There are two foods that really make life worth living: chocolate and garlic. While I can’t grow my own chocolate, I certainly can cultivate garlic. It is really easy to grow, and the resulting crop enhances the flavors of so many savory dishes.
Fall is the time to plant garlic. You also can plant in the spring, but the resulting bulbs will be much smaller.
If you are a first-time grower, you’ll need to purchase “seed garlic” at your local garden center or from an online source. Seed garlic is another name for garlic bulbs, which are certified to be disease-free and are comprised of several individual cloves. Since each clove will grow into a large bulb containing many more cloves, you’ll get a great return on your initial investment. In subsequent years, use cloves from your previous harvest rather than having to buy more.
There are two types of garlic: hardneck and softneck. Elephant garlic is a member of the onion family but not a true garlic. Hardnecks have a stiff central stalk and produce four to 12 cloves within a bulb; the cloves tend to have a more intense flavor. Softnecks have a softer stem, produce more cloves within larger bulbs and generally have a milder flavor. If you want to braid your harvest together, grow softnecks. The huge cloves of elephant garlic have a mild taste.
My favorite hardneck varieties are German Porcelain, German Red, Music and Spanish Roja.
Inchelium Red is a very reliable softneck variety for this region.
Loosen the soil of the planting bed to a depth of about 4 inches and mix in a bit of bone meal, which is an organic soil amendment high in phosphorus. Gently split apart the garlic bulbs into individual cloves.
Push each clove down into soil – making sure the pointed end faces upward – until there are 2 inches of soil above the top of the clove. Space hardneck and softneck cloves 6 inches apart and elephant garlic cloves 12 inches apart. Be sure to label your plantings so you remember what they are at harvest time next summer.
Once the entire bed has been planted, cover it with a thick layer of mulch: grass clippings from an untreated lawn, shredded leaves or straw all work well. This insulates the soil in order to prevent frost-heaving during the winter.
The sprouts will begin to emerge in early spring. If you used grass clippings for mulch, move them out of the way as they can mat together and impede plant growth. Other mulches can remain in place. Water regularly and weed as necessary so they won’t compete with the garlic.
In early summer, hardneck garlic plants form “scapes,” those curlicue stems that will develop a flower if left in place. It’s important to remove them so the plants continue developing the bulbs instead of using energy to bloom. The scapes have a mild garlic flavor and make a delicious addition to many dishes.
Harvest garlic plants when the lowest two leaves turn brown. Carefully pull them up and move them to a sheltered, dry area such as a shed, carport or garage until the stalks are completely dry and brittle. You also can hang plant bundles in a shady, sheltered area to dry.
At that point, you can preserve your harvest for later use by clipping off the main stem and storing the bulbs in a cool, dry area such as a basement or insulated garage.
Learn more about growing garlic in this week’s “Everyone Can Grow a Garden” video at youtube.com/susansinthegarden.
Susan Mulvihill is author of “The Vegetable Garden Pest Handbook.” She can be reached at [email protected]