Well, you can’t stop the rain, bring on more sunshine, or turn down the heat on a scorching afternoon – and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve irrigated only to have some unforecasted system bring more water to an already wet field. Add stressors of wind, continued cold weather, and then a sudden summer heat that creates a warm wet soil, and the next thing you know, the fungi are multiplying and attempting to take over the underworld.
Fungus, mold, viruses, maggots, disease, rot – these are the insidious organisms, their companions, and their effects that, as garlic growers, we all must face, even though they are invisible until it is too late.
What is a poor gardener with only a hoe in hand to do?
Actually, there are quite a few things you can do, and I am here to suggest 25 tips – and this is just to get you started!
The time to plant garlic is NOW through November, depending on your location and climate (I usually plant around Halloween here in Zone 8b). With a little forethought and planning, you can minimize the chances of your garlic garden of paradise descending into a den of decay. However, you need a strategy – one that will guide your garlic through the seasons of its life, from tiny sprout to its final epicurean adventure – one that will ensure your plants will be strong enough to withstand the onslaught of nature and all its nefarious beasts along every step of the journey. Are you ready?
Where to Plant
- Rotate your crops on at least a 3- to 4-year cycle. This is the first rule. I have rarely planted garlic in the same place twice, but that presents its own set of problems (i.e., always thinking ahead and building soil in new places for the following years).
- Build the soil with compost and manures. Lots of organic matter is good. Bulbs tend to grow a bit deformed in clay soil (believe me, I know). “Sandy loam” is often the mantra, but too sandy can also mean too dry (believe me, I know this scenario, too). Grow green manures; turn them in or chop & drop over time. Well-composted manure can add beneficial microorganisms; however, watch out: if it’s too hot, it can burn the garlic while making the environment nice and warm for molds, nematodes, and unwanted destructive guests (double whammy!). Llama manure is not hot; in fact, weed seeds will go right through the gut and out the other end, unfazed. I have effectively planted grass all over my garden with the use of llama manure. A balanced, well-composted compost is best.
- Add other soil amendments as needed. The garlic produces strong roots over the winter and the majority of its leafy green growth in the spring. Bone meal is often a good amendment; garlic likes the extra phosphorous. Adequate nitrogen is also important; if you add it, make it a slow-release type. Our northwest soils usually benefit with a bit of lime.
- Test your soil before planting! Have you thrown together a cocktail of nutrients in the soil and don’t know how potent it is? Such an easy thing to do. Optimum pH is between 6.2 and 7.0. Liming is recommended below 5.8. Garlic is tolerant of pH up to 7.5.
- Liberate the NPK! Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potash/Potassium – believe it or not, you might not need to add anything to your soil. Maybe all it needs is aeration, good drainage, and the good kind of microorganisms that allow the nutrients to be better absorbed. It’s kind of like finding out you have osteoporosis. Swallowing a bottle of calcium pills isn’t going to change anything if you can’t absorb it.
- Encourage microbial growth. (What? I thought they were our enemies!) Actually, it’s good guys vs. bad guys down there, and your job is to make the environment rich for the good guys to win. When you build the soil and fertilize your plants, you are actually feeding microbes, mycorrhizal fungi, protozoa, bacteria, nematodes, and their associated friends, which, in turn, feed and protect your plants. Here is an interesting factoid (from the Ohio State University Extension research): there are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on earth! I’m not sure which census the researchers were using, but it’s a little mind-boggling to think about how many teaspoons of soil you might have in your garden! Clearly, we are outnumbered. There’s a lot going on down there. Bacteria are consuming nitrogen, carbon, and sugars; nematodes and protozoa, in turn, are consuming bacteria and releasing nitrogen in the process; fungi are breaking down carbon life forms and transporting minerals to plants; plants are doing their photosynthesis thing and delivering sugars to the fungi; everything is producing waste products (nitrogen/ammonia), which can be absorbed by the plants. (Whew! Do they ever sleep??) Our best strategy is to make them our allies and NOT eradicate every living thing with massive doses of diluted Agent Orange. They don’t just need NPK; they also need oxygen, hydrogen, sulfur, copper…an assortment of minerals and nutrients not found in bags with NPK labels. They need CARBON. Your best bet? Yep. Good ol’ compost. Cover crops. No-till non-disruptive practices. Books are written on this stuff. And blogs.
- Do not plant garlic in places following cereals (wish I’d known that before planting rye as a green manure crop). Apparently, cereals are hosts to the Fusarium (Basal Rot) fungus (see http://pnwhandbooks.org/plantdisease/node/6043/print). That said, I must also say that I’ve had great success with rye as a cover crop, even though it is reported to have slight allelopathic properties, and can be somewhat difficult to eradicate, especially if it goes to seed. On the other hand, it produces good mulch material, and I am making a mental note to grow more of it expressly for that purpose.
- Build raised beds to ensure good drainage (and remember the earlier comment on too sandy of sandy loam). Raised beds are also warmer. They are the first to sprout weeds in the spring. Especially those facing south. The garlic, too, appreciates that added warmth.
- Think ahead! (see tips #1 and #2) Plant cover crops for where you will plant next year’s crop (and the following, if you can). A mix of clover, vetch, and rye is good; buckwheat is also good, but doesn’t survive the winter; favas, fabas, and assorted peas will add nitrogen; a variety of crops at different times will give you a variety of nutrients. Cover crops provide a smorgasbord for the friendly microbes (tip #6). Keep ‘em happy and your plants will be happy, too.
