12 Good Things about the 2012 Garden

New Year's Day RoseA New Year’s Day Rose! Can you believe it? 

A great sign that it is going to be a beautiful year!

Yes, time to say goodbye to 2012, but never too late to look back over the year and think about what we were able to accomplish – what worked – (and what didn’t). Here are 12 of the most important achievements and lessons in 2012 (in more-or-less chronological order).

1. Lots of Photos. What a great reference! Many of the year’s highlights were featured in our calendar for 2013. (Sorry, long sold out by now, but if you take the above link, and see something you love, contact me and we can make it happen.) Now, already years later, I can remember what was available for the bees, plan on how to fill gaps, or recall how I was busy harvesting 1000 bulbs of garlic at the same time the black mustard was bursting from its pods…(ahm. Note to self: Try to avoid that, if possible).

Kale in Snow2. Winter Power Plants (no – not the PUD) – Kale! Winter months were blessed with a rather large quantity of kale. Ok. We were inundated with kale! These plants grew as tall as me, and truly, a “kale forest” was not far from the truth. They survived heavy snows (the only kind we get in the coastal Northwest), no problem. Later, they were some of the first to bloom and were absolutely covered with bees! “What a good find!” Consequently, I dared not pull the plants to make space for other things. Upside solution: Kale chips! These trendy little morsels were a big hit. They are also great combined with other seasonings to make shaker toppings for soups, salads, omelets, whatever. (Hint: try kale chips crumbled with dried sweet peppers, garlic, and onions – maybe a dash of chipotle chiles!)

3. Rewards of Good Pruning.  I used to think of pruning as such a chore. Now I look at it as an art form and a very fun part of gardening. I am looking forward to shaping the willow room into a small cathedral. I admit, I whacked the heck out of our orchard in 2011. I exercised a gentler touch in 2012. My pruning efforts have paid off. The trees were stronger and much easier to work around. Of course, I give total credit to the bees for such a bountiful harvest, along with the timing of good weather at bloom time, which is not something we can always depend on.

Phacelia - the ultimate honeybee plant

Bee swarm on a birdhouse

Photo by R Karls

4. Honeybees! If I could pick one thing that transformed the way I think about my garden and my entire approach toward gardening, it would be the bees. In April, we purchased 4 lbs of bees, which turned out to be a LOT. My husband built a couple of Warré Hives in preparation (I painted the rooftops). It was a great excuse to plant a variety of flowering plants and shrubs, which, of course, I did with great gusto! (see our 2013 calendar for highlights) Talk about gorgeous! But I really think the phacelia stole the show—what an unusual plant—and absolutely adored by the bees! I planted them all around the hives. I purchased a bee suit, attended beekeeping classes, and when the day came, drove home with thousands of bees in the back of my car, including quite a few hitchhikers on the outside of the box (read that: buzzing near my head). They took to the hive, well, like bees to honey, and it was quite the adrenalin rush, let me tell you, to literally “pour” them into their new home. These tiny creatures have made me so much more aware of the importance of pollinators of all kinds. So in July, when a friend of mine called and said there was a swarm on her birdhouse, and would I like to come get it? I thought – Wow. I am such a beginner at all this, but would I like? Absolutely! And I am happy to say, they have done quite well. (Unfortunately, though, the purchased bees have not – and more about that in a future post.)

5. Subscribing to a CSA/Farm Share Program (and letting go of the notion that I needed to grow all our own food, and all the work that entails). Not getting any younger here, folks, and I realized the time has come to admit I can’t do it all. There. I said it.

Participating in a Farm Share / Community Supported Ag program really gets you into the habit of eating with the seasons. This fall-time box was full of all kinds of roots -What I also realized was that by NOT trying to grow all our own veggies, I had more time for other things – like tending the garlic and berries and growing unusual plants and flowers for the birds and bees. Which meant, of course, I was still doing the same amount of work, only shifted. But I also recognized that our nearby farm, Nash’s, has it down. They make compost in a very big way; their soil is rich, and, consequently, their produce is packed full of nutrients. They have the crew to stay on top of the weeding, watering, and harvesting. Their cauliflower is gorgeous; their carrots long and straight; and the sheer variety a fun challenge every week. By supporting a local farm, we were also supporting a bunch of local farmhands and other staff that make it possible. Truly, a win-win. The cons: Yes, there was a lot of overlap. I already had lots of volunteer fava beans, pak choi, kale, lettuce, beets, parsley, and other veggies. But that just meant I also had more to share. Signing up for a CSA really keeps you focused on eating lots of veggies, so if you’re looking for resolutions, this is a good place to start!

Bare-root native perennials6. Native Plants.  This was our second year of taking advantage of a Conservation District native plant sale in early spring. I also took a class (highly recommended!) on landscaping with natives. The wildlife corridor along the outer edge is really starting to take shape. Doug Firs and cedars from the previous year are gaining ground. In 2012, we added a shrub layer that included mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), red flowering currants (Ribes sanguineum), serviceberries (Amelanchier alnifolia), and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium). We also added some wild roses, Solomon’s seal, ferns, salal, elderberries, native huckleberries, and assorted groundcovers. The negative was that the plantings are too spread out to make a continuous garden, which means field grass still grows between the plants, which needs to be cut, whacked, mowed, or covered. I chose the last option as much as possible (cardboard, woodchips, lawn clippings, etc.), followed by groundcovers. Also, the new plants required a lot of watering to get them established, but should eventually be self-sustaining.

scythe

7. Scythe Power! To ease the task of mowing in circles around plants, I purchased a scythe and took a class on how to sharpen and use it (Thank you, Alexander Vido, for sharing your expertise!). I love the quiet way it swishes through the tall grass and neatly piles it in a row, which I can later collect and use as mulch. It deftly and gently maneuvers around the circle of newly planted shrubs. I love the fact that it doesn’t use oil or gas, but only my own power, which is empowering, indeed.

Beginning Forest Garden8. Permaculture Plants, Guilds, and the Beginning of the Food Forest. In addition to the wildlife corridor, we planted many new plants for multiple purposes: fruits, nuts, berries, drought-tolerant windbreaks, fiber and medicinal plants, and of course, plants for the bees, which were the inspiration for much of the 2012 garden.

Many of the species were recommended in Edible Forest Gardens Vol. II, by Jacke & Toensmeier, Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford, and Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway: beach plums, Nanking cherries, Cornelian cherries, Eleagnus species, a quince, a medlar tree, assorted willows for basketry and structures, hazelnuts, strawberry trees, paw paw trees, and a variety of roots: Jerusalem artichokes, yacon, mashua, and oca, to name a few.

