Anything not benefiting from the addition of chocolate will probably benefit from the addition of garlic. – Culinary proverb.
Just when you thought the gardening year was over and it was safe to put your tools away for winter, it’s time to plant garlic. The most pungent member of the onion family, earning its namesake as the ‘Stinking Rose’, garlic is a staple ingredient in many kitchens.
Somewhat unusual to other vegetables, garlic starts it’s life cycle by developing roots in the cold soil. In the spring, after at least two months of chilling, green shoots that have waited all winter, will poke their noses through the earth and take off towards the sun like little rockets. By July the 3-foot tall plants will be anchored to the ground by bulging bulbs, ready for harvest. By high summer, the plants, like me, will start to complain, showing signs of heat exhaustion, and they’ll need to be moved to a cool, breezy spot.
So garlic is the last veggie to go in the ground and should be planted 3-4 weeks before the ground freezes. Here in Nova Scotia, that is roughly the end of October or early November. Planting now will give the cloves time to establish their roots but not enough time to grow shoots above the ground to be killed by freezing temperatures.
If planting garlic for the first time you’ll need to buy bulbs from a reputable garden centre or seed company. Don’t be tempted to plant garlic purchased from the grocery stores, much of that has been grown in China and will be a soft necked variety not suitable for climates with cold winters. Growing conditions here require a cold-hardy, hard-necked variety of garlic, of which there are many sub-varieties, each with its own personality and flavour. Hard-necked garlic flourishes in the spring by putting up curly flower stalks, known as ‘scapes’. If you had images of braided garlic hanging from farmhouse kitchen beams then you’ll be disappointed. The base of the stalk will become hard, making it impossible to braid the bulbs and giving rise to the hard-neck name.
When planting garlic, plan to grow enough to provide a surplus for replanting the following year. Choose the biggest and best bulbs to replant. I always feel reluctant to put the best back into the ground, but plant them you must. Your garlic will respond and adapt each year to the particular climate and soil of your garden. So, if you save and replant the best, they will improve with each passing season.
Once you’ve selected your bulbs, crack them apart into individual cloves, taking care not to damage them in any way. With the papery skins intact, plant the cloves, pointed end upwards, in a sunny location in rich, well-drained soil. Plant 3″- 4″ deep, spaced 4″- 6″ apart. If you’re growing in rows, space the rows at 12″- 15″.
Before planting, I always work a layer of compost or well-rotted manure into the soil. Then I simply arrange the cloves and push them into the soft ground as far as my fingers can reach. Since my fingers are roughly 4″ long the cloves should sit at the correct depth. I plant 200 cloves, enough for using in salsas, chutneys, and other pickles, leaving the best for replanting and plenty to keep me eating garlic until the next harvest.
Garlic should be mulched to prevent mid-winter thaws and the resulting winterkill. Wait until the ground is frozen and then add a layer of protective mulch. Often I use old hay or straw, this year I used leaves, that I chopped and bagged with the mower. If you live in an area with wet springs you may need to remove the mulch after the winter, otherwise, leave it in place to prevent summer weeds.
Ahhh garlic, can’t you just taste it already?
There’s nothing quite like the taste of freshly picked, garden-grown garlic, crisp and pungent at first, mellowing with storage. To my mind, garlic is one of the easiest and most rewarding plants you can grow, so if you don’t have the time for a demanding vegetable garden, try to find a space for a patch of garlic. Come summer, you’ll be eating garlic bread like nothing you’ve ever tasted before.