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.

Garlic: You Better Come On In My Kitchen

…because it’s gonna be rainin’ outdoors….

and now it’s gone, but I ain’t worried, cuz I’m settin’ on top of the world….

(Thank you Robert Johnson and the many others who have done versions of these songs.)

Yes, it’s been awhile since I’ve played harmonica for the ol’ garlic patch (or at least shared it). We are bringing her into the kitchen for her own protection… bwahahahaha

Garlic Status: Mid-July

I am getting lots of questions about where we’re at with the garlic – when we’ll have bulbs for sale – and how about the bulbils?

Here’s my final, not-so-final, wishy-washy answer to predicting the future: I’m not quite sure.

Most years, I’d have the crop in by now. Last year, though, I was harvesting late July and into August, a full month later.

This year seems similar to last. We’ve had some unusually wet, cold weather. I felt sorry for the folks at the “Sunny” Sequim Lavender Festival this last weekend — I don’t think the temps even reached 60 degrees! We’ve had more thunder and lightning than I’ve ever seen on this side of the mountains, and one downpour after another, interspersed with what seems like eternal drizzle. Combine that with winds gusting to 40 and 50 mph, and most of us are tired of saying, “Summer is just around the corner.”

How is this weather affecting the garlic? I am sorry to say I’ve already had a few failures this year – a lesson in microclimates within the garden (I am always learning!) But other varieties are looking really good, despite what are ideal conditions for fungus and mold outbreaks.

Conventional wisdom says to cut the watering a couple of weeks before harvest, but good luck stopping the rain! The fact is, bulbs can increase a lot in size during those last few weeks in the soil, so I have been holding out as long as possible for that promised warm weather to help them along. The question is, will we then have even better conditions for mold (wet, warm soil)? Time will tell, and I am keeping my fingers crossed. I am thankful for raised beds and soft soil (and ok, I admit, even a little breeze now and then – just not something that takes down the schooner Hesperus!).

When to harvest is always a tricky question. Usually I harvest when the bottom leaves are dying off, leaving green ones at the top, and when the scapes show signs of maturity. I am seeing dying leaves – but the scapes are still young. For example, the other day, I went ahead and harvested the Persian Stars, a beautiful little purple stripe, but I think I really should have waited a little longer. They are in good shape, but perhaps not the size they could have been, and I don’t know that the seedlets in the scapes will be mature enough to sprout. We will have to test them.

Final guesstimate:

  • Harvest late July / early August
  • Cure for 3-4 weeks after that
  • Sell & ship in September onward (earlier if you want to stop by and get the green stuff).
Will keep you posted! Thanks for following!

 

Three Sisters Corn Patch

I get a lot of questions about growing corn in the Pacific Northwest, where our weather makes this a challenging endeavor at best.  We usually don’t get much heat until after the 4th of July, and even that is relatively speaking. Living close to the water, we get a lot of dense, damp air, and later in the season, a lot of morning fog, which can make the mold really happy in the hanging garlic. The incessant wind rolls the swells in off the coast, which is great if you are a cold-water surfer or into collecting Japanese tsunami debris, but not so much for gardeners.

I hardly call myself an expert, but I’m happy to share what has worked for me during a less-than-optimum season – e.g., last year, which really sucked, quite frankly. And to blow the ending for you – we still got a LOT of corn.

Getting Started

First off, I started my corn early in a greenhouse – early meaning end of May. It isn’t a very big greenhouse. I have a love-hate relationship with this thing that is either a plastic suffocation chamber or a somewhat-effective shelter from the cold – no mid-ground. The idea is to get them warm enough to germinate. Once they get going, they can handle a fair amount of cold, but if it’s too cold and wet to start, they just rot. You will need 75 or so little pots if you want to plant them individually. Experts say to plant at least a 4’ x 4’ bed, which, to me, is absolute bare minimum.

Ok – So I didn’t have the pots and so I planted the seeds in a shallow tray – which was a bad idea. The roots grew very long very quickly before hardly anything showed above ground. Before long, I had a good 100 plants looking for a bright future and a tangled mess out of sight beneath the soil.

My point being – starting them in the greenhouse to get the warmth for germination is a good idea. Starting them too soon is not. You need a lot of plants for a plot. Trays are not a bad idea, but keep in mind, by the time you see a sprout, they’ve already created an underground network worth respecting. You might be able to save yourself a lot of trouble by waiting until about now, planting them directly outside, and heating up the ground for a few days with a plastic covering.

new corn transplants in favas at Barbolian Fields

Corn planted in a spiral with favas

Next – where to plant them. Hopefully you’ve thought this out ahead of time. They need full sun and lots of it. They need good soil – make that great soil. They are nutrient hogs. Last year, I had a 25-foot-square plot available where I had grown garlic the year before. In March, I had planted a bunch of fava beans there to put nitrogen back into the soil. My plan was to plant the corn in the fava patch and cut the fava back later when the corn got high. In the meantime, the fava might offer some protection and eventually, nitrogen.