Marionberries

I also went a little nuts in the berry department, because who doesn’t love berries? American highbush cranberries, buffalo berries, sea berries, aronia berries, honeyberries, lingonberries, goji and goumi berries, assorted currants, gooseberries, jostaberries, blackberries, marionberries, loganberries, blueberries, raspberries …. Gosh, I love berries. And they grow so well here. In fact, they grew so well, they created their own microclimates, much to the demise of some of the garlic. Oops. It has been fun learning about how to combine plants into guilds, and I will be sure to report how they do in blogposts to come. I expect they will really come into their own in 2013.

Polyculture garden9. Polyculture and the Habitat of Chaos. In 2011, I let go of the compulsion to plant everything in monoculture boxes and rows, although by default, a certain amount of structure is inherent to the overall garden layout. In 2012, I carried the polyculture concept to a larger scale and with a focus on 1) identifying “rooms” based on soil, light, and water requirements, 2) building guilds of plants that support and strengthen one another (kind of like enhanced companion planting), 3) planting for the bees, and 4) encouraging birds to hang out. Since I couldn’t have chickens, this made sense – a “build it and they will come” philosophy where they would be welcome to roost, scratch, poop, eat bugs, and raise their young. The result? To the outside observer, total chaos – nothing remotely close to the neatly weeded rows that used to decorate our landscape (ha! Such was the fantasy!). Every day was like some kind of discovery quest. It was my messiest garden ever and also the most fun. The sheer biomass was absolutely incredible. And in the early morning, the entire place was alive. Birds were everywhere. Chirping, chittering, scuttering, flushing. A couple of families of quail were often between rows of blackberries, which made me particularly happy. The swallows returned to the barn rafters after being gone the last two years. No, I might not be on the garden tour circuit, but the sheer diversity in a relatively small space made this garden a place to sit back in amazement! I need more benches! Which brings me to….

Herb Spiral and Bee Waterer10. Three-D Features and More Secret Gardens within Gardens. At one point, I proclaimed my garden as a boring slave labor camp – and from that point on, I was on a quest to transform it not only into a sanctuary for wildlife, but also into a place to find inspiration through all 5 senses. I added pathways, benches, and stepping stones. In 2011, I went 3-D with digging a little pond, and in 2012, it was particularly beautiful and fun when our grandchildren added goldfish to the ecosystem. In addition, we went upward with added arbors, ladders, and supports. We piled rocks to make places for snakes to hide, added a few artistic sculptures and collectables, and built 4 spirals, which I planted mostly with herbs, including one with a watering dish for the bees. It will be fun to add more surprises in the coming year.

German Extra Hardy garlic plants11. Garlic Patch – a Mixture of Challenges and Successes! As for the garlic, it started out well in the spring, despite heavy rains and cool temps that never really warmed up until almost August. Then the season seemed to remember that it was summer, and it heated up in a big way. Ah, the perfect storm for rust, which fortunately by that time, had little effect on bulb size. However, there were greater than normal losses due to soggy soil conditions, and the garlic took too long to cure without the summer breezes we normally get, the end result being, again, a certain amount of mold during curing. Even so, we managed to get some of the biggest bulbs ever and many survived in great shape, for which we are thankful. Lessons learned: don’t be afraid to harvest the garlic a little early, despite the rain, and cure it in a place with good ventilation, even if you have to plug in a fan! Also, pay attention to microclimates! Tall plants growing near the garlic crop can seriously restrict air flow, as can weeds! Even so, take a look at these German Extra Hardy bulbs – picture taken on Memorial Day.

Apple cluster12. Bumper Harvest! When is fall not the most hectic time of year? All that produce to harvest – bumper crops of veggies, berries, cherries, plums, and apples (note: do a better job of thinning! Those bees obviously worked overtime!) – time to put food away for winter as well as market the garlic and get a new crop in the ground – time to prepare for that darkest time of year when at least some of the garden rests, but the weeds, alas, do not (I no longer think of them as weeds; they are simply future mulch material – much less frustrating!) Time to get ready for winter, make gifts, do lots of cooking, and gather with family and friends for the holidays….is there a way to make this time of year less crazy? I don’t think so – but maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

And the next thing we know, the cycle begins anew as we continue on our spiral.

Hello 2013! It is really just the next day after the last, but somehow so much more…

Thank you, dear friends, for all your support this past year. I wish you all the best and am looking forward to meeting with you again, either physically or virtually, in 2013. Thank you for hanging in here with me and following my rambles in the brambles. It’s going to be such a great year! May yours be full of roses (and, of course, garlic)!

 
 

A Message for Peace

I threw out my words today.

I was going to write some fun ideas for the “less-than-12-days-before-Christmas” panic-stricken individuals who vowed to “Keep it Simple” – who boycotted the Black Friday of Consumerism, resisted the lure of Cyber Monday (but maybe supported the Small Business Saturday caught in the middle), and who are now, ironically, complicating their lives by trying to make that perfect homemade gift that says, “I love you” – or maybe just, “I care”  – or at this point, “I don’t care anymore – just take this, and if you are my friend, act like you like it,” and we aren’t mentioning any names here.

2013 Barbolian Calendar cover - raspberry smiles

Front page of 2013 Barbolian Fields calendar

Ok – Truth be told – I would love it if you would buy my stuff and, in the process, feel good about supporting a hobby farmer / small business / modern homesteader (or whatever the heck it is I am). The calendars turned out pretty cool, even if they do include some advertising from the printer; the Zazzle stuff is both useful and fun (all photos and drawings by yours truly). I get a kickback if you take a link from my site and buy a book – the gift of knowledge is, after all, priceless.

I would also love it if you supported your local craftsperson and/or farmer or other small business owner who works so hard to keep afloat. Everyone wins with a gift certificate to a local store or CSA.

Of course, when we romanticize the Good Ol’ Days when people were more appreciative of simple, wholesome things, we have to remember that the reason an orange in a stocking hung by the chimney with care was a big deal was because it was the time of the Great Depression.

But hey – even in today’s lousy economy, you could still pick a handful of rosemary, put together a basket of goodies from the kitchen, make a wreath with sticks and stones, or create a coupon like the ones my kids used to give me: “Good for Free Carwashes for the Rest of Your Life” (where ARE those coupons, anyway? They mysteriously disappeared!)


