearly forgotten to plant my own crop of Allium sativum until thoughts of vampires jostled my memory. Read on, and I’ll show you how to sow, grow, harvest and store the bulbs:
There are two kinds of garlic — soft neck and hard neck. Soft neck varieties, including ‘Early Italian Purple,’ have thick, papery skins. This is the garlic you want for long-term storage (long-term meaning winter and early spring).
Hard neck types, like ‘Spanish Roja,’ have thin skins, and thus do not keep well. But — and this is a mighty important but — they produce the curly flowering heads, or “scapes,” pictured above. These scapes, which should be cut off when they emerge (they interfer with bulb-development) make the most divine pesto in the world. Personally, this is all the reason I need to grow hard neck garlic.
Planting – No matter which variety you grow, be sure to plant in autumn, well before the ground freezes. Choose an area which receives full sun. First, loosen the soil to a depth of 8 inches, and amend it with copious quantities of leaf mold. Next, separate individual cloves from a big head of garlic, and plant them 3 inches deep and about 6 inches apart, in rows which are 6 inches apart. Plant with the pointed tips up. Finally, cover the cloves and gently firm the soil.
Feeding & Watering – When green shoots begin to grow in spring, sprinkle between the rows an organic, balanced fertilizer. Provide one inch of water per week. So cared for, you can count on each little clove to produce one stem and one bulb, which in turn may include 20 individual cloves. Talk about a return on your garlic-investment!
Harvesting – Just when to dig the bulbs is largely a matter of intuition. Some gardeners harvest exactly 3 weeks after the scapes appear. Others insist on delaying harvest until one-half to two-thirds of the leaves turn brown. Still others claim that harvest time is when the garlic tops fall over, and 3 leaves have withered. I’m in this last camp. Of course, I always check first, by digging one or two bulbs. If the garlic seems to have formed individual cloves, and these are tightly covered with papery tissue, then I go ahead and harvest.
Curing – Now let the bulbs dry, or “cure” for three to eight weeks in some warm, airy place which is out of the sun. I cure mine in the garden shed, setting the bulbs — their stems still intact — on an old window screen. The screen is balanced between two pots. This arrangement affords air circulation from both above and below. Once cured, brush off any clinging soil. Do not actually wash the bulbs until you are ready to use them.
Winter Storage – Garlic needs cold temperatures to store well. If you can manage it, 35°F is ideal. Mine have kept well at 40°-45° degrees. You can cut off tops now, if you don’t plan to braid them — a job which requires more dexterity than I possess. The fright-wig of roots can be clipped before storage, too. I try to use up my hard neck varieties by Christmas. My soft neck types are stored exactly like onions — in the cold, dark cabinet in my mud room, knotted up in panty hose.
Got a garlic question to ask, or a comment to share? Post your thoughts in the comments below.
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