You don’t want to plant the corn in a long lonesome row – they grow best surrounded amongst friends. Some people grow them in clusters; others on mounds; others in blocks of rows; others in beds. Me, I planted mine in a spiral. Yes, a spiral. I was tired of rows and squares and boring blocks of this and that. I took an old hose and wound it around on the ground and on June 16, transplanted a plant every 12” or so, cutting off favas if they were in the way.  I started in the center of the plot and worked outward, not expecting to fill the entire space. We gently separated the roots, put about 90 plants in the ground, and lo and behold, almost every single one made it.

Three Sisters

Corn outgrows favas; sunflowers keep up (Barbolian Fields photo)

Corn outgrows favas

I like the Three Sisters idea of planting corn with squash and beans. It makes so much sense to have the beans give nitrogen to the corn, while the corn provides a pole for the bean to climb, and the squash sprawls out over the ground, conserving moisture, suppressing weeds, and attracting pollinators. It’s the kind of harmony that makes me want to put flowers in my hair.

There’s only one problem. Well, actually, a few. The beans don’t release the nitrogen until they die, which is great for next year, but not this one, and in the meantime, they, too, need nutrients, water, and light, which the corn is already hogging. Plus, it might eventually get difficult to harvest the beans in a corn thicket. The squash might spread across the floor, but it doesn’t necessarily block weeds – it will, most definitely, block your ability to get in there and take care of things.

Three Sisters and Companions

I decided against the 3-sisters idea in the strict sense; however, I still liked the idea of incorporating some companion-planting concepts to our mutual benefit.  The favas were ideal because I could cut them back mid-summer, at which time they would start releasing nutrients right when the corn was at its hungriest and right when the mulch was most appreciated.

As the corn grew, the spiral effect was lost in a jungle of stalks and leaves. Dense and beautiful. Still enough room to squeeze through, water, and gently hoe while they were still young.

I planted peas and red runner beans on the northern edge of the plot. The peas ran up a mesh support, which is the kind of fabric they like to cling to. Beans do better winding up a pole or rope, which we also provided. Both took advantage of the part sun/part shade conditions, attracted pollinators, were not lost in the middle of the corn patch, and didn’t get in the way of the corn growth.

Sweet Mama squash climbs over Buddhas (Barbolian Fields photo)On the eastern side, catching the warming rays of the morning sun, I planted what I thought was a clumping squash but what ended up being a prolific wandering type. “Sweet Mama” pretty much took over that whole end of the garden, wandered up and over the great Buddhas and out into the pathways, but didn’t really block any weeds, weeds being the persistent opportunists they are.

Any wonder why it is called morning glory? (Barbolian Fields photo)Also on the eastern side, a Goumi berry, a strawberry tree, and a Cornelian cherry, each relatively new and still on the small side – a few bush beans and peas here and there – and a climbing morning glory of the domestic kind, just because.

Sweet Peas from Renee's Garden Seeds (Barbolian Fields photo)Secret garden entrance through the sweet peas (Barbolian Fields photo)
On the southern side, we had sweet peas – glorious sweet peas growing up and through an A-frame made from a couple of old short garden fences, which served as a secret entrance to this part of the garden. They were fragrant, colorful, and wonderful in every way (seeds from Renee’s Garden). We also had an assortment of Mexican Marigolds, yarrow, lavender, borage, cardoon, chamomile, sage, hyssop, Saint John’s Wort, costmary – mostly things that attract and repel insects and don’t require a lot of care. Great plants for the edges. Not something I would normally plant with things needing heavy nutrients and water, but they were already there and easy to ignore and also appreciate.

Emerging Sunflower (Barbolian Fields photo)But the grandest of them all were the sunflowers we planted on the west side to serve as a windbreak and also in memory of my mother, who is in a grander garden these days. These Gargantuan Mammoths were gentle giants, and like the corn, shallow rooted and a bit needy. Oh – but talk about spectacular! They stood tall, like trees. These things were in-your-face outstandingly beautiful, and as they turned their heads with the sun, they were turning heads from across the acre.

Dealing with the Wind Factor

But would they stand up against the wind? In previous years, the Westerlies have been strong enough to blow over my entire patch of corn. I remember watching it ripple and sway like waving grain, and I knew it was an easy target. In some years, my garlic has actually grown at an angle. Definitely a force to reckon with.

Opening sunflower - say "Ahhh!" (Barbolian Fields photo)So I was not surprised when some of the sunflowers fell under the onslaught – but I planted enough that many made it. Importantly, they really did their job – probably one of the more effective techniques I used all year. I worried that they would block too much of the afternoon sun, but the corn seemed to do just fine. In fact, it did more than fine. It thrived without the wind stress, but still received enough wind for pollination. Despite the cool weather, we got an outstanding crop. Mine was not the first in the neighborhood, so no bragging rights there – but once it was ready, we were eating it nearly every day even into fall and with plenty to share.

Late summer corn and sunflowers (Barbolian Fields photo)

Late summer corn; peas and beans are about done; sunflowers form seeds.