But then I turned on the TV, and the joviality ended. Understand, I have been turning off the TV since before the election, because it was bringing so much negativity into my life. But I cannot forever live in a bubble, even if that is a pretty apt description of my garden paradise where I frequently escape. I can shut out the political arguing and posturing, the latest on the centuries-old conflicts in the Middle East, the annoying metaphor of a “fiscal cliff” that makes it sound like we are about to go over Niagara Falls in a whiskey barrel … and maybe we are….in which case, let me find you a recipe that uses corn mash as a key ingredient to soften the ride…

For when I turned on the TV and heard of the massacre of children in Connecticut, I, like so many others, sat in dumbfounded bewilderment, knowing I could not write what I started to say. No matter where you live, these ARE OUR CHILDREN.

Sadly, they are not alone. Innocent children live in fear all over the world. Others die of hunger and treatable disease. I cringe at the words, “senseless killing.” When is killing NOT senseless?

STOP – for just a moment here.

QUESTION. How did we, the human race, as an “intelligent” species, stray so far off the path of nurturing and healing?

We are at the darkest time of year, and the world does seem very dark indeed. It should be a time of rest and rejuvenation; a time of comfort and joy; a time when our inner spark brightens to cast a light around us.

“What do you want for Christmas?” … this focus on stuff – a shift from the act of giving to measuring the value of the thing that is given, how the numbers add up in our economy, and how we define prosperity and the associated level of happiness.

Why is it that we feel we Need the latest flashy widget – a thing quite possibly made with labor that cannot sustain the people who make it, with materials that pollute our waters, and that results in something that gives transitory pleasure and then ends in a landfill?

Rose Hip in Winter

How can it be that even human life seems dispensable?

Have we forgotten how enjoyable it is to hold a cup of soup in both hands and inhale the aroma of steamed fresh vegetables? To watch a bird, perched on a branch, chirping with the morning sun? To see a flower that still blooms on the verge of winter? To help those in need – or to give the gift of our time – a smile – a hug? To hold a small child in our arms and assure them the world is a safe place full of love?

Is it the end of the world on that magical number, 12-21-12 – or is it the Solstice, a new beginning, a turning toward the sun?

Reflections in a dewdropOn this eve of entering Winter, at the edge of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or the holiday of hearts that has no formal name at all – can we not go back to that “simple” way of living that takes a closer look at what we really need? A way that values appreciation for what we have, that takes pride in the things we make with our own hands, that stands in awe at the complexity and beauty of nature? A way of profound gratitude toward life itself – it is such a miracle that we even exist! A way in which love for the creatures of this earth and for our fellow man is an extension of our being – where the way we live is a way of respect: respect for the earth and for all living things, including our fellow man.

I may have strayed a bit from the theme of this blog, which is essentially about gardening, but also much about life. The garden can be a spiritual place – one that you hold in your heart.

Each of us must be a light in the darkness. As we close this year and open anew, we must bring the light of hope and compassion.

Green Man in WinterIn Joni Mitchell’s words,

We are stardust.
Billion-year-old carbon
We are golden…
Caught in the devil’s bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden…

~Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

My Christmas Wish:

Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward All.

December Bees

Honeybees in December

Honeybees in DecemberHoneybees in DecemberHoneybees in December
What Joy! The honeybees are out and about!  They seem to be enjoying this break between rainstorms in early December. Such a beautiful afternoon warming the outside of the hives; you can almost feel their excitement at such a sunny day.

But look closely! Some are actually finding pollen! But where?  I have some brassica and mustard family plants still blooming – also a few calendula – but not many; the asters and borage are pretty much gone at this point. The sunflowers look worn out and droopy, and the birds have taken most of the seeds.  There are plenty of snowberries on the borders of the fields, but I don’t see bees on them. Perhaps in the cedars, firs, and pines?

I recently built a long bed that borders the front area of the hives and filled it full of crocus bulbs so they will have something nearby in early spring. I left to grow all the young sprouts of kale and salad greens that started from scattered seed, so perhaps come spring, they, too, will bolt into early flower. I also planted an assortment of beeplants in nearby beds – heather, catmints, assorted herbs, sedums, lupine, and more – but they are not large enough to provide anything of substance yet.  I transplanted comfrey roots within close flying distance – but again, it’s just a dark slimy mass right now…

I am so relieved to see “my girls” emerge. I had thought I had lost the swarm I had captured in April – but lo and behold! They seem even stronger now than my original hive! I have not wanted to take the roofs off their homes and let valuable heat escape to see how they were doing, but my curiosity was killing me! Earlier in the year, they were not forming a lot of comb, and I was quite concerned.

Ok – so now we know they’re in there – and the colonies appear to be quite vibrant. Question is – can they make it???

Follow up questions: Should I feed them – and if so, when? Everything I read seems to give conflicting advice. “It all depends…” – not a good answer for a newbie bee guardian! If I give them food now, will it deceive them into thinking there is more available than there is?

Common sense tells me to let them be bees. Let them eat their own stores at this point (which are more nutritious than sugar water) or to forage for what they can find (which they seem to be doing very well without my help, thank you). After all, it has not yet been that cold.

However, my mothering instinct tells me to provide a backup plan. I have an extra box with a landing zone, so I placed some sugar syrup in jars inside, knowing it is not their preferred food, and placed it between the two hives, so bees from either one can go in if they get hungry. I have not seen a single bee enter. They must know it’s there.

In addition, I have hard candy for winter emergencies – they are already made in blocks that fit perfectly over the top bars inside the hives.

But I don’t think we’re there yet.

And so I wait. It is difficult, this waiting. The forecast is for heavy snow in the mountains; there is a good chance some will creep down into the lowlands. The wind is starting to pick up. It is December, after all – and it only gets worse in January and February.

I love how the bees take care of one another. For now, I place my trust in that.

Sleep well, little bees. Keep each other warm.

I am standing by.

Thanksgiving Every Day


Give thanks!

Give thanks! It’s a beautiful, incredible world!

Thank you, family, friends, neighbors, customers, and even total strangers for all your support! You can’t know how much it has meant to me!

Wishing you abundance in your life, however that may be defined!

Have a safe and happy holiday – may it be full of love and laughter!

