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  • Writer's pictureDawn Bly

Grateful for Garlic--Part 1 (Fall to Winter)

My Very Dear Lovely Assistant:

Tubs of recently harvested garlic
Garlic Harvest 2022

If there is one area of our lives where we have achieved sustainability, it is in growing garlic, which we have grown together for over a decade. I cannot say enough good things about growing your own garlic in Kansas City.

What is not to like? Consider:

1. Squirrels, rabbits and insect pests pass it by. Nothing fights me for it--have you ever fought a losing battle with the squirrels over your tomatoes? Frustrating. I appreciate the peace and quiet of growing garlic. While I will occasionally find one or two bulbs growing elsewhere in my garden that I know the squirrels have transplanted, they do not rip bulbs wholesale out of my garlic beds. Have you pretended to be a squirrel and sunk your front teeth into a raw garlic clove lately? It is not a pleasant experience.

2. Usefulness! Garlic is tasty and universally used in savory dishes.

3. It makes a fantastic pickle. Our family has a difficult time succumbing to wintertime colds or other bugs when we have been dining on pickled garlic on a regular basis. No, sweet pickled garlic tastes nothing like raw garlic, and we do not have the smell come through the pores on our skin, even after binging on garlic pickles. They are a great way to get more garlic in your diet if you need it for health reasons. (And we do!)

4. Garden efficiency. Garlic is planted in the fall and harvested in early summer, so if you plan a little in advance, you can easily get two harvests in a year from the same patch of dirt. Three harvests, really, if you count the many uses you can get from harvesting garlic scapes in the spring. I consider it a much better use for the ground rather than having it sit bare collecting weed seeds over the winter.

5. Thriftiness. After planting the cloves in the fall, they must be buried in around six inches of mulch. We use leaf and grass clippings from our lawn, saving on bags for bagging up extra yard waste stuff and hauling it the curb. This deep mulch results in almost no weeding for that area for the period the garlic is growing. (Weeding is a terrible waste of a perfectly good day, in my opinion.)

Varieties we use:

For most of our lives, we used the garlic available at the store, either in bulbs or already minced, but now we prefer the varieties we plant here at the house, as the flavor is more intense, and the convenience is unmatched. When we need some garlic, we can just walk downstairs and grab a bulb from one of the netted bags hanging from the rafters, rather than having to dash to the store or farmer's market. We grow two hardneck varieties, Music and German Red. (Just so you know, we only picked those because when we were purchasing seed bulbs, those were the only two varieties fitting our needs that were still in stock for the seed vendor we prefer. We do really like these varieties, though!) There are many varieties of garlic that will grow just fine in this area. Since becoming more attuned to the subtleties of garlic, I have learned that I like the Music variety when I need a roasted bulb with a less intense flavor, or when I am making a dish with raw garlic in it, such as hummus or a salad dressing. This variety has bigger cloves (therefore fewer in number per bulb) than my German Red does, and it looks handsome on the table when served up as a roasted bulb for spreading on bread. The German Red has smaller cloves and a more intense flavor. It also seems to last longer in storage in my basement, so I am comfortable using up more Music than German Red after harvesting, for a while. I prefer German Red for my pickling and canning uses, as well as in cooking when I need a hit of big garlic flavor, such a pizza or lasagna.

Fall pickles, herbs and garlic.
Garlic is harvested in summer, and ready to consume by fall!

How to plant:

We run our garlic harvest by the calendar. November 1 is our go-to day for planting

garlic. Some farmers in this area swear that planting by Thanksgiving is the way to go, but I prefer an earlier planting time to allow roots more time to develop and also to save Thanksgiving weekend for family activities. After you have ripped out and disposed of your summer garden, till or otherwise prepare a patch for your garlic bed. You will need a few inches loose below the cloves to facilitate root development and large bulb growth.