I can’t say I took care of the corn all that well. After all, I had a huge garlic crop to tend to. I sprinkled a little blood meal around the stalks a couple of times in the season. I occasionally watered. Early on, I pulled weeds and threw them back down on the soil as mulch; later weeds grew again and I just covered them with favas. I certainly didn’t try to make everything perfect. It was fun wandering in circles, something I’ve done most my life.

Conclusions

Glorious Gargantuan Sunflower (Barbolian Fields photo)

Am I planting a 3-sisters idea this year? No. The corn is too much of a nutrient and space hog for what I have going now. We never eat all the squash I grow, and it’s relatively inexpensive at the farmer’s markets. I am replenishing the soil with more favas and buckwheat cover crops. Other potential places for growing corn are already taken with flowers and berries. I planted some sunflowers along a south-facing fence near the beehives, where they will be more protected and appreciated by buzzing friends.

Did the three sisters idea work? Mmmm – jury is out on that one. I didn’t follow the guidelines. My corn was still grown mostly as a monoculture within a polyculture plot, and I still think it grows best grouped with its own kind. It’s certainly easier to take care of that way. The temporary inter-planting with the fava beans, though, worked extremely well. I let a few mature to save my own seed, but most of them I chopped and dropped. Additional companion planting around the perimeter also worked.

Overall, I consider the effort a success. We harvested lots of peas and beans; I turned leftovers back onto the soil. Sweet Mama was beautiful, productive, fun – but not much of a weed suppressor or water conservationist. Squash are thirsty plants. I like having the assortment of herbs and flowers around the edges — I didn’t have any problems with insect pests and noticed lots of ladybugs here and there. The sweet peas were as fragrant as they were gorgeous. The sunflowers fed the birds much of the winter – and we ate some, too – and they were certainly outstanding in their field.

My little sweet pea loves pod peas (Barbolian Fields photo)

Amy says planting pod peas again would be good!

I still like the idea of using corn as bean poles. It might be fun to experiment with planting several corn plants together in separate mounds with climbing beans around the circle, but it would probably be more beans than I would need.  Allowing wide pathways for the squash might put the corn mounds too far apart. I would probably worry about whether the corn would get pollinated, which is the main reason for planting it all together in a dense patch in the first place, other than for emotional support, of course, and also to be able to stand up against the wind, which even then, is not always possible.

Every season I try something a little different. A few downfalls – a few spectacular surprises. It’s all good. I know folks around here grow fields – even mazes – of corn – mostly in more protected areas than mine and with lots of open space and sunshine. I will support their operations this year.

Even so, there is something about picking it fresh and dropping it 5 minutes later into a kettle of boiling water or roasting it on the grill – nothing quite like it. I just might have to start building the soil in a spot for a mound experiment for next year.

Would love to hear what has worked for other folks out there!

Garlic Status – Memorial Day Plant Survey

How is your garlic growing?

German Extra Hardy garlic plants

Short person in tall garlic patch. That would be me and the German Extra Hardies.

 

Plant Survey:

About once or twice a month, I am taking a photographic survey of plants in the garden and around the back acre. The camera is such a wonderful tool for documenting what’s going on out there in the weed jungle. I will later transfer this info to a spreadsheet where, for example, I can chart the blooming times of different plants to better see what is available to the bees at different times of year. It also makes an easy way to look at when things are ready to harvest (and plan accordingly, which is key, and which I learned the hard way when the black mustard was ready at the same time as the garlic and there was not room for both to hang in the shed!). Course, some of the plants don’t look like much yet (which will make it all the more interesting when the back acre is magically transformed into a food forest / combination wildlife habitat corridor). But other plants, like this year’s garlic? Holy Toledo!

Love how the camera gives us perspective! You may remember how it used to look:

New garlic beds

Garlic Maze - late October 2011

People thought I was crazy, for sure.

And again – the “After” – same spot.

Garlic Maze on Memorial Day 2012

Garlic Maze today

People still think I’m crazy. Oh well.

Plant ON, Plant People!

Serious gardeners in the Pacific Northwest who are on top of things are already harvesting early-season veggies. In fact, I got an email today from Nash’s Organic Produce saying their first spinach is ready.

I can’t say that I fall into this camp, although by default, I did manage to get a good start with those things that overwintered or that self-sowed on their own. We still have chard, kale, spinach, and onions going strong; a lot of things have bolted into flower and are so covered with bees, I haven’t had the heart to cut them down.

Overall, though, my garden will be radically different this year. I have decided to forego the usual spring frenzy and give more support to our local growers and less to staking up falling tomatoes.  I mean, so much of what I do is just so fruitless!

However, it is hard not to question that decision after our recent visit to Paul Gautschi’s farm, followed by a few days of good weather.

Ha! What an understatement THAT is! Seriously, we are still reeling from the heat wave that blasted through here last week, propelling us into thinking, OMG, if I don’t get those tomatoes, cukes, & squashes in the ground immediately, it’ll be too late!

Paddle to Dungeness Lighthouse

Work in garden or go kayaking?

Personally, though, I did not think that. We paddled our kayaks across calm waters to the Dungeness Lighthouse and back. It felt like a late summer day with nary a cloud in the sky. Perfect.