~blythe

**~*~**

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” –Melody Beattie

**~*~**

You may also like:

Thank You, Good Earth
Thanksgiving – Today and Every Day

Food Forest Beginnings and Fall Tasks in the Orchard

Fall applesI have to confess, when it comes to the orchard, other than pruning, I’ve pretty much let the trees fend for themselves. This is a disgraceful admission, being as I spent many formative years in eastern Washington, arguably the apple capital of the world.  Traditionalists in this region rely on a lot of sprays to obtain efficiency of scale and the perfection demanded by a discerning public, defined as “quality.” Apples are, after all, big business. I have never quite been in tune with this philosophy, but haven’t known exactly what to do instead to keep an orchard healthy and productive – or whether, for that matter, anything need be done at all. I fondly remember an old apple tree that grew in a gully where I used to ride horseback; it must have been at the site of an old homestead, but there were no other signs for miles around. That tree had the best apples ever.

What we’re dealing with here:

Our orchard comprises 5 apples, 3 cherries, and a plum, planted in traditional rows, surrounded by grass. Relatively small for an orchard – too much for just one family, but not enough to go the commercial route. Fruit production has been rather sporadic – good one year, not so great another, depending mostly on spring weather and what some have told me are “cycles.”

apple blemishI have no idea how old the trees are exactly, but I would put them in the “senior” category. We’ve lived here 17 years now, and when we moved in, they were already gnarly. Their branches were a neglected tangle of consequences from mixed opinions about pruning or lack thereof. Bit by bit, I have shaped them to let the air and sunshine in and have attempted to reach a vision of balance. In the process, I’ve gotten to know each tree for the unique individual it is.

I am accepting of imperfections. I am not offended by a little blemish here and there, nor am I opposed to sharing my crop with a few critters, but I have always felt I should be doing something more to help these beautiful trees be all that they can be.

So many cherries!Apple clusterAnd then we got the bees. My views of the trees and of a whole variety of pollinators, not just honeybees, were transformed. We had an unusual spring in which decent weather timed perfectly with the blossoms. I remember standing beneath the big cherry and it seemed the whole tree was vibrating with the buzzing! The sheer volume of fruit on these trees was mind-boggling. I figure I harvested about 700 pounds of apples from four trees alone. We had more cherries and plums than we had had in years.

I am grateful to these trees (and to the bees, thank you!) – but that kind of production seemed almost unnatural!

And so here is my quandary: I know I need to give something back. But what? And how?

The Food Forest Connection

I have been doing a lot of reading about permaculture, food forests, eco-gardening, agroforestry, edible landscaping, polyculture, agroecosystems, and an assortment of trendy phrases that have arisen with what is becoming a movement around the world. Indeed – it makes so much sense to grow a variety of plants together in a way that encourages each plant to fill a supporting niche, resulting in a stronger whole much greater than the sum of the parts. In Bill Mollison’s words, permaculture is a system of working with, rather than against, nature.

Our orchard is a far cry from the Food Forest I envision. However, if I can build diversity into this system, I can build resiliency. It’s that simple. And also that difficult.

Where to begin? I look out at our orchard and it occurs to me that the grass, which some consider quite beautiful when it is freshly cut, is actually a menacing threat to the health of our trees. Not only is it a pain in the royal *!#$% to mow, but if I could get rid of it, I could plant all kinds of shrubs and flowers that would support beneficial insects and pollinators and better enrich the soil, which brings me to…

Dealing with Orchard Enemy #1: Grass

Truthfully, I can’t tell you how much I hate grass and the loud, gas-guzzling lawnmowers that enslave us to a mentality of thinking impeccability is a virtue. Grass sucks up moisture, nutrients, and creates a bacteria-dominated environment, as opposed to one that supports an abundance of fungal communities and beneficial microorganisms. Repeated mowing only increases its root strength and determination. Digging it all up or the use of chemical warfare are not options, and I would think the grass will always be a challenge because we are surrounded by fields of flying seeds. So here is my approach:

  1. Compromise. Although this has not been achieved at even the highest echelons of our government, it is perhaps the main solution, i.e., admitting that perhaps some grass is appropriate – yes, even desirable. Play areas, for example. Pathways might be a temporary allowance. But just so you know, I am not selling out here. No way.
  2. Due Diligence. I think of it as keeping on top things. An online dictionary defines it as “A measure of prudence, responsibility, and diligence that is expected from, and ordinarily exercised by, a reasonable and prudent person under the circumstances.” Yes, I’m going to work on that. Reasonable and Prudent. Actually, I threw this one out after the word “ordinarily.” And I hate it when dictionaries use the same word to define what you’re trying to get the definition of, which is why I’m not quoting the source. Next.
  3. Patience. This is the one I am least good at. Simply cover it up and wait. How hard can it be? Smother it over the winter, and by next spring, voilà, it will be rich soil. I like magic – like Right Now…

Clearly, I need help. Have you noticed none of these approaches have mentioned the REAL way to get anything done? i.e., Labor.

The Holistic OrchardEnter Michael Phillips, author of The Holistic Orchard.

His primary advice seems so obvious: build the soil. When you support the microorganisms in the soil, you support the entire tree. It’s not about killing pests with sprays; it’s about creating an inviting place for partners in pollination and pest control.

According to Mr. Phillips, much can be done Right Now to prepare the trees for winter and give them a jump-start on the spring:

First: Pick all the fruit and clean up all the ground falls. In the past, I always figured apples on the ground provided food for wasps and rodents and eventually just went into the soil; apples left on the trees provided food for birds. Well, if one of those apples has a little apple maggot in it, which then crawls out into the soil, next year, when it hatches out, you might have a problem. That goes, too, for a whole host of other pests, spores, larvae, and diseases. The trick is to disrupt the breeding cycles; don’t provide a place to overwinter. You can always set out some apples later for the birds if they get hungry.

Second: Spray the trees. I have always been anti-spray; however, after reading The Holistic Orchard, I am very much PRO-spray. Why the about-face? There is a huge difference between spraying to kill and spraying to nourish. We’re not talking about spraying chemicals; we’re talking about spraying an assortment of nutrient-enriched teas and concoctions for overall health, as well as organic pest control. This was an exciting revelation to me and a great excuse to go out and buy a new tool: a decent backpack sprayer. Ok, this thing set me back $100, but if you want to reach the upper branches, you have to get something that will do it right (I walked past the cheaper ones with Roundup emblazoned in gargantuan black font, not willing to be an advertiser just to save a few measly bucks).