In the winter and fall the bed does not need to be in full sun, as it is developing the root system it needs during that time, so structural and tree shade issues are not nearly as great for garlic as for other crops (by springtime, though, the bulbs will benefit from full sun). The leaves are going to fall from the trees anyway. I do not find a patch of garlic to be as pretty to look at as, say, a lily bed in full bloom, so you may want to locate it in a less showy area of your yard, if you have a space enough to make such pleasant choices. Also make sure that taller varieties of garlic, such as Music, are located behind shorter varieties like German Red, so each can catch enough rays during the spring! Sometimes you can lose track of where the garlic bed is when we have a large snowfall or ice storm, so just make sure that everyone who will have access to that part of the yard knows not to walk on it in the winter, as the bulbs do not appreciate being stepped on while sleeping. (You probably do not either, for that matter. Yes, I have had hordes of kids who were making snowmen in my front yard tromp through my garlic bed while making Frosty, and the garlic still came up….not to worry if there is an occasional incident.) There are plenty of websites indicating how deep to plant cloves (2-3 inches) and the spacing (6 inches), so do check on those for any details I might have overlooked. Plant cloves with their skins on. Give your future garlic bulbs something to eat for fertilizer, like some compost from your compost pile, as garlic is a heavy feeder. I will plant five rows of garlic, then put an old eight-inch deck board on the ground next to the fifth row so I have something to walk on between rows. I can just reach the center of the five rows from either side of the boards. The board also comes in handy when you need to spread out the mulch cover for winter, as well as to have something to walk on when you need to walk the beds in spring when cutting scapes and other maintenance. Your choice on how wide to make the rows and the space in between, but I just do not need a lot of walking room for this crop’s management.

Teenager prepping garlic
The Lovely Assistant prepping garlic for sowing

You will likely see some stalks come up before the weather turns completely cold, and you will probably panic that your garlic is going to freeze to death over the winter, but believe me, it will be fine. Set it and forget it until late April when you will need to do some maintenance (to be described in part 2).

But how many cloves to plant, you might ask? Here is where you have to know what your cooking patterns are. For us, we usually go through two bulbs a week for ordinary cooking, and approximately 100 bulbs during canning and pickling season (also including the ones we deliberately pickle throughout the year for straight eating). This also gives us a few bulbs for giveaways to friends who enjoy this kind of a gift. For us, the math goes like this:

2 bulbs per week * 52 weeks in a year equals 104 bulbs. I assign this to the Music variety.

100 canning and pickling bulbs. I assign this to the Red German variety.

But wait! There's more!

You need also to plan for seed garlic for NEXT year, too! Eating all your garlic and not saving any for planting the following year is a fantastically expensive way to run a garden budget. Here is where you need to know your garlic bulbs to decide what percentage of extra you want to plant. Our Music variety has larger and fewer cloves per bulbs. I estimate 4 to 5 cloves I can use per bulb for seed garlic. (I only plant the biggest and best cloves from each garlic head...the little ones go into the next soup or lasagna.) So, for 104 bulbs for eating, I will grow a minimum of 26 additional bulbs to maintain our annual consumption. (104/4 = 26. 104 bulbs for eating + 26 next year's seed bulbs = 130 bulbs desired. Each clove should result in a garlic bulb. Therefore, I will need room in my garden to plant a minimum of 130 cloves of Music garlic. Always add a few extra for a slush fund in case of disaster, or if you want to give away garlic for Thanksgiving or Christmas gifts. I will let you run the math for the German Red or whatever variety you use. (I can usually get 6 to 8 good seed cloves from a German Red bulb.)

Unless you have an unlimited budget, expect in the beginning to save most of your garlic for replanting the next year, to build up your reserves of seed garlic. Save the best stuff for planting! Your biggest, healthiest bulbs with the biggest, healthiest cloves on them will grow the best garlic. Eat the scrawniest stuff until you are growing all you need.

We will talk about spring and summer with garlic in a future post. Thanks for reading!

Happy garlic planting!

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