Garden Gossip with Ted Smith

In this week’s Garden Gossip we are going to take a little segue in response to a number of requests that have recently come my way. Right now is prime garlic planting weather and a number of people have requested a garlic planting primer aimed at growers with little or no experience. We have looked at how to grow garlic in years past but in light of these requests it would seem appropriate to re-visit the topic. We can return to the theme of planting for fall colours in next week’s column.

Today I prepared enough garden space for about 12,000 garlic plants. If you have never planted garlic before, a little care spent getting the beds ready now will go a long way to ensuring the best possible crops when next August rolls around. First, garlic needs as much sun as it can possibly get. I’ve seen garlic grow quite happily in deep and complete shade but beneath the seemingly normal greens I’ve found only tiny disappointing bulbs. Sun is critical to a garlic plant’s ability to form the plumpest possible bulbs. Next, have an eye to soil moisture. While even soil moisture is extremely important to growing mammoth garlic, wet soils can be the kiss of death. Avoid planting your garlic in low areas or depressions where water may pool. This is important both in the spring when garlic can rot in overly cold and wet conditions as well as in August when overly wet soils can lead to fungus, molds and various rots right around harvest time. Garlic that is water stressed right before harvest seldom cures properly and almost inevitably spoils in storage. Once your site is selected it is time to consider soil amendments and tilling. Garlic is a fairly heavy feeder. It also spends nine to ten months in the same small patch of soil so placing some “food” in easy reach while preparing the ground for planting works very well. Spreading about an inch deep layer of compost or rotted manure over the soil and then tilling it in should produce optimum results. After you’ve done this, take the time to slowly walk your garlic beds and carefully remove any visible rocks that could impair the development of future bulbs.

Selecting the right garlic for planting is the first, and arguably most important, step. Buy garlic “seed” from reputable suppliers in order to avoid importing any of the various diseases that you may find in cheaper garlic. Avoid grocery store garlic like the plague unless you can find some that is clearly marked Product of Ontario. You could get some decent returns from these. When selecting seed garlic you will have to decide if you want to grow hardneck or softneck. Hardneck is the variety generally recommended for colder climates but there are a few softneck varieties that will perform quite serviceably. Softneck garlic is what you often see in braids as they have only soft pliable leaves and no tough stems. The only real downside to softneck garlic varieties is that they are a less robust plant and can experience difficulties penetrating soil crusts and mulches in early spring. Hardneck garlics are so named as they grow a tough fibrous central stem topped by garlic’s version of flowers. The cloves of hardneck garlic are arranged evenly around this stem whereas the cloves of softneck varieties form more like overlapping petals of a tightly closed flower. Once you have your garlic seed in hand you have only the weather to wait for. Garlic should be planted four to six weeks before the ground freezes. You want newly planted garlic to have time to establish roots but not enough time for green sprouts to emerge before the snow flies. Early sprouting of your garlic will lead to smaller bulbs down the road as all the energy spent growing leaves in the fall is completely wasted. The day before you plant is the time to “crack” your garlic bulbs. Cracking is the act of separating bulbs into individual cloves (be careful to keep the thin wrapper intact as this “skin” protects your garlic cloves from disease and insects during their early formative stage). The cloves are what you will plant, but only the large ones. Garlic is a clone so planting large cloves will lead to large bulbs. Bearing this in mind, set any small cloves aside to use in the kitchen. Alternatively, you can plant a patch of small cloves to harvest early and use as green onions in the spring. Garlic cloves are planted with the flat end down and the pointed end up. They should be about eight to ten centimeters deep and fifteen to twenty centimeters apart in all directions (in either beds or rows). Garlic that is planted to closely will end up with crowded root systems and small bulbs. Once your garlic is planted is should be mulched for the winter. A nice layer of organic mulch will keep the garlic from suffering frost heaves in the winter and will have multiple benefits come summer. Speaking of, next summer we can return to this topic with some tips on seeing your garlic through to harvest. For now, the weather is perfect so get that garlic in the ground.