Wait until at least half of the leaves have already fallen. Admittedly, I am perhaps not the most desirous of partners after spraying an elixir of Neem Oil and Fish Fertilizer on the trees on what I thought was a calm day (note: take note of which way the wind blows, for even on a calm day, the wind still blows), but I must say, my trees love me. (And so does my dog.) I also sprayed it on the ground around the base of the trees, out to the drip line.  The combination of oil & fish increases leaf decomposition, contains nutrients and minerals for both the tree and microbial communities, stimulates immune response, and can disrupt pathogens that might think they can lurk in the bark and crevices over the winter.

Third: Add nutrients to the soil. Previously, I would have thought fall the worst time to apply fertilizer, which might encourage green growth just before the deep freezes arrive. However, applied judiciously, extra nutrients will speed up the composting that will begin beneath the mulch layer (steps 5 and 6). In addition, it will be stored in the roots and provide a boost in the spring when things get growing. I added

  • Neem oil & fish fertilizer, as mentioned above.
  • Well-composted dairy manure: a light application of about a bucketful around each tree to encourage the worms to do their thing.
  • Lime: a good thing to add to the predominantly acidic soils of the Pacific Northwest. Fruit trees like a neutral 6.5 – 7.0 pH. I’ve never added it in the past; it was past time.

Fourth: Do nothing – i.e., leave the leaves. You *could* chop them up with a mower, which will speed up the decomposition process. Maybe I’ll do that next year. The main thing, though, is do NOT rake them up, stuff them in bags, and haul to some landfill; do NOT set them on fire and watch all that potential go up in smoke. Take the easy way out: do nothing. Let the worms and microbes do the work for you and turn them into humus.

Cardboard mulch in orchardFifth: Cover with cardboard. Did you know it’s hard to get good cardboard these days? It’s all bundled up for recycling. My advice is to ask the right people before you take something that looks like someone’s garbage. I thought I was saving them a dump fee and repurposing something that would otherwise go to waste. They accused me of stealing. If this sounds like an unpleasant experience, yes, it was, and they can keep their rain-soaked cardboard. Some folks think newspaper works better because it softens to the contours of the land. I couldn’t find any – where does it go? We don’t subscribe. It’s just as well; I am leery of shiny colorful inserts or anything with an affixed window. The thing is, it takes a lot of cardboard to surround a mature tree all the way out to the drip line, so make friends with whatever sources you can find.

mulch around orchard treesSixth: Top with mulch. We are fortunate to have access to “green grindings” at $10/yard (talk to Steve at the Lazy J Tree Farm). Some folks say they can find mulch material for free from arborists.  I applied roughly 8-10 small wheelbarrows full around each tree. It was a good workout. And wow. It looks so darned nice! I am sure I will need to apply more mulch in the spring – and there is a good chance the grass will still try to grow through everything – but this is a great start, and I feel I’ve done my part to help the trees get through the winter. Which leads us to step 7.

Seventh: Take a break already. It’s the holidays. Pumpkins need to be turned into pies (carriages are so overrated!). In Michael Phillips’ words, “Give thanks for another blessed year on this good earth.”

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Endnote: Michael Phillips’ book has SO much information, tips, practical advice – I can’t possibly do it justice here. This man is truly a steward of the land. The Holistic Orchard – Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way is an excellent reference and a good read.

The Willow Room Dance

In Praise of Secret Gardens

It’s no secret – I like secret gardens – those little hideaways tucked into nooks and crannies – or surprisingly, sometimes even right out in the open. They are like little sanctuaries within larger sanctuaries – even within larger sanctuaries, depending on your view of life – and if your garden is starting to feel like a slave labor camp, then all the more reason to have a place where you can take a break, and in the process, maybe even find the unexpected. They are little get-away places to relax, read, escape, dream, create…transport yourself to another world…hunker down and drink wine and eat chocolate…. Seriously, whatever you want to do – no one is going to judge you here.

Eventually, I will have little secret gardens scattered here and there throughout the larger landscape of what I am trying to build, which is something akin to an ecogarden / food forest / ecological sanctuary.

Birth of the Willow Room

Willow Room, first winterWillow Room - spring

And so started the idea of the willow room, which I thought might be a rather large focal point in the scheme of things–a place for the grandchildren (and me!) to hide out and eat berries and other treats, which are always more fun to eat when you are in a secret place where no one can see you. It would have tunnels from four directions for entrances and open up into a cathedral in the middle.

In the beginning (early spring 2011), it was nothing remotely close to the vision: some ugly cardboard over a lot of weeds; some stakes; some twigs that looked nothing like willow or much of anything really. I should have taken a picture, but there wasn’t much to see. I covered it up with mulch and walked away.

Willow Room - beginning arch

By summer, it was taking on a bushier form, but still not large enough to shape into arches. Still, it showed undefined promise.

By last winter, it was barren twigs again; more this time; still nothing all that remarkable.

This spring, however, was a different story. The willows thirstily drank all that rain and thrived. New growth burst forth on the edge of alarming! Uh oh! What have I done?? I stood back in awe. The spindly tall stems swayed gracefully in the breezes. This thing was alive!

Willow Room - summer growth

This summer, I made an attempt to tame the wild growth, but most of the leaves were in the way, and it was a bit difficult to determine which way to point the massive branches, which often seemed to take a direction of their own. I was clearly not in control.

Even so, I could see the early stages of the fantasy taking shape. The grandkids and I chased each other in and out and played hide and seek. I often found the dog snoozing in the center, taking advantage of the afternoon shade. The middle of the willows was indeed transforming into a room, lit with the lime-green of the sun filtering through the leaves.

This fall, we have been so fortunate to have so many warm days, allowing us to ease into winter. The Willow Room has truly come into its own. The hues of gold are spectacular in the autumn light. The transformation has been nothing short of magical.

This winter, when the leaves are all fallen, I will take time to better shape the arches and prune back side branches that can be used for basketry and other crafts. It will be fun to see what next year brings.

For now, though, while the weather permits, the secret garden of the Willow Room has a bigger purpose: it is a place to dance!

The Willow Room Dance (a poem)

Time to Plant Garlic!

Yes, NOW is a perfect time to plant garlic in the Pacific Northwest, and my guess is, if you haven’t planted them already, you have some voluptuous bulbs in your hot little hands just waiting for the right conditions to take root. You are faced with a serious dilemma. Will you tuck them in the ground for the winter and encourage them to be all that they can be?  – or – will you just eat them right here and now because, for Criminy sake, they are just knock-out gorgeous and who can wait ‘til next summer? And then will you get on a tangent about the word Criminy and wonder whether anyone even says such a thing anymore (or whether it even matters?) Meanwhile, the sun is going down earlier and earlier…and it looks like rain….