Curious seal

This little guy followed us

But now I am having Slacker’s Remorse. I mean, how could I NOT grow our own food after all these years? It’s not a bad thing to re-think our decisions, after all. There is something indescribably special about picking and munching something on the spot…. Certainly, a compromise is certainly in order here.

But is it too late??? (Quick Answer: Heck No!)

Sure, it’s a trick question on when to plant and when to wait. One of my favorite seed companies, Renee’s Garden, from whom I purchased last year an assortment of salad greens, cukes, sweet peas, sunflowers, morning glories and other flowers, all of which did really well, advises waiting until nighttime temps are above 50 degrees to plant tender veggies.

Good luck with that, I say! If you wait that long here, there won’t be enough time to ripen before the degrees dip back down along with the daylight hours.

The spring window for planting is when we all get a little nervous. Get it wrong, you might not get a second chance. We get creative with cold frames, cloches, raised beds, and pre-starting things like corn crowded in pots on windowsills all over the house (what are windowsills for, anyway? Isn’t that why they call it the spring window?)

Besides, let me remind us that it’s only mid-May, and even though Seattle topped 80 this last weekend, we were thinking we were suffering at approaching 75. It’s all relative. Normally, we’d be dancing if we topped 60. The onshore flows will ensure we get back to normal in no time, which means the wind that topped 40 knots yesterday is just a breath of fresh air compared with what’s to come. And I don’t know about you, but I usually count our average last frost date at April 15 – which always seems so late to me – seems like we wait forever for that magic number. Well, those recent sunny days brought some very cool nights, and I couldn’t help but notice that some of my plants got nipped – get this – on MAY 11!!! So it can – and does – happen!

The Soil Temp Answer:

Cliff Mass, my favorite weather guy, recently wrote about measuring the temperature of the soil and using that info in gardening. This makes a lot of sense to me.  The air temp, after all, is quite different from that at the top of the soil, which is quite different from what you find a few inches down, which is why I think my peas rotted. Or maybe the birds got them. Either way, if you wonder why something isn’t germinating, the soil temp could give the answer. Cliff provides a link to the Washington State University AgWeatherNet, which gives a daily reading of the soil temperature taken 8” down at numerous stations across the state. At that depth, the temps are undoubtedly more stable, but my first reaction was, “How useful is that? We plant maybe an inch down, not 8!” Still, it is a value that reflects trends, and you can adjust to your upper-level circumstances, accordingly. Which may vary widely, I might add, through the aforementioned creative use of plastic, rocks and concrete, old tires, & lots of etc. that wouldn’t normally be in a garden other than to create individual microclimates to your advantage.

Here is a chart that shows the required soil temperature for germination of various vegetables, which, in full disclosure, I stole from Cliff Mass. Note how the “practical” differs from the “optimal” by sometimes 40 degrees! I would suspect these are temperatures of the soil where the seed is, not 8” down under.

Chart on soil temperatures needed for seed germinationSo no – it’s not too late to plant things like peas and spinach (optimum at 70), and yes, I’ll have to try again with the pod peas (not listed on the chart, but place it in line with spinach and parsley), and I will pass on the okra, thank you very much. What – 95 for pumpkins? It’ll never happen – but we DID get pumpkins last year – so take this info however you want.

The point being, don’t let admonitions make you think you can’t. Throw caution to the wind! (I do it so much, I should install a wind tower!)

Whether to plant or not to plant: Maybe it’s also about weighing what is worth the effort for the return. Pod peas, for example, are just SO GOOD fresh and too expensive in the stores! Herbs? Who can’t have a little pot of thyme and oregano on their porch?  Basil takes a little more effort, but it’s a spendy gourmet item in the markets if you like fresh pesto, which I do, I do. If you get ripe tomatoes, you grow justified bragging rights, and more power to ya.

For those of us with time and room, we can continue planting stuff all the way up until fall – garlic being a prime example of something to stick in the ground in October. I usually wait until later this month or even early June for potatoes so they are ready just in time for a fall harvest and storage, but I see some volunteers are already up, which will give me an early crop (and yes, those were the ones that got hit hardest by the frost, but they are making a comeback). Potatoes might be cheap, but if you consider commercial growers kill the tops with weed killers to facilitate harvesting, I think they’re worth either buying organic or growing your own if you have space.

So do not be dismayed by the calendar and whatever you haven’t been able to accomplish! All it takes is a few days of sunshine and the soothsayers are out there predicting drought and pestilence. But hey, we only get an average of 17” of rain here anyway – and the pests, well, they, too, are part of the world we live in. Some are like weeds, underappreciated for the role they play.

I just remember how last year never seemed to warm up until mid-July – and yet, when I look back at the pictures from last year’s garden, I am blown away by the sheer amount of biomass! Despite day after day of cold temperatures, heavy rains, unrelenting wind, and outright neglect by yours truly when I disappeared for a full month about this time – my garden hung in there. I came back in late May to a garden full of weeds and started planting anyway – and all this stuff still managed to grow. Most striking, the pod peas, sweet peas, beans, squashes, and nasturtiums, which just seemed to clamber over everything, and the spectacular sunflowers towering overhead. Check out this photostream:

2011 – it was a hard year and also a good year. What’s in store for 2012? In the garden, it’s just beginning!

