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The Great Garlic Debate

'To plant? Or not to plant?" That is the question.

When I first started growing garlic some three decades ago, I followed the long-established rule to plant my cloves on what is now called Indigenous Peoples Day early in October. A few years later, the late Frank Pollock who had a huge garlic farm in the Poconos told me that he and his loosely-affiliated Pocono Garlic Group had begun planting in September instead.

"It's common sense," he asserted. "Frost and freezes start a lot earlier in the Fall up here than they do in your garden, and you get much bigger bulbs by giving the plants that extra month to grow a bigger root system."

...Which got me to thinking. Regions South of me could wait for that supposedly lucky day, but anybody North of me should buy the free insurance of planting early, which reminded me of a speaking gig early in my career. I was talking about garlic and repeated the old line that you should plant on what was then called Columbus Day. An older Italian gentleman sitting up front muttered something under his breath. I don't know exactly what he said but his wife quickly made the Sign of the Cross.

I asked, "did I say something wrong"? Having only been in the country for about 70 years, he spoke no English, but his daughter was sitting right next to him, so he whispered in her ear...

"My father says to plant your garlic on the first day kids go back to school and harvest on the last day of school."

I thought that 'the first day of school' was great advice, but that the second half was way too early in my little micro-climate, where the bulbs are typically the perfect size right around the 4th of July. I announced that I loved the 'first day of school' part and would now make it my recommendation. I would have addressed the issue of his harvest time, but his wife already had her rosary beads out and was quietly whispering Hail Marys.

I'm pretty sure that I was giving that talk in the Greater DC area, where the garlic would be ready to harvest earlier than in PA, so maybe even that advice was sound in a warmer growing zone. I had a bed available, so my first run went in the ground on September 16th. I know the exact date because my intern Sean took pictures of me with the bed for the show's Facebook page and they were posted later that day. And that's when the cloves hit the fan.

Debra posted that she wasn't going to plant until October and mentioned that she was in USDA Zone 5b in Northern Michigan. Significantly colder than me, so I felt she should have had her garlic in the ground already to ensure good root growth before the first hard freeze.

Carol was adamant: "Not until October!" she posted. 'K Zee' was just as adamant but was going to wait until between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, neither revealed their location. Carla posted that she is 'West of Philadelphia' (not a lot of help as that could mean anywhere between the Philly suburbs and Pittsburgh) and always waits until November. Jeff posted: "isn't it too early? I'm just outside Grand Rapids and I usually plant close to Halloween". Deb in Northern Illinois posted that she always waits until mid to late October.

There's more, but you get the idea. I found it interesting that virtually everyone who revealed their location were North of me, and espoused planting (in my opinion) too late. Real simple: The further North you live, you more you should be planting {quote} 'early'. The elderly Italian gentleman had it right--plant when the kids go back to school. There is no disadvantage to planting in September, but you could get a miserable harvest if you garden in a low USDA Growing Zone and wait until your carved pumpkins start to look like The Dog's Breakfast.

I offer as evidence this final Facebook exchange: Jeff of Newmiller Farms (an hour South of Grand Rapids) posted that they planted in September last year and had their best harvest ever. In return, a different Jeff posted that he harvested the smallest bulbs he had ever grown from last season's planting and is now a September fan.

(Yes, I realize that this show will air at the end of September, so let's keep it simple. If you're North of a line extending West from Philadelphia, don't delay. And think about being ready to plant when you see your first school bus next year.)

Oh--an unnamed worker at 'Friends Farm' in central PA posted: "Waiting until late October; the allium leaf miner is still a threat this time of year." Not according to the Penn State Extension Service (which is located in that part of PA). They explain that the female lays her eggs on garlic leaves in the Spring, so there's no need to delay planting now.

And finally, a quick mention that the opposite is true for Spring bulbs. They have a unique growing habit, and in most regions, they should be planted between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Plant too early and they might not flower in the Spring.

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