Believe me, I have been there.

It’s perfectly ok to be confused about what to do or not and be almost paralyzed with indecision stemming from a desire to do it right – I mean – this is your whole crop for next year and beyond, so you don’t want to screw this up!  I’ve been growing garlic for – good grief! – about 35 years, and all I can say is, Every Year Is Different. I am still confused, but dazed and confused is a way of life for me, so I’m rather used to it.

But seriously, friends, I am here to make your life easier.

Despite what some might call a handicap but which I might better describe as intermittent inspiration, over the years, I’ve written an assortment of ideas on what has worked and what has been a total disaster for me. You might find these wanderings helpful – and in this spirit of trying to make things easier for you, I have listed the links below. (Of course, you could just do a little search and a list of these blog posts would magically appear on your screen – but you might not be able to tell by the title and the first few lines just where things are going. I certainly didn’t know myself when I wrote them.)

If you’re looking for straightforward, clear instructions, um, you probably won’t find it on these pages. There are plenty of other websites for that. I mean, how hard can it be? Just stick it in the ground, root end down, pointy end up, and cover up with about 2 inches of dirt. Why do we have to make things so complicated? However, if you enjoy laughing at gleaning from other’s mistakes, embellished with a story or two, you might find just what you’re looking for and a little bit more.

Fully adjustable hole maker for planting garlic

Fully Adjustable Handy-Dandy Garlic-Planting Hole-Maker Gizmo

And if you’re a sucker for cool tools (and who isn’t?), check out our new handy-dandy garlic hole maker. If somebody wants one of these, we’d be glad to make you a nicer one. This one was made from what we had laying around (the most expensive part is the hardware). I still have the first prototype that is set at 6” spacing; however, in this new & improved model, the spacing is fully adjustable. (This year, I am spacing the garlic slightly wider at 8” down the row and 10” across. I figure the wider spacing will give them more airflow, which might mean less chance of the rust I dealt with this year, and also more space for them to reach out for the good things they love in life: food, water, and, like all of us in the rainy Northwest, sunshine). This thing makes the whole process go a lot faster – and everything pops up so straight and even – even when you plant them in circles and trapezoids!

And if your brain is in tangles trying to figure how many extra cloves you might be able to cram into a space if you vary the planting distance an inch or so or how much space you might need with xxxx number of cloves … may I refer you to the Garlic Planting Calculator in Excel that has formulas all set up that allow you to test different scenarios. Simply make your changes in the GREEN squares and everything miraculously adjusts accordingly! I just love magic.

One final word of advice – always plant more than you think you need, because something always happens! And if you end up with extras, sharing is a great way to make friends.

If you need more seed, contact me. I still have some Brown Tempest, Chesnok Red, Juan de Fuca Wonder, Killarney Red, Metechi, Romanian Red, Siberian, Siciliano (small ones), Vekak, and Ziemiai (also small ones).

And now for the links:

Garlic Garden Planning

Garlic Planting Planner (an introduction to what it is and what it can do!) 

The Not-so-Secret Formula: Excel Garlic Planting Guide

Self-Imposed Limitations, Sustainability, and Creatively Breaking Rules

Is Your Garden Boring? The Food Forest Solution

A Somewhat Unconventional Garlic Garden

Strategies for Success

25 Garlic-Growing Management Strategies for Preventing Problems and Growing the Best Garlic Ever

Every Soil Tells a Story

When All Else Fails, Buy Plants

Garlic Varieties

Barbolian Garlic Varieties

Planting Garlic

Time Again to Plant Garlic

Yes! You Can Still Plant Garlic!

Bulbils

Planting Garlic Bulbils for Fun and Profit

How to Plant Garlic Bulbils

That’s it for now, folks – I’ve got to get mine in the ground, too! Hope this helps in your yearly quest for a bountiful crop of better garlic!

25 Garlic-Growing Management Strategies for Preventing Problems and Growing the Best Garlic Ever

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

  1. Plot RotationRotate 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. NPK_pH testLiberate 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Engineered raised bedBuild 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.
  9. 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.

Seed Stock

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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!

Pre-Planting

  1. Seedstock garlic cloveSelect your biggest cloves for planting. Bigger cloves make bigger bulbs.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Planting

  1. Plant your cloves soon after popping. Don’t give them time to wither or mold or even complain about it.
  2. 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.)
  3. Planting GizmoPlant 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. Mulched Garlic BedIf 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

  1. 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!)
  2. 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!

What’s Wrong with My Garlic?

Call in the Garlic Whisperer!

Basal Rot

Garlic problem #22: Basal rot on garlic; University of Minnesota Extension photo

If you grow garlic for any time at all, eventually you will have “issues.” At some point along the way, you might notice that some aren’t doing quite as well as the others. Maybe you notice a little discoloration or wilting, but overall, most seem to be holding their own against rain, wind, and heat. Or maybe, much to your surprise, a whole bed will turn yellow and fall over, seemingly overnight.  On the other hand, maybe everyone appears to be doing just fine, the leaves turn yellow in summer, indicating time to harvest, but when you dig them up – agghh! The Dreaded Black Spot! Maybe even white fuzz, malformed bulbs, stunted roots, creepy-crawlies, or any number of other things. Or maybe they all look beautiful, you proudly hang them to cure and are ecstatic at the wonderful crop, but then a month later, they become soft and show signs of decay.

Many will tell you growing garlic is easy – but the truth is, it is a long, tricky process, and you – or nature – can screw it up any step along the way. By the time you notice something is wrong, it can be too late.

Don’t thrash yourself too harshly. Some things you simply can’t avoid. They are there. But you spend 9 months pampering these sweet babies into healthy, strong individuals, and you want to do what you can to ensure they grow up to their potential. I am a strong believer in unconditional love, but there are also times when tough love is warranted. However, paying attention, listening, and a little preventative care can go a long way to avoiding problems down the line.

It’s a Bit Like Fortune Telling: We Have to Learn to Read the Leaves

Garlic leaves affected by Fusarium; University of Minnesota Extension photo

Garlic problem #43: Garlic leaves affected by Fusarium; University of Minnesota Extension photo

Garlic speaks to us through its leaves – so if we want to understand garlic, we can divine knowledge of its well-being or malaise (and correspondingly, our upcoming fortune or otherwise) through leaf interpretation. Divination requires two things: a question and an answer. The real question, of course, is whether it’s the right answer, what does it mean, and what is your subsequent response. I guess that’s four questions. No matter. Life rewards action.

