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Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

A Perfect Fall Day
Time to plant garlic for next year's harvest

by Carolyn Singer
November 19, 2011

garlicWarmed by the afternoon sun, my gardening efforts are peaceful and almost dreamy as I clear a bed that for months has provided a harvest of peppers, eggplants, Nasturtiums and Cosmos. The scent of the soil, the fragrance of the nearby silverberry in full autumn bloom, and the slower pace of fall, combine to remind me of the abundance of my garden as I clean up the remains.

Once all the spent garden material has been piled at one end of the bed, I add some of the straw that mulched the summer veggies and flowers. I'll come back later and cover the pile with poultry manure. There are plenty of worms present to get started on the pile, hastening it toward decomposition.

I have a goal, even in this relaxed state: planting the garlic crop. To be leisurely about it on a warm fall day is a gift. There are plenty of years when I have planted garlic hastily in the chill of a November day, more intent on returning to the warmth of the fire in my wood stove than enjoying the task at hand.

Much of the straw spread last summer is left on the garlic bed. I add a one-inch layer of decomposed poultry manure, now low in nitrogen. Garlic is a heavy feeder for several months! Rock powders are essential, even if they were added just a few months ago for the summer garden. Colloidal phosphate (or soft rock phosphate) is an important addition for development of strong roots and formation of cloves. Twenty pounds per hundred square feet is a bare minimum -- it would be difficult to overdo this nutrient.

Oyster shell changes the soil pH, making the phosphorus more available. I add five pounds per hundred square feet. When soils cool in fall, phosphorus absorption by plants slows. My goal is phosphorus availability for early root growth before winter dormancy, and then again for bulb formation when growth becomes active in early spring.

Using my four-tine cultivator, I work the amendments (including the straw) into the top six inches of soil, creating a planting bed that is loose and fertile -- in "good tilth". Extra effort in soil preparation if your soil is heavy clay is important. Absorption of nutrients is one goal. Even more critical is that the soil not be too heavy. This past year, late rains interfered with the garlic harvest, and some local growers actually lost their crop because of poor drainage.

garlic soaking in kelpCloves divided this morning have been soaking in a kelp solution for the past hour, a teaspoon to a quart of water. The larger cloves of "Music" and "Georgian Fire" are placed six to eight inches apart, and the smaller cloves of "California Late White" four to five inches apart. The more fertile your soil, the closer they may go. Each is pushed into the soft soil, covering the top with one and a half inches. Some straw stays on the soil surface, providing a light mulch to protect the bed from heavy rains. Often I add a light covering of compost.

Smaller cloves are planted separately, grown as a perennial for "green garlic" (photo, bottom left). Multiple shoots form, increasing in numbers each year. The harvest of green garlic starts long before the main garlic harvest, and provides months of mild garlic shoots which are harvested by cutting them just below the soil surface, leaving the roots to generate more growth the following year.

garlic scapesThe next harvest will be the scapes, beautifully twisting stems supporting buds. These form before the main harvest, and are special spring delicacy, chopped and added to greens or asparagus. Use all of the stem and the bud.

Soil prep and fall planting my garlic doesn't take long in the permanent beds I have been tending. Mine is a no-till garden, and has been for twenty-five years. Perhaps I have even reached the elusive "no work" garden Ruth Stout lured me toward, back in the seventies when I first started gardening on Sonntag Hill! No wonder I am relaxed and dreamy at the end of yet another abundant gardening season.
green garlic

©2011 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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