October is not only the month we harvest many of our fall crops, but also a time when we plant certain things in anticipation of next year’s harvest. Winters in upstate New York can be tough on a person’s psyche, but expecting good things to end up happening in the spring, thanks to a little work now, makes them more tolerable.
I planted garlic last weekend in the raised bed that grew bush beans last summer. The bean harvest was excellent for most of August and September and I felt no guilt removing the plants that were still in bloom. You can only eat a limited number of green beans in a season and they just don’t seem to be worth freezing or canning. Unlike many home-grown vegetables, green beans from the supermarket taste almost as good as the ones I grow in my garden.
There are basically two general types of garlic; soft neck and hard neck. Soft-necked garlic lends itself to braiding and makes wonderful winter gifts for those of you who like to make homemade gifts. I find hard necked varieties easier to grow and store, and large bulbs make great gifts as well. Few people who love to cook will be disappointed with a gift of homemade garlic this holiday season.
It is worth taking the time to prepare the garlic bed before you plant. After removing the spent bean plants and any weeds that were present, I turned the soil over and worked in a few inches of peat moss, with a few pounds of dried blood mixed in. Garlic is a heavy consumer of fertilizer. Plowing in 2-3 pounds of dried blood per 100 square feet of area will ensure adequate fertilizer next summer, as this organic source of nutrients slowly becomes available to maturing plants. While I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to add phosphorus fertilizer, adding a pound of bone meal can’t hurt. Peat or compost, if you have it, is also important for replacing organic matter in the soil, which has broken down while the beans are growing. Most vegetable crops deplete soil organic matter considerably, even after only one or two seasons. Organic fertilizers alone are not enough to replenish lost organic matter.
After carefully incorporating and mixing the organic material 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 can contain up to a dozen or more cloves, but only plant the larger ones with the pointed side up. They should be driven into the ground with the sharp tips only about an inch below the soil surface. Space the cloves about four to six inches apart, depending on their size. Elephant garlic cloves can be spaced 6 to 8 inches apart.
Water the newly planted bed to allow the cloves to settle. Cover lightly with soil and apply a two-inch layer of straw on top. Straw has become quite expensive in recent years. I’ve seen it sell for up to $ 21 a bale and I won’t pay that much. In recent years I have used two-year-old hay which is already starting to decompose. Try to avoid using fresh hay, as it will contain many viable weed seeds. After two or three years outside, there are far fewer weed seeds left, but you will still need to diligently weed the bed next spring. Garlic does not compete well with weeds, especially grassy weeds.
If all goes well and we have a prolonged, mild fall season, the garlic will sprout and be able to produce green shoots as the ground freezes and snow falls. If chipmunks or other critters dig up the cloves, use your swear words and just replant the beds. Critters may eat a few cloves, but they rarely eat everything they uproot. This year I left a dead chipmunk above the newly planted bed to warn its parents to stay away. This seemed to work as I noticed the dead chipmunk had been moved, but the bed had not been dug up.
If the garlic is sprouting, this is a good sign as it indicates that the cloves have rooted in the ground and are not likely to ‘hang up’ when we get freezes and thaws. You can add an inch or two of straw on top of the sprouts, but it’s not absolutely necessary.
Next spring, 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 stimulate vegetative growth, but only if the shoots appear stunted.