So Plant ON, Plant People!

Permaculture by Nature

Paul Gautschi

Strong, expressive hands – huge spirit – Paul Gautschi shares his love for God and His creation.

Paul Gautschi is not a big man in stature, and one cannot help but notice that just walking is difficult for him, as his body is quite crippled from the ravages of Agent Orange. Spend just a few moments with him, however, and you do not see his physical challenges – you only see a strong human being with a profound relationship with the earth and its Creator, a man whose mind knows no limitations.

“I think about how hard I used to work to fail.” He chuckles at the thought and shakes his head at his own folly. Paul obviously takes no credit for what he has created, only giving credit to the true Creator.

Poor Beginnings

He and his wife, Carol (who, as an aside note, is a well-known midwife and delivered my latest granddaughter), bought some land years ago on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State, in an area that was probably quite remote at the time. The problem was, though, that they dug a well over 200 feet and it only produced ½ gallon per minute – and the “soil” was a rocky thin layer over hardpan.

These, he claims, were blessings in disguise. Keep in mind, they raised seven children on this land! I can imagine him in those early days, at his wits end, wondering how he was going to make it all work. So he did what many of us would do: he took a walk in the woods, and he called out (probably with a certain amount of despair), “Lord – help me out here!” And the answer was, “Look around.”

Hmmm. He realized the trees were huge – with no help whatsoever from mankind. No irrigation. No plowing or tilling. No weeding. No applied fertilizers.

“I can do this,” he said – and from then on, his approach to gardening changed from slave labor to letting Nature do the work for him.

The Solution in Wood Chip Mulch

Back to the present: we are visiting his homestead on a field trip as part of a Conservation District Native Landscaping class. The first step, he noted, talking about those early days, was to layer things on top – and more specifically, wood chip mulch – not just bark or just inner chips of wood, but the whole tree, including green leaves and branches, similar to how Nature drops a combination of needles, leaves, branches, and trees over time. He was just speeding up the process. This combination of green and brown, he says, is essential to keeping things in balance. It also provides a nice texture, unlike hay or grass clippings, which tend to get slimy and compacted and may contain seeds.

Gautschi-Pruned Apple Tree

Note how the gnarly branches reach downward on this tree (also pictured: one of the homestead expert vole catchers!)

“I haven’t watered this orchard in 33 years,” he says. He rakes across the top of the mulch to reveal black, mineral-rich soil.

Paul is a Certified Master Arborist, but does not own a chipper. “Just another machine requiring fuel,” he says. It makes much more sense to utilize what would otherwise be a waste product from road crews and other sources.

“Look at nature,” he explains. “Nature doesn’t like bare ground. If there is bare ground, something will move in and cover it. Soil is a living organism,” he emphasizes. “It should never be exposed. Whether by scales, fur, or skin – every living thing is covered.” All materials are placed on top.  In fact, in the fall, he just covers up his strawberries with more woodchip mulch. Healthy young plants come up every year.

One student makes the comment that she feels badly that we are all standing in his garden, a big no-no for most Pacific Northwest soils in wet, late April. “You can’t compact this stuff!” he exclaims. I look around and notice that most of us are lightly bouncing in place on what is like a giant cushion.

Water Solution

The soil becomes like a sponge, holding just the right amount of moisture. And every time it rains, it’s like giving the garden a dose of compost tea. It’s a constant mineral supplement – and those minerals are key to flavor, nutrition, and vitality. “What is snow?” he asks. “Snow is slow-release, drip irrigation, as well as insulation.”

He points to his orchard. The “dwarf” trees are really quite large (no one tells you how big they’ll get if grown in compost – they don’t know!). The roots spread out unencumbered. The branches, instead of growing upward, bend down toward the earth. The roots have an easier time reaching the water, which is then transported to the fruit. “The fruits are so full of juice and so heavy that they weigh the branches downward – where they are easier for me to pick,” he adds.

“Like nature intended,” we all say in our minds. We are catching on.

Mineral-Rich Soil Smells Rich!

The soil just beneath the top layer of chips is incredible – soft, moist, dark, and rich. He encourages us all to take a handful and smell it. “You can literally smell the minerals in this soil,” he exclaims. His enthusiasm and the wonder at the perfectness of nature are catching.

Sweet Russian Kale

Sweet Russian Kale – SO good!

It is the end of April, and he guides us to a patch of Russian kale planted a year ago beneath a cherry tree. “The tree gives it protection over the winter,” he says. He clips us all a little sample. It is juicy and surprisingly sweet. “Come on over here to the asparagus…” We eagerly follow. This is the best tour ever. The asparagus is literally dripping juices. He comments about the wonders of nature and its perfect sense of timing: asparagus has roots that can mine minerals 15 feet down into the ground. It comes up in the spring when hardly anything else is growing, when we most need something fresh, green, and nourishing.

