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Is Your Garlic in the Ground?

You Bet Your Garden

Question of the Week © 2024 Mike McGrath

Note: Hundreds of Mike's informative articles are available (in alphabetical order!) right here at the Gardens Alive website. To find Mike's answers to your specific garden problem, Click here and find your topic (like Weeds, Worms, Rhododendrons...) in our complete alphabetical archive of Questions of the Week.

Nobody seems to have asked about garlic this Fall, but we're going to tell you all about it anyway because garlic is one of my absolute favorite plants. By the time this segment airs in about ten days, I HOPE to have all of mine in the ground, but there's still time for all of you out there to plant a bed for harvest next summer. (My official excuse for not planting {quote} "when the kids go back to school" is my tomatoes are still producing, my daughter Amanda got married in Virginia, and the cat ate my homework.)

Yes, that is three reasons. I think you should know that you're about to take gardening advice from someone who can't count. To one.

We begin.

Hardneck vs Softneck types.

Hardneck garlics are THE choice; they do well in the worst of winters and have far superior flavor and wrapper color than softnecks. Their biggest fault is that they do not store well. My hardnecks (typically picked in early July) start to show green at their tips mid-to-late September. That's only about ten weeks of best-taste freshness, so you need to work your crop carefully.

Hardneck Assembly Line:

When the bottom third of a majority of your plants have turned brown, pull up a sample bulb. If it looks like a big leek, rinse it off, chop it up and enjoy it in a dish. (Pulled garlic will not cooperate with replanting.) Wait about a week and try again. If the bulb is nice and big and has an intact paper wrapper, start harvesting a portion of the crop every day. If the wrapper has started to split, harvest it all. Never wait until the plants have turned completely brown or your harvest will look like George Washington's teeth.

Let the bulbs 'cure' in a dry airy place that is NOT in direct sun for a week. (My garlic cures on a big table in a screened porch with a ceiling fan, which is ideal.) Turn the bulbs occasionally. At the end of this process carefully brush the dirt off the bulbs, but do not wash them. Now comes the fun part--inspect each bulb carefully for damage and use those cloves first.

Then start breaking the bulbs carefully into individual cloves. Really big cloves go into a container for replanting. Smaller ones are for fresh cooking and drying. By replanting only the largest cloves you will develop a strain that produces many more large cloves than small ones.

Drying: Before the end of say, August, take all the cloves you don't intend to plant, slice them up and place the slices in a food dryer/dehydrator. When they are bone brittle dry you have two choices.

#1: the classic method. Place your bone-dry cloves in a coffee grinder that has never been used for coffee and whiz them into a powder. Pour the powder into repurposed spice jars with shaker lids, adding one to three of those little desiccating pouches or little plastic cylinders that come with vitamins and running shoes and use the powder as you would fresh garlic. Once you make your own you will never go back to store-bought garlic powder.

#2: the gourmet way. Take your little chunks of dried garlic and put them into repurposed spice jars and grind them as needed, just like coffee beans. If you thought the summer-made powder was good, this will knock your socks off.

If you wear socks.

Softneck garlic: Do we HAVE to? Okay, harvest as above and use damaged cloves right away. Then you can just hang what's leftover on a wall where it will get good air circulation. Or yes, you can braid them into a beautiful garlic wreath. Gag me! Unless you're in a climate so warm you don't know what an ice dam is, grow hardnecks--okay?

Planting. You know, maybe this should have been first, but if you know this show you should not be surprised. Wherever you live, plant garlic during the month of September. The further North you are, the earlier the better. You can plant later, but the earlier you plant the bigger size potential for your harvested bulbs.

Your garlic may sprout this calendar year, but don't panic if it don't. DO mulch newly planted beds with a light loose material like shredded leaves or pine straw. Do not use a heavy mulch like wood chips. And you know what? If you use wood chips as a mulch for anything, you might as well give up before The Red Cross arrives with blankets, chocolate and a lawyer for your plants.

Then do what is the most important chore in gardening: NOTHING. If your garlic didn't sprout in the Fall, it will in the Spring--unless you REALLY screwed up. If your soil is not compost rich, feed in May or early June with a nice organic fertilizer. Do NOT use any kind of 'miraculous' chemical fertilizer or I will find out and come after you--and it won't be pretty.

When little bulges ('scapes') appear at the top of the central stalk, cut them off and eat them. Then harvest as above. Or before. What are you--a cop? Just do what I say!

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