I’ve been looking at my garlic harvest as it cures on my back porch. Not impressive. This is the 2nd year in a row it did not pump up. Last year I blamed the weather, but 2015 was a good growing season. What went wrong and is it worth my trying again? That’s the topic of today’s podcast. Whether or not you had garlic woes this year, it’s a good refresher on what a garlic bulb needs. Listen in, or keep reading for the full write-up.
Do you realize it takes 9 months to grow garlic? That’s a big investment. Which got me thinking why I do it, since this is the 2nd year my coddled garlic only grew to golf ball size. It’s still fresh, pungent, and delicious, but it is definitely puny.
So what went wrong? Actually, there are a lot of things that can go wrong with garlic and many of them are out of the gardener’s control. There’s no reason to beat yourself up if your garlic turns out less than stellar, but that’s no consolation. Since it’s almost time to plant next season’s garlic, it’s worth a refresher course on garlic growing woes.
In the case of the puny garlic bulbs, my first suspicion is to look to the soil. Good sized garlic really requires 3 givens:
1. Quality seed garlic. Since I didn’t have impressive garlic last season, I purchased new seed garlic last fall. I went with German White, from Seed Savers Exchange. I’ve always gotten good garlic from them in the past and German White has done very well here. I don’t think the seed garlic was the problem.
2. Regular water. We had plenty of rain this spring and very few truly hot days. When rain was scarce, I turned on the sprinklers. Since none of the other plants in the garden show the slightest sign of water stress, I’m thinking that’s not it.
3. Loose, rich soil. Although we tend to plant it and forget it, garlic can be a prima dona and I think I did not pamper it enough with lush soil. When I say prima dona, I mean it.
Garlic does not like having to compete with neighboring plants, whether they are weeds or something you’ve chosen to grow. It wants all the water and nutrients for itself. Garlic is not great for companion planting.
It also does not like having to fight with compacted soil. When it’s ready to fill out, it wants an easy job of it.
The soil had better be well draining, but moisture retentive. I know, I’ve never understood what that means either. The point is, garlic needs a lot of moisture, but it doesn’t want to sit in wet soil. It will take what it can, as water passes through the soil, but you’ll have to repeatedly water. You can’t make up for a dry spell by drenching the area.
As for rich – we’re talking a healthy dose of organic matter. Let’s face it, without organic matter, we don’t have any of the other requirements. Organic matter affects the soil’s structure, how much water it can hold and how quickly it flows through, even how well plants can access soil nutrients.
Since most of us don’t have the organic content of our soil measured, err on the safe side and work in at least 3 – 4 inches of good compost, a week or 2 before you plant your bulbs this fall.
Nitrogen (N) is another soil essential that needs replenishing regularly. Garlic needs a lot of nitrogen to grow its leafs and stalks. Top dress with something like blood meal, after planting. Next year, side dress 2 or 3 times more during the spring and early summer. Stop when you see the scapes starting to form. You want the plants to beef up early, but once the scapes form, the bulb is beginning to plump up and adding more nitrogen will only draw energy away from the bulb and into the leaves.
Of course, garlic needs a well balanced diet with all the essential nutrients. Since it is a root crop, don’t skimp on the potassium (K). Good compost should have potassium in it. (Keep tossing in those banana peels.) But I still like to add a bit of green sand. Green sand is mined from old sea beds. In our area, it mostly comes from New Jersey. It’s not just a great source of potassium, it has a lot of micro nutrients in it and does a good job of conditioning soil and improving its texture.
Okay, we’ve got the water, weeds, and soil covered. Is there anything else we can do to hedge our bets that next year’s garlic will be the best ever? Sure. Here are a few more tips:
❦ Don’t plant too early. Wait until after a frost, to plant your garlic. In our area, we can plant up until early November, snow permitting. And when’s the last time we had snow cover in early November? Planting earlier is convenient for the gardener, but it makes it all the more likely the cloves will sprout in the fall and deplete their stored energy reserves. Wait.
❦ Plant deeply. Get those cloves safely tucked in a minimum of 2 inches deep. Three or 4 inches is even better, in our area. And remember to plant pointed end up. An upside down planted bulb will eventually figure out which way to grow, but it will waste a lot of energy in the process.
❦ Give them plenty of room. Six to 8 inches between cloves is ideal. Even though you are not going to get 6 inch bulbs, the bulbs need that extra space to grab water and nutrients. Remember, garlic does not play well with other plants – even other garlic plants.
❦ Mulch. It might look like nothing is going on after planting, but the cloves will start to send down roots almost immediately. Initially the mulch will help to keep the soil cool and suppress sprouting. Once the soil freezes, the mulch will help to keep it frozen, which is a good thing. Repeated freezing and thawing will push the cloves upward in the soil. This is called heaving and it’s not a good thing for any plant. It exposed their crowns and roots to freezing temperatures and can stunt or kill the plant. It’s one thing for the top of a plant to die back, but we have to protect the roots and crowns.
And finally, make an offering to the garlic gods. I like to cook something simple with the garlic I just harvested and give thanks. I guess that wasn’t enough this year. I’ll have to up the ante with a feast.
Well, now I’m hungry. Don’t forget to order your garlic soon, if you don’t have any saved to plant. They sell out of the good stuff early. Here’s to a great harvest!