“When you cut the plant off from its life source, it immediately begins to die,” he explains. Within 10 minutes, it doesn’t have near the vitality it did before. By growing your own food, you can harvest and eat it right there for optimum nutrition. His explanation makes perfect sense to me.

We all can’t help but notice that he also has a lush patch of parsley and cilantro that have overwintered. I help myself to a nibble of the fragrant cilantro. I love this stuff – and when I plant it in spring, it usually bolts before I harvest much.

Paul Gautschi and Homestead

Paul Gautschi leans against a rake, taking questions from our tour group and sharing what he has observed and has worked for him. Click here to visit Dana & Sarah Films to buy the “Back to Eden” DVD!

Building the Soil Without Tilling

But of course, a vegetable can only be as nutritious as the soil in which it is grown. Many agricultural practices only deplete the soil further and further, unlike the mulch applications that continue to build the soil, year after year. Done right, you can use less and less and get more in return (“at about the time we are getting older and can’t do as much,” he notes as another example of perfect timing).

“You don’t have to mix it all up,” he says. “All that needless work, and so destructive! Tilling is like sending a hurricane through the environment! God doesn’t till. He just lays everything on top. When you mix it up, that’s when it ties up the nitrogen. It brings too much oxygen into the soil and the microbes burn up the nutrients too quickly, leaving nothing for the next season.” He points to the lush grass on the edges of the mulch. “Does that grass look like it doesn’t get nitrogen?” he asks.

He recalls how much work he used to do tilling, trying to break up the layer of hardpan beneath. The process only brought more weed seeds to the surface, which then required more tilling – a never-ending process. He shakes his head again, thinking how hard he worked against nature’s way. It was like God was saying, “I sent all those worms to break up your hardpan, and you kept killing them with your tiller.” The evidence is clear: cultivation is destroying our topsoil, and despite the obvious, people are still doing it, and on a very large scale.

No Thinning, Weeding, Hilling, Rotating….  (like, what does this guy do all day?)

Cat and daffodils

Another Mouser – these daffodils just grow on their own – and look at that grass on the border! No lack of nitrogen there!

Paul doesn’t bother thinning his vegetables – too much work! And what a waste! The soil is so loose, they naturally just move each other out of the way. He doesn’t need to hill potatoes; they, too, just move to where they need to grow. He doesn’t rotate his garlic. “God doesn’t rotate crops,” he explains. “Why should I?” I notice no quackgrass, no bindweed, no real insect issues. I like this guy. And I love his methods. I am tempted to spend the afternoon in his parsley patch, but right now, we are headed to see the chickens, who are busy with their waste management duties.

“Everything in nature is in total harmony,” he explains as we walk. “We (meaning mankind) take out the best. Nature, though, takes out the weak.” So when he harvests potatoes, he puts the best ones back. His crop improves every year.

Throughout our tour, I am marveling at how this man with so many physical challenges, manages to achieve so much. “I let nature do the work for me,” he repeats. But even more extraordinary than what he has accomplished is his deep connection to the land, his reverence to God, and the continual sense of awe in His creation.  His source of inspiration truly emanates from his being.

The lessons seem so obvious to those of us who slave to force our gardens into submission, rapid growth, and our contrived sense of pedigreed perfection.

There is an easier way.

M-U-L-C-H.

Yes, it IS that simple. Just layer it on top. It builds the soil; it conserves water; it releases nutrients gradually. Plants grow together in harmony. And as Paul Gautschi illustrates, we can reap from this bounty, with enough left over to feed our neighbors and give back to the earth.

Permaculture is hardly an original idea. Nature has been doing it on her own since time began.

Paul quotes Einstein, “When the solution is simple, God is answering.”

Maybe it is time to take a walk in the woods. Take a little closer look around us. Witness. Communicate with the Powers that Be. Listen. Learn. Share. Stand back in wonder. Be humbled.

~ * ~

Additional Information:

Watch the Film:

Paul Gautschi’s approach and methods have recently been featured in a film,Back to Eden,” which is currently being translated into several different languages – including Swahili!

Buy the DVD:

If you would like to buy the “Back to Eden” DVD, click here to visit Dana & Sarah Films.

Happy International Permaculture Day everyone!

Warre Beehive Update: Save the Queen!

The Bee-Well Update:

Here is how the schedule went in obtaining and installing the bees into their new Warre Hive at Barbolian Fields:

Wednesday evening: bees packaged up in Oregon

Thursday morning: bees traveled to Sequim, WA. We picked them up at 11:30 a.m. (try driving home with 15,000 bees buzzing in your car – including a few hitchhikers that were along for the ride and on the OUTSIDE of the cage!).

Friday: the weather was rather windy and cold, so we waited and got ready. See Ain’t Mis-Bee-Havin’  and the Warre Hive set-up.

Saturday: Time to release the bees! Beautiful day! The weather was perfect!

Sunday and Monday: We left them alone.

Tuesday (yesterday): Time to make sure everyone was ok and that the Queen was out of her cage. It was a good thing I did! Here’s how it happened…

The weather had dramatically changed from uncommonly warm and spring-like to our normal cold, drizzle-rain. There was not a soul at the entrance. I worried that anyone was even alive. I knocked on the hive. No sound. I opened up the bottom drawer. A little bee flew out, and the drawer wasn’t full of bees, so I figured they were just sleeping in.

