The early morning air is crisp and clear. As I head out to the kitchen garden, brisk winds following on the heels of a faraway tropical storm carry swirls of flossy milkweed seeds. I hope they’ll have a safe landing and germinate in the spring. I’m grateful for plants that take care of themselves season to season by sending out flyaway seeds, like milkweed does, or stolons like asters do. Some plants don’t need us much.
The reproductive industriousness of the milkweed and asters frees me up to turn my attention to plants that do need us. In the kitchen garden I survey a final flush of sprouting arugula. There’s also a row of kale and one of carrots that I’ll continue to harvest into the winter. Mostly, though, it’s time to pull up, cut back, compost, mulch, and generally put the garden to sleep. Except in one of the beds — the one that will hold a crop of garlic.
Everyone should grow garlic. It’s easy to cultivate in almost any patch of soil that gets full sun. And the warm, juicy flavor of garden garlic puts the supermarket variety, most of which is grown in China, to shame. Not only is homegrown garlic good eating, it’s satisfying to grow because it’s firing its engines while the rest of landscape is slipping into somnolence. Planting garlic is like a down payment on spring.
A bulb of garlic, or what cooks call a head of garlic, is made up of a number of cloves, each of which has the potential to create an entirely new plant. Garlic bulbs that are cured and set aside for a new crop are referred to as seed garlic. The hardneck varieties most often planted around here send up scapes — the tender stem of the garlic flower — in early summer. Scapes must be removed from the plants so that all their energy goes to bulb development.
Fortunately, scapes are a crop unto themselves, good in stir frys, pestos, and omelets, or added to just about anything that calls for onions.
Gardeners will see two types of garlic seed on offer: hardneck, allium sativum var. ophioscorodon, and softneck, allium sativum ssp. sativum. The hardnecks are distinguished by their rigid stalks with large, uniform cloves growing in a single layer around them. They tend to have richer flavor but a shorter storage life than softneck varieties; hardnecks will keep for about three months.
Because they have longer shelf lives, the softneck varieties are usually the ones that appear in grocery stores. They have stalks that, as you might expect, remain soft; the heads are made up of many, often small, irregular cloves in multiple layers around the stalk. The cloves have a milder flavor and can be stored for six months or longer.
According to UMass Extension, hardneck garlic is the best variety to grow in New England. I initially got the hardneck that I plant from a friend, and it’s done quite well, so I have continued to replant it each year, choosing the biggest cloves for seed.
If the best garlic to grow is what has thrived in your own garden, first-time garlic farmers can turn to friends or seed purveyors. It’s getting a bit late to order online, but local nurseries and garden centers sometimes have regionally grown seed garlic. Although most of what I found this fall originated in California, Bayberry Gardens in Truro gets seed garlic from the reputable Maine Potato Lady, a supplier in Guilford, Maine.
Just don’t use garlic from the grocery store; you’ll be disappointed. While they can sometimes sprout, supermarket varieties are usually not suited to local growing conditions and are often chemically treated to reduce sprouting.
Remember to plant extra so that if your crop is a stunning success you’ll have what you need to replicate it the following year.
The best time to plant garlic is about three weeks before the first hard freeze. This gives the roots time to begin to develop without sending up the shoots until spring. But garlic is forgiving, and if it sprouts a bit in the fall, it will recover from any frost damage when things start to warm up. I’ve never had any early sprouters seriously damaged by winter weather.
It’s the first mention of Halloween (vampires, garlic, you know) that sparks me to action. But it’s fine to plant right up until the ground freezes. Some folks plant garlic in the spring but, like tulips and other true bulbs, garlic needs sustained chilling time (the scientific term is vernalization) to develop properly.
Garlic needs full sun and loose, well-drained, fertile soil. It grows happily in well-amended Outer Cape soil. To prepare the bulbs for planting, rub off the outer papery layer that holds the bulb together and then separate the cloves, leaving the skins on each individual clove.
Plant cloves about three inches deep, with the flat end (the root plate) facing down into the soil and the pointed end sticking up. Mine do well placed about three inches apart; that’s what I do in my small bed, even though most planting advice says to leave six inches between each future bulb. A good dose of compost and a sprinkling of an organic slow-release fertilizer will boost your crop. Add a few inches of mulch to help reduce soil temperature fluctuation and protect the young plants.
Once the weather begins to warm in the spring, the garlic will begin to show its stuff. When the leaves are five or six inches tall, pull the mulch away and feed the bed again. Be aggressive about weeding — weeds can take over quickly and use up water and nutrients. About an inch of water weekly once the weather starts to warm up is optimal.
If you’ve planted the hardneck variety, scapes should be trimmed in the early summer once the stalks make a complete curl. As the garlic matures, its leaves will begin to yellow. I’ve read that it’s a good idea to stop watering at this point to help harden off the garlic, but since my garlic is in a bed with other crops I’ve never done that, and my results have been good.
Garlic is ready to harvest from early to mid-July on the Cape. When the bottom leaves begin to brown, dig the bulbs, being careful not to damage them. You’ll cut the stems to about 10 inches and then cure your garlic by storing it in a cool, dry, shaded spot for two weeks to extend its shelf life.
After half an hour’s work, my straggling tomato plants have been chucked into the compost pile, and I have four rows of garlic planted, fertilized, mulched, and watered. It’s satisfying to see the formerly bedraggled garden bed looking neat and well tended and to know that with a little help from me the garlic is beginning to do its work. It’s good to be needed.