Toronto Star column – published September 27th, 2014
The Non- prescription Problem Solver
“My purpose in life is to awaken humanity to the goodness of garlic.” The late Ted Maczka, The Garlic King, Prince Edward County
Autumn arrived last Tuesday (it was the 23rd this year) and I bet you weren’t thinking, “It is garlic planting time!” For most of us with planting on our mind, thoughts turn towards tulips, daffodils, fall flowering mums and flowering kale. But garlic?
When the fresh crop of tulip bulbs arrived at your local garden retailer earlier this month, you may have noticed that the garlic arrived also. You might love it or hate it, but there is no arguing that this is the best time of year to put it in the ground.
Growing garlic is oddly counter-intuitive. You might naturally think of planting garlic when you plant your vegetables and herbs in the spring. The ancient herb is grown from a bulb or, to be more precise, a clove, which is broken off of a bulb. In short, you plant the cloves in the fall, harvest the ‘scapes’ early in summer, and harvest the bulbs in August. Here’s how it works:
Use bulbs that you either acquired from friends, the grocery store, or from a reliable garden supplier and be sure of one thing: that they are locally produced. Retailers of seed garlic will tell you that you are smarter to grow ‘seed garlic’ than any old garden variety of grocery garlic. The seed garlic is ‘virus indexed’ meaning is has been grown for the purpose of growing on into more garlic, not for eating. They have been selected for their ability to grow virus free and are therefore disease and insect free at the time of planting. The same can be said for seed potatoes. Sure, the ones that you buy for eating will grow, but will they grow as well as the genuine seed-growing varieties? You might want to grow both side-by-side as an experiment.
Me? I acquired my garlic locally at my brother-in-law, Guys’, pick-your-own farm where he grows buckets of the stuff each year (http://www.farintosh.com/). It is guaranteed ‘local’ and it grows like stink [pun intended].
He is careful to grow the best that he can find, “We grow the variety “Music”. Not the largest or flashiest variety, but very winter hardy and dependable. The Studebaker of garlic. Great taste; any Chinese or Argentinean garlic is a very distant second in taste to fresh Ontario garlic.” I never thought that growing the ‘Studebaker’ of anything was an especially good idea, but, where garlic is concerned, I understand why you would want the tried and true, reliable type.
Prepare the growing area for garlic as you would potatoes and other sun-loving root crops. Carrots, onions, beets and the like enjoy an open, sandy soil. Garlic being one tough customer can be grown in enhanced clay-based soil by adding generous quantities of sharp (construction) sand. Spread the sand about 6 centimeters deep and turn it under several times with a garden fork until the sand/clay soil mix is thoroughly blended together.
If you have reasonably good quality soil, add generous quantities of compost or composted cattle manure to enrich the natural nutrients of the soil.
Peel off the cloves from each bulb carefully and try to keep the papery layer in tact on each clove as it protects the clove while it puts down roots this fall. Make a trench in the soil about 6 cm. deep [2 to 3 inches] and drop each clove into the soil about 20 cm. [7 inches] apart. The rows should be about 50 cm or 1 ½ ft apart.
Plant with the pointy side up. This is a universal rule for bulb planting so once you have it set in your mind, you don’t need to ask the question again, “Which way is up?” Firm each clove into the soft, open soil. Once planted, push the soil into the trench and step on it gently with your boots. I walk gingerly up the row, heel to toe until I reach the end. This places the soil in firm contact with the bulb and creates a trench that will catch the water when you apply it.
Water generously at first. Then let the soil become dry to about 3 cm. deep between watering. Depending on rainfall, you may not have to water the garlic patch again until late spring. If garlic is over watered, it is prone to rot.
Before the hard frost of November and early December your new garlic will start to poke through the soil, giving you a hint next spring of where it is located. This is handy, I find, as I would otherwise just plow the stuff over when preparing the soil come spring. Mark the row with a large sign that will not blow away and mulch each row with 30 cm of fresh straw before winter.
Come spring the best thing you can do for your garlic is to keep the weeds out of the patch. Garlic does not like competition any more than your petunias do. Early July the plants will produce the craziest looking pig tails, called scapes, which are entirely edible and quite expensive at the farmers’ market. Cut them off and use them [or not]. By removing them you increase the size of the garlic bulbs that you harvest later in the season.
Dig (don’t pull) up your garlic in late August, lay it out in the sun for a day or two and then store it in a shaded area with good air circulation for 2 to 3 weeks. Do not store in the direct sun as this will bleach the colour of the garlic and affect the flavour. Handle them gently as they do bruise easily. After a couple of weeks in a shaded, cool place with good air circulation [like your garage] cut the stems off and store in well-ventilated containers in a dark, cool place. The bulbs will remain ‘fresh’ until about April.
Most everyone who loves garlic will tell you that the fresher it is, the better. Also, locally grown is more flavourful. Where fine dining is concerned, my wife, Mary, will tell you that one litmus test for a good restaurant is the quality of the garlic that they use. If the smell of it lingers on into the morning after, the chef has vouched for the cheap stuff. Or maybe they just used too much of it in their cooking. According to her, the worst garlic-smell of all comes from garlic powder.
One thing for sure: good garlic is expensive. My brother-in-law sells his for $2 a bulb or 3 for $5. Put another way, this is a crop that pays for itself if you do it right and plant any time now through October.
Which brings me back to potatoes. If garlic and potatoes grow in the same quality of soil [open and sandy] why would anyone grow potatoes? In season, they can be had fresh for about 5 cents a pound. Garlic, on the other hand, is like a fine wine to people who know their garlic. Give a braid of 5 or 6 of the local, fresh buds to them and they will truly appreciate the value in it. A sack of potatoes, not so much.