I returned later in the day, dressed in my bee suit, equipped with smoker, feather, jars of fresh sugar syrup, sugar spray, hive tool, and a nail, just in case I needed to help the queen out. I intended to use the smoker only if I really needed to, but I was a little leery of opening up the hive on a cold day.

This is where the reality hit that I was invading “their” space. It was no longer “my” hive. The key, however, is respect, politeness, and don’t let them know you’re afraid. Keep the fear pheromones under control.

I decided to give a little puff of smoke at the hive entrance, just to let them know I was coming. Or maybe to mask my odor. Or maybe just to confuse them. You can’t be too careful, right?

I removed the roof and quilt box. So far so good. However, when I tried to take off the top cloth covering the feeder box, I was blown away by what I saw: a zillion bees hanging from the screen in a large clump. More like a giant glob of bees. If I wiggled the cloth, they moved in unison. And they were humming. Loudly.

What’s this? They’re supposed to be down in the hive! How was I going to get to the Queen? I tried giving them a few gentle puffs of smoke, but they didn’t automatically descend into the hive – so I gave them a little shake. Many fell off; many flew out; some still clung tenaciously. My eyes were wide and my accelerated breathing was starting to fog up my glasses inside the bee veil. Finally, I set the cloth back down, picked up the feeder box (which has no bottom – just the four sides to protect the jars and keep the hive intact), and set them both on the ground.

Honeybee comb on jarNext surprise: One of the pint jars of syrup was covered in freshly made comb! They were building off the jar! Wow. The symmetry is absolutely amazing – but this is not where it’s supposed to be! These bees are clearly not following the rules (my kind of bees!). Either that, or they are terribly confused (I can so relate!) Of the two pint jars of 1:1 sugar:water, the one with comb was almost empty, the other 3/4 full. I removed them both, and numerous bees followed.

I still needed to find the Queen. I could see the push pin, but the cage itself was deep down in the hive, thickly covered with bees. Hmm. Not a good sign. And why did I put it so far down there? Oh yes, to keep it beneath the triangular piece of wood attached to the top bar. But how was I going to get my hands in there? It is very difficult to grab something small with thick vinyl (Vinylove!) gloves, but you couldn’t pay me to put my bare hands down there! A lot of comb was being built, attached to the center top bars, which was good – however, it just isn’t all that easy to pull out a bar thick with comb and a zillion bees.

I gave them a couple more puffs of smoke. I am not convinced it “calms” them. I would think instead it affects their respiratory system and their breathing slows down. Breathe slowly. That would be me. And I don’t smoke.

Next problem: I couldn’t get the push pin out. The other day, it was easy to push it in there when it wasn’t covered with bees! I tried using the hive tool. I finally got the pin out, but then I dropped the cage! It fell deeper into the hive box, on top of thousands of bees. I could see it there – just out of reach.

What I really needed was a pair of long, needle-nose pliers! [Note to self: put “pliers” on the Beekeeping Equipment List!] I calmly stepped away from the hive and then ran as fast as I could to the barn to get a pair. I ran back to near the hive, and then slowed to a casual-walk pace, singing a Pooh-bear version of “I’m just a little white cloud” song. Tum de dum…

I gave them a little puff of the magic dragon in the can. But my running and looking down over the hive only served to fog up my glasses even more – it was difficult to see the edge of the screen to the cage, covered with bees, of course, and even more difficult to grab it without pinching anyone. I managed to only push it further down. Yikes. Now what.

Ah ha! But this is one of the advantages of the Warre Hive! Something falls down, just remove the box! Sure enough. The cage fell gently to the box below. It was covered in bees. The Queen was still intact.

I could see the problem. When I originally pinned the cage to the wall, I must have accidently pushed the little flap of screen back over the hole. None of the bees could help her get out. And if she ate her way through the candy blocking the entrance, which she had not, she would still not be able to escape. She was trapped.

I felt like the villain alien in some Grade B Science Fiction Reality show (is that an oxymoron? A Fiction Reality?). Clearly, I was only trying to help these little creatures. To them, however, I was this smoke-breathing gargantuan dragon, tearing apart their home, destroying their handiwork, taking away their food supply, and now stealing their Queen! All alarms were being sounded. Only we hear at different frequencies, and I could not hear them.

It was chaotic frenzy. They were bonking me in the face, buzzing all around my head, darting back and forth; numerous bees landed on my gloves; others were on my clothing…  “Why is this giant so dense??” they were screaming.

Did I mention? I love my Vinylove gloves and my beekeeper veil and the multiple layers of clothing. Plus, one can never have too much Velcro.

Breathe slowly. Do not let them sense my fear….

Yes, it was the creepy-crawlies / heebie-jeebies all rolled into one. Still, I carried on. I MUST GET THE QUEEN OUT. I focused.

I realized it was they who were afraid. I was not getting stung or hurt. They, on the other hand, were being invaded, exposed, and unfortunately, a few got a little smushed. Hate that sound. It’s kind of a little crunch. Sorry, girls. Clumsy giant. I didn’t mean to.

