I am fascinated by all the alliums, but especially garlic. It is the one veggie of which we can grow a full year's supply, and our homegrown garlic is finer and more varied than we could possibly buy. Many of you share my passion for garlic, as reflected in the many thoughtful comments to my previous GrowVeg posts on planting garlic, and then harvesting and curing the crop.
But there's more. I also get direct emails that raise intriguing garlic planting issues, for example the way some bulbs refuse to separate into perfectly plantable cloves:
"What do you do about the cloves where the paper skin comes off as you are separating them? This happens to me a lot when I prepare to plant. Part or most of the paper wrapper will separate from the clove. Can you still plant these?"
What a great question! Garlic bulbs naturally shrink as they cure, and then shrink more in storage. This is the natural course of things, because dormancy lasts only so long, and the cloves must get busy changing into new plants. This natural shrinkage makes garlic cloves easier to peel, but naked cloves are not what you want in your garden. The wrapper/skins contain chemical compounds that do various things – inhibit the emergence of a sprout until roots have formed, deter invasive microbes, and probably leach "come hither" signals to appropriate strains of garlic-friendly bacteria.
My soil is very active, biologically speaking, and cloves that enter that world need to be wearing their full armor. If I have more naked cloves than I can use, I dry them and make small batches of delicious garlic powder, or slice and pickle them just like other quick pickles.
The Need to Feed
The next notable letter came in late spring, when a reader with new raised beds described a fall garlic planting that simply failed to thrive: "They are not growing and look spindly and pale. I dug up a plant and the roots looked healthy enough, just scrawny."
After a flurry of correspondence, the problem was no fertilizer, which is an essential step in garlic planting. Eventually I distilled our e-conversation into the following two paragraphs, which are part of my new e-book on growing garlic:
Garlic should be considered a heavy feeder, because it will not grow as it should without supplemental nitrogen. Do not skip mixing in a balanced organic fertilizer or high nitrogen compost (such as compost made from poultry manure) when preparing the garlic bed for planting. Regardless of how great your soil is, it does not hold enough nitrogen to completely satisfy garlic.
To concentrate nutrients where they are most needed, I work a light application of a balanced organic fertilizer into the entire bed, and then form V-shaped planting furrows with a hoe. I fill the furrow halfway with screened homemade compost and a light sprinkling of organic fertilizer before planting garlic cloves knuckle deep. Placing a cache of nutrients below the cloves insures that the roots will find it early on, and hopefully use up all the nutrients just as the bulbs mature. This is the nutritive story you want for your garlic. The soil should be well supplied with nutrients so it can support strong growth in spring. By then most of the roots will be growing so deep that you are not likely to reach them with fertilizers applied at the surface.
What Types to Grow
The top question I hear when I give gardening talks is "What types of garlic should I grow?" and my best answer is "all of them." I have been growing garlic in various locations for many years, and though I have favorites, my collection is constantly changing. Each year I save and replant a few bulbs of "Music' porcelain, "Spanish Roja' rocambole, and little "Korean Red', because it is such a good keeper. Indeed, varieties with small to medium-size bulbs tend to store longer than larger garlic varieties. I also try a new variety each year – this year an early-maturing turban type, in hopes that it is ready to dig in time for summer pickle-making season, and a late-maturing silverskin for braiding. When it comes to planting garlic, there is always new territory to explore.
Don't worry if sorting through garlic types confuses you, because garlic is truly a global crop that has been refined in different ways in various parts of the world. Begin by getting to know a variety or two that are widely grown in your area and sold at local farmers markets, and experiment from there. When planted in properly prepared beds in October, every garlic clove you plant will grow into a beautiful, big-flavor bulb.
The Kindle edition of Barbara Pleasant's new e-book, Growing, Harvesting and Curing Your Home Grown Garlic, is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
By Barbara Pleasant