For example, the standard advice on when to harvest garlic is to look at the leaves. When the bottom leaves start to brown but 3 or 4 green leaves still remain (some recommend 5 or 6, but not every variety has a lot of leaves), the time is right. Each green leaf represents an associated wrapper that can protect the bulb after it is harvested, so you want to make sure you have a few green ones left.

Yellow tips are such a common garlic phenomenon that many consider it “normal.” They can be caused by any number of stressors: a hard winter, a warm spell followed by a freezing spell, mild nutrient deficiencies or imbalances, too much or too little water; a little of this and that. I don’t worry about yellow tips. My garlics usually get them. Everything I read says that unless they are extreme, yields should not be affected.

However, yellow stripes, splotches, speckles, leaf curl, thickened leaves, purple veins, or other abnormalities indicate something more serious is going on: soil deficiencies, insect infestations, fungal growth.

Multiple shoots coming from the stalk might be from cold damage in early spring.

Severely stunted, crumpled bulbs in spring might also be a vivid complaint about a rough winter or early spring freezes. Stunted plants might also indicate the presence of thrips.

Wilted leaves during mid-season: your plant might just be thirsty. Be aware that under-watering can cause the plant to mature early. Or maybe it’s just tired and hungry, in which case a little foliar or root-zone feeding might bring it back around. Then again, perhaps something more nefarious is lurking beneath the surface, and further investigations are warranted.

I used to think that garlic was an invincible super plant. After all, it is used as an insecticide, fungicide, plant strengthener, immune system booster, and it provides a number of health benefits to our homeo sapien brethren. What could possibly hurt this remarkable plant?

As it turns out, Plenty! The following is a quick summary of several of the fungi, insects, and other stressors that can affect the garlic crop. After compiling this list, I am actually quite amazed mine have done as well as they have over the years!

Mold & Fungus

Garlic White Rot (Steve Renquist photo). You do NOT want this garlic problem!

Garlic Problem #88: Garlic White Rot (Steve Renquist photo)

Aaaagggh! If you live in the Northwest, mold happens. Every year I find some – some years I find a lot. We’ve had one of the coolest, wettest spring & summers on record – conditions that would make any fungus happy – so don’t be surprised if some of your beloved garlic plants fall prey. Sometimes you can’t tell what’s going on – the plants look basically fine, maybe the leaves start to yellow, which they normally would anyway – maybe some seem a little smaller, but variations in size are common – and then you go to harvest the plant, and you find the dreaded mold. Roots that are rotted off are a sure-fire sign, as is black around the neck. I have had cold, wet years when I’ve lost most of my crop. Sometimes it’s isolated to an individual area, in which case I take a closer look at soil differences, watering techniques, or microclimates that could cause problems. These bulbs need to be thrown in the burn pile (do not compost!), and it’s a sad day. I have, in desperation, rubbed off outer skins and thrown clean cloves into vinegar for a fresh pickled garlic, but they are never as good as the cured kind. Here are some specifics:

Basal or Bottom Rot (Fusarium culmorum and F. oxysporum): This fungus is pretty much in all soils but is usually not a huge problem unless the plants are already weakened by some other stressor. It is most frequent in warmer temperatures, like late in the summer. Look for reddish decay in a single clove or the entire bulb. Yellowing begins at tips of leaves and moves down; plants may wilt; rot appears at the basal plate. Bulbs might appear ok but then rot during storage. It looks a lot like white rot, but death proceeds more slowly. If conditions are not ideal, it may not be that obvious that it is even there – but then, during storage, if temps are relatively warm, the bulbs may begin an early decay and the cloves shrivel into tough little inedible nuggets.

Blue Mold (Penicillium hirsutum and P. corymbiferum): The Penicillium Rot travels through the air and shows up as a blue-green mold on wounded garlic. It can happen in the field, where they emerge but then turn yellow and die, but it particularly occurs after harvest during storage as a result of rough handling. Be careful not to plant infected bulbs or you will get it again. It’s easy to do. One little infected clove in a bowl of popped cloves ready to plant can infect the whole bunch. If you see mold on a bulb, don’t think you can plant the “clean” cloves. They are not. Spores are invisible.

Downy Mildew (Peronospora destructor): “Destructor” says it all. It likes cool, damp/wet weather. Spores can be wind-blown over long distances, and they can even “swim” via rain and irrigation. They just love it when the weather is around 55 degrees, which it is for most of our spring and summer. The pathogen survives as oospores for many years in the soil. When the weather turns hot, the plant can regain the upper hand, but if it turns cool and damp again, the Destructor will return. It can reach epidemic proportions under the right conditions. Look for spots on the leaves that become covered with a grayish furry mold. Growth is stunted; younger plants may die; outer scales of bulbs become water-soaked; necks sometimes shrivel and turn black. Yuck.

Leaf Blight (Botrytis squamosa): Look for grayish-white leaf spots that become brownish. Usually occurs under high humidity, moist conditions.

Neck Rot (Botrytis allii and B. porri): This fungus survives on dead plants in the soil and attacks garlic leaves in warm, wet weather. It will also take over the bulbs in storage. It is called “neck rot” for good reason – the stem turns black and slimy and easily pulls from the bulb. It can be quite common in maritime climates, and usually affects the softnecks more than the hardnecks. Watch for sclerotia, those black clumps that form between cloves. Excessive rain or irrigation can encourage growth, and it is difficult to control in wet weather. I have had to deal with this in wet years when mulch and compost kept the moisture levels high in the soil and directly around the bulbs, and also when weeds (large dandelion leaves!) limited air circulation around the plants. Be careful not to bruise the bulbs, which can also invite infestations.

Rust (Puccinia allii): The rust fungus travels with the wind and loves cool, wet conditions. High humidity, low rainfall, temps between 45 and 55 – oh, yikes – that’s exactly what we get here! Look for yellow flecks and spots that turn to orange and brown. The only real controls involve chemicals. Fortunately, according to CA studies, although overall yield may be reduced in heavy infestations, you can still use the cloves for planting in the following year. Rust was a problem for me this year, which I will discuss in a future post.