I took the nail out of the Beekeeper kit and tried to pry loose the candy. I had been advised that if I gently poked a hole through, being careful not to hurt the Queen, who was frantically jumping this way and that in the little cramped container, that I could just put my finger over the hole and release her into the hive.

Good luck trying that wearing Vinyloves. I do not love Vinylove.

Unfortunately, the candy was not all that easy to get out. It was goopy and waxy. I eventually managed to get a little hole through, though. It was the best I could do.

By this time, the hive had been open for quite some time. I decided to just hang the cage back in and close things back up. We’d all had enough excitement for one day. This time, though, I pinned the cage to the top of a bar 2nd in from the end. That way, I could easily remove it without getting in everyone’s way, and it wouldn’t interfere with where comb was already being built. I tilted the box sideways, pointing toward the center of the hive. I made sure she could get out.

I placed new jars of sugar syrup back in the hive and some more pollen patty and rock candy. I covered it back up with the box and the cover cloth, the quilt, and lastly, the roof. I tightened things down with the Bungie cords and quietly walked away.

Whew. The dragon will retreat into her cave for the night.

Wednesday (today): As much as I hated to open things back up so soon, I knew I needed to make sure the Queen was safely out and remove the cage before they built comb all around it. These bees were obviously Type-A workaholics; they would work until they die, to which I’m sure many of us can relate.

It would also be good to check on the syrup supply. Some folks tell me they can go through a quart of syrup in a day in cool weather before the blooms are out. But these bees only went through a little over a pint over the entire time, which told me they were finding food outside the hive, but probably also appreciated the indoor food on cold days.

It was 10:30 a.m., 57 degrees. The forecast was for afternoon rain and more rain throughout the week. Now was my moment.

As before, I dressed up in 4 layers of clothing (this could get hot!), donned my veil and Vinylove gloves, lit up the little smoker. I brought along a pair of needle-nose pliers, just in case, and also a small tarp, which would be handy to set the feeder box on.

Bees on top barsPuff puff. The bees start buzzing. Something’s going on. Do they remember me?

I took off the roof and the quilt. I gingerly peeked inside the top. Puff puff. Stand back and wait a moment. Quite a different experience this time. The bees were busy. They were feeding on the candy and syrup; crawling up and down between the bars. Fewer were obsessed with me and what I was doing. They were no longer clinging to the cloth in a clump.
Clump of honeybees

The push pin was easily accessible. All I needed to do was to move the syrup jars out of the way and lift up the bar enough to pull the cage out of there. As I pulled up the bar, a glob of bees came along with it. They appeared to be making comb. There were a few bees on the Queen’s cage, but not too many. I could gently push them off with my finger. I realized I could do this with my hands; I didn’t necessarily need the feather.

The bee cage was empty! Success!

I did not try to find the Queen. I was sure she was in there, doing what Queens do, catching up on her responsibilities.

Everyone has a role. Everyone knows what they are supposed to do.

Syrup jars on Warre HiveMe, too. I put the syrup back on the bars and added an extra jar to cover them over the forecasted cool weather. I put the feeder box around them, covered with the top cloth, then the quilt, then the roof. I tightened down the sides against the spring winds that can whip through here hard enough to blow over my corn crop. The whole procedure took me less than 15 minutes.

Success! Long Live the Queen!

The bees were already coming and going outside the front entrance. And the best part: they were ignoring me. They had better things to do. The Queen must be getting ready to lay eggs, if she isn’t already. And you gotta be amazed at how hard those girls were working to build comb! Incredible architecture in wax!

Empty Queen Bee CageSomething very satisfying about seeing them all so busy, fulfilling their life missions. Singing, indeed. Some were already returning with pollen. The weather might be changing, but they didn’t seem to mind.

As an aside note, when I attended my first local beekeeper’s meeting, I couldn’t help but notice how “bee-like” the instructor was. He confessed he spent an embarrassingly large amount of time watching his bees. I suddenly completely understood.

Away from the hive, I more closely inspected the cage. I could see how the wire mesh could easily be pushed back over it by mistake. Something to be aware of.

Bees at the Warre Hive entranceI examined more closely the piece of comb that had been built on the syrup jar. Oozing from the cells, a clear thick liquid, dripping like dew. Mmmm. It tasted remarkably like honey.

I think I could get used to this. Maybe.

Let ‘er Bee Free!

I know you have all been on the edge of your seats, wondering how this all went down. Not to worry, dear friends – I have managed to conquer a major fear and turn it into a fascination – perhaps even a life-long passion. It’s all about education and appreciation. And maybe that is true about a lot of things.

So without further ado, my contribution to an Earth Day celebration of how ultimately amazing this Earth is, as are all the creatures that inhabit it, both large and small; a recognition of how each of us can do a little something to make the world a better place or to make life a little easier for someone else; and last but not least, the release of 15,000 bees….

Let them be Bees! Let them be Free!

(P.S. Interested in a hive? Contact us! Jeff could probably be talked into building another one!)