- Know your garlic. Or better yet, know your garlic farmer. Even better, HUG your nearest garlic farmer. Seriously, there are simply not enough hugs exchanged in this world! But when it comes to garlic, if it’s not your own seed (and I have kept my Juan de Fuca Wonder strain going since 1976!), buy from someone you can get to know, even if it’s online. Have you thought about your local Farmer’s Market as a seed source? Even if the bulbs are rather small, you can size them up over time. Local bulbs will already be acclimated to your growing conditions.
- Avoid grocery store garlic. Grocery store garlic comes from that vague “somewhere” out there (often China) and is often treated with “solutions” to prevent sprouting – not the “solution” to your what-to-plant question!
- Select an assortment of varieties to spread the garlic love over a longer time. Different garlics mature at different times, have different flavors, are best used in different ways, and have different storage capabilities. If you do it right, you could never be without garlic. Hold that thought!
- Select your biggest cloves for planting. Bigger cloves make bigger bulbs.
- Inspect your cloves for any kind of blemishes, bruises, marks that might indicate critter or fungal damage. Minimize the chance of pathogens, spores, nematodes, & all the etc. out there. I have been known to eat these substandard cloves, because I hate to see garlic go to waste (or anything else for that matter). I let my stomach acids take care of them. I’m still here to say it works.
- Give your cloves the hot water heat treatment before planting. The trick is not too hot, not too cold. Soak them in water at about 115-118 degrees for 15 or 20 minutes. Nematodes really hate this.
- Soak the cloves for a few hours (some say overnight) in a solution of 1 T liquid seaweed & 1 heaping T of baking soda in water. Some people also add molasses. I have done this for several years, and it makes sense to me. A bit messy, but I tend to be messy anyway. Then one day an older guy came to buy some garlic, saw my assorted bowls of cloves swimming in dark broth (imagine 24 varieties and over 1000 bulbs), and could hardly suppress his laughter. Why would I go through all this hassle? I gave him the standard intellectual explanation, to which he just shook his head. It was kind of a “whatever” moment. So last year, I just stuck the cloves in the ground – no fuss, no muss, the way people have been planting garlic for centuries, and wow, it really streamlined the whole planting process. Result? I had quite a few mold problems this year. I threw a lot more away. But then, it was also a cold, wet year. To be honest, there are so many variables, I don’t know whether it works or not, but I’ll be doing the soaking thing again this year. For sure.
- Dunk the cloves in rubbing alcohol (or Vodka – but is this the best use of Vodka? You decide.) for about 15 seconds (some say a few minutes) before planting. This has got to be the final blow to anything left thinking it can hitch a ride to your soil.
- Plant your cloves soon after popping. Don’t give them time to wither or mold or even complain about it.
- Be careful not to bruise or wound the cloves. It’s ok if the wrappers fall off – they will anyway – and it gives you a chance to look for signs of insect damage, bruising, or the slight crease that would indicate a “double” clove. (It’s ok to plant the double cloves, but you will get a double bulb in return, i.e., two small ones connected together instead of one large one. Most commercial growers prefer single large bulbs; they sell better. Home gardeners? Most aren’t going to base their self-esteem on the size of their bulbs. It’s all good.)
- Plant your cloves at a wider spacing. Four inches, in my opinion, is too close. Six inches is better, but might be too close in your circumstances. You might want to try eight. A wider spacing can give the roots more room to spread out and find water and nutrients, resulting in a stronger plant. I used to figure that a 3-inch-diameter hardneck bulb would only need 4 inches of space (of course, softnecks grow a bit larger and would require slightly more). I no longer think that way.
- If you’re planting in raised beds, be sure to allow extra room on the edges! Seems so obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times some of the soil has washed or sloughed away, or when I pull weeds, more dirt has fallen away than expected, exposing roots & bulbs. Talk about stress!
- Plant the smallest cloves tightly together so you can harvest them in the spring as “spring garlic.” Eat them like green onions, only garlicky. This goes with the strategy of ensuring you are never without the garlic supply that by now you realize you truly need.
- If you use mulch, do not use hay or grass, which can plant seeds all over the place. Dry leaves are nice until the wind comes up and blows them all away.
Caveat and Perspective
- Enjoy positive thoughts! Your garlic is in the ground. Congratulations! Relax and feel relieved. All you have to do from now until spring is to kick back and scan colorful seed catalogs. (Ha!) Feel hope! The excitement and anticipation of a great garlic crop to come is a good feeling! Hang on to that! Use it to motivate you to get out there and weed on a half-warm day in mid-winter (i.e., ignore that naïve comment about kicking back – the weeds in the Pacific Northwest never kick back, and neither should you!)
- And lastly – Remember – you are not always in control (i.e., ignore that previous comment that suggests you can get out there and slaughter all those weeds. From the weed’s perspective, such a minor setback is only reason to grow stronger!) The reality is, the soil is full of organisms of all kinds. Some live in the soil; others float in on the air; others ride in on the water. Some are “good” and others “bad,” but only by our perception. Some things simply can’t be avoided. Despite the mix of good years and not-so-great years, look for reasons to celebrate – with garlic, of course – and friends! Exchange hugs while you’re at it!
(Let’s see – that’s 9+3+5+6+2 = 25 tips! Hooray!)
P.S. Click on the images for more info!