White Rot (Sclerotium cepivorum): If you get this, you might as well give it up forever, because this fungus can live 30 years in the soil and is particularly active in cool, wet conditions. It looks a lot like basal rot but the garlic demise is much more rapid. The bottom leaves turn prematurely yellow, along with the leaf tips; the plants fall over and the stems and bulbs begin to rot; the plant pulls apart; roots are rotted; you can see fluffy white mold and poppy-seed-sized black sclerotia, which are smaller than what you’d find on neck rot. The sclerotia germinate in the presence of sulfur, which is produced by the garlic plant. How convenient for them.

Viruses

Yikes. “Virus” is such a scary word! It conjures up images of the plague sweeping across a field of posies and we all fall down. However, according to the U of MN: “Because garlic is clonally propagated, almost all [italics mine] planting stock is infected with some type of virus. The viruses are usually mild and do not seriously affect yield….One exception is onion yellow dwarf virus, which can cause severe mosaic in combination with other viruses. Most of the garlic purchased from seed catalogs and other garlic growers contains some virus.”

Garlic Mosaic (also onion mosaic): Look for mottling or striping on the leaves. Mosaic is caused by several different viruses that appear to be lumped under the “potyvirus” term. They can be transmitted through the planting stock or even carried by aphids. It is thought that these viruses are commonly present in all garlic (according to U of CA).

Iris Yellow Spot is a virus carried by onion thrips. It is usually seen on onions, but can also affect other members of the Allium family. Identify by a diamond-shaped splotch on the leaves or elongated brown lesions.

Yellow Dwarf Virus: Look for yellow streaks on the leaves. Not all leaves are necessarily infected, and how much it affects the crop depends on the level of infestation and the time of the season – a mild infestation late in the year might have very little effect. Stressed plants are more likely to get it – or maybe they have it all along, but a weakened plant under the right conditions allows the virus to manifest itself. In severe cases, plants are stunted; leaves and flower stalks can be twisted and pale. Of course, yellowing leaves look like just about everything else that can affect garlic, so it’s hard to tell whether it’s really the result of the evil Yellow Dwarf or not. Preventative measures are best.

Critter Infestations

Damage from Onion Thrips

Garlic problem #57: Damage from Onion Thrips (University of Maryland Home & Garden Information Center)

Aster Yellows: I put this in the critter category because it is carried by a leafhopper bug.  Signs include smaller, yellow, deformed leaves (veins remain green) and a possible “witches’ broom” appearance. The disease is relatively new in garlic, particularly up north, but I recently heard of a grower in Minnesota who lost 10,000 bulbs to this pest! What a devastating loss! Aster yellows can actually affect over 300 species of plants and is caused by a phytoplasma. When the leafhopper feeds on the plant, it becomes infected for the rest of its life. The spread of aster yellows is worse in cooler, wet climates, probably because leafhoppers don’t like hot dry areas. One has to wonder what kind of pests and diseases we will have to deal with in the face of climate change – those things that might migrate north to escape the heat and drought.

Nematodes (Ditylenchus dipsaci) can live in plant tissue for 9 years! They spread through planting infected seed stock. Plants may show no symptoms in cool growing conditions, but in warmer weather, the tops will yellow prematurely. In some cases, the stem will appear stunted or twisted or even swollen; sometimes the bulb is deformed. Look for swollen tissue at the basal plate, spongy tissue, splits where you’d normally see a bulb, yellowed skins, rot and decay. (Not to be confused with the predatory nematodes, Steinernema feltiae, aka Neoaplectana carpopapsae, which you can actually purchase, and which are known to attack some 250 or so different kinds of insects, worms, and bugs.)

Onion Maggots (Hylemya antiqua): These legless little white maggots will bore into the garlic stem underground. The plant will turn yellow, wilt, and possibly die. They generally prefer onions and shallots. As an adult, they look like a little grey housefly; eggs are laid at the base of plants in the soil; the baby maggots have voracious appetites.

Onion Thrips: These little suckers love warm, dry weather. Look for whitish specks on leaves (lack of chlorophyll – they suck the life-blood juice right out of the plant) that grow into splotches and eventually all run together. They can hibernate in the bulb wrappers and carry viruses, such as the Iris Yellow Spot mentioned earlier. Oh – and if you live in a warm place, you can have 10 generations of these buggers in your field in one season alone!

Soil & Other Issues

Punky Bulb: Seriously, Dude, this is a real thing. It is caused by a manganese toxicity due to a low pH. Cloves are loose and discolored.

Waxy Breakdown: The cloves turn translucent and rot. It can happen when the temperatures are hot during harvest (sun-baked?).

Nutrient Imbalances: Lack of nitrogen, potassium, calcium, magnesium can all appear like everything else – yellow tips of leaves, often affecting the oldest ones first (calcium deficiency often appears as spots). Leaves die back. In nutrient overloads, for example, too much nitrogen, you might see excessive side shoots. Test your soil. The best preventative approach is to build the soil in a balanced way through compost; applying boxes of this and that can really throw things off.

Conclusions:

I don’t pretend to be an expert here. By all means, if you suspect something wrong with your garlic, look for additional resources, talk to experts, consider having your garlic, soil, or whatever you can catch tested. In my next post, I will talk about management strategies and prevention. In the meantime, here are a few good sources of information.

Some Resources:

Anderson, Bob. “Gourmet Garlic Gardens” (website for all things garlic). http://www.gourmetgarlicgardens.com/diseases.htm

ATTRA – National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. Updated 2008. “Garlic: Organic Production.” 28 p. https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=29

Cornell University Dept. of Plant Pathology & Plant-Microbe Biology: Diseases of Garlic http://plantclinic.cornell.edu/factsheets/garlicdiseases.pdf

Engeland, Ron L. 1991. “Growing Great Garlic. The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers.” Filaree Productions, Okanogan, WA.

Oregon State University Extension. “An Online Guide to Plant Disease Control.”

Oregon State University, Washington State University, University of Idaho. “Pacific Northwest Plant Disease Handbook,” a Pacific Northwest Extension publication. http://pnwhandbooks.org/plantdisease/

University of California Integrated Pest Management http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/selectnewpest.onion-and-garlic.html

University of Minnesota/Extension. “Growing Garlic in Minnesota.” http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/cropsystems/components/DC07317.pdf

University of Minnesota/Extension. “What’s Wrong with my Plant?” http://www.extension.umn.edu/gardeninfo/diagnostics/vegetable/garlic/index.html

Disclaimer: Each of these resources contains valuable information; some present info on chemical controls, which is not something I myself use, but I do find it useful to know what might be applied on crops where chemical warfare is supported.