Garlic Planting Conundrums – Part 3

This is my final post in this Garlic-Planting Conundrum series – and by now you probably think I am beating this whole thing into the ground. But I wanted to share a few practical things about figuring out your space needs and preparing the planting area, particularly under less-than-ideal conditions. Now is the time to think about next year, and with some forethought, you can save yourself a lot of work!

In this post I talk about

  • Figuring out how much garlic you should grow and how much space you will really need
  • Mulching and tilling – or not
  • What kinds of tools will help you get the job DONE (and which ones can you throw in the brambles)
  • Alternative planting methods, and do they work?
  • The nitty-gritty of building beds.

Garlic on Summer SolsticeSo, yes, finding, or, more likely, building that perfect spot in plenty of sunshine that has fluffy, moisture-holding, nutrient-dense, well-drained soil is a whole lot easier if you plan ahead and have time to work in cover crops and mulch over a few seasons. In my last post, we searched for a place in my traditional, 6-plot rotation scheme, now converted to a rapidly growing food forest / weed jungle, where I still might fit a few cloves. I mean, seriously, how hard can it be? Garlic doesn’t take up all that much space, right?

Myth #1: Garlic does not need a lot of space.

Oh yes it does! A 6-8” spacing seems pretty minimal until you get up to a 1500-bulb addiction. Even then, you can cram it into a 25-ft square plot, which I have done. But the REAL space issue is in following Rule #1: Rotate Your Crop, discussed at length in my previous posts. Because now, instead of a 25-foot square plot or so, you need FOUR of them, and in my case, I used SIX, around which I rotated the garlic, other veggies, and a series of cover crops. THAT is a lot of space, and making sure that space is available CAN be problematic! For years, this worked for me. However, once I started planting more and more perennials, that world changed, as seen in my garden schematic. When you seriously grow garlic, you need to be constantly strategizing where your next crop will be, including seeking new ground for world domination (epiphany in the last post: focus on expanding the edges!)

You may scoff at the 1500 figure – not everyone wants to turn this into a little hobby business of sorts. So yes, you can get away with a “plant-a-few-here-and-plant-a-few-there” mentality if you are only growing a few, but seriously, who does that? If you want to grow a year-round supply, you have to do the math, no matter what your level of math anxiety. It’s the only way to get a grip on how much space you really need.

Ok – So Get a Grip, and Let’s Do the Math  

Consider this: 5 bulbs per week for 9 months is approximately 180 bulbs, plus extra for family and friends, especially if you like sharing roasted garlic, cooking meals requiring more than one head, and throwing garlic-variety-tasting parties, in which case you’d best bump that up to at least 200…it adds up! and that is just to carry you through May, when, with proper planning, you will have some fresh garlic scallions available for your garlic fix. But there’s more: Don’t forget to add the number of bulbs you will need for the following season’s seed stock, AND factor in a few that won’t make it (sad, but true). Now we’re up to about 250. (Have I mentioned there is a lot of math in gardening?)

How many bulbs will you need to be able to plant that many cloves? There, it gets a little more complicated; it depends on the varieties. Let’s keep to the space issue here. Garlic Planting Planner Excerpt

Ok – how much space, exactly, will you need? It’s a very good question, and one which I attempted to help you answer in my usual convoluted way with my handy-dandy Excel Garlic-Planting Planner, available for FREE (access in the column to the right).

It will tell you, for example, if you have a 3.5-ft wide bed (double the length of my arm, so standing on each side, I can reach to the middle to weed), 10 feet long, with 4 rows down the bed and garlic spaced 8” apart, you will be able to plant 56 bulbs of garlic (you will need 5 of these if you want to plant 250 cloves).

If your bed is 15 feet long, you can plant 86 cloves (you will need 4 of these).

20 feet, 116 cloves (you might get away with 2).

If you plant them 6” apart on a 10-ft bed, the Excel sheet automatically bumps that 56 possibility up to 76.

On a 15-ft bed, 6” spacing, it jumps to 116 (look at that – the number of cloves you can get in a 15-foot bed at 6-inch spacing will take you 20 feet at 8-inch spacing!)

You get the idea.

BECAUSE – under the right conditions, your garlic will repay you in garlic love many times over.

If it’s for your own use, where size and perfection are not necessarily the qualities to which you aspire, you don’t necessarily need a 25-ft-square plot (until your family and friends find out you’re growing the best garlic ever, that is). You could still plant it here, there, and everywhere. However, I am still maintaining that garlic grown on a “large scale” (however you define it – perhaps for commercial purposes, perhaps not) tends to do a little better as a monocrop.

And THAT is the true source of my conundrum. I LOVE the permaculture / polyculture / food forest / eco-gardening concepts, but in all practicality, growing garlic in that landscape just wasn’t working for me. So, what to do?

A Return to the Situation Room

Let us return to the Situation Room, i.e., this plot of ground about 15’ x 40’ or so that I had designated for this year’s crop. I had come to the conclusion that it would be the best place to nurture my garlic because it has access to water and adequate sunshine (sunny spots are getting harder to find as the “food forest” grows more dense); however, the soil, just an old compacted pasture, left something to be desired. I started developing it a couple of years ago when we tilled it up and planted a cover crop. I had a lot of mixed feelings about ripping apart the earthworms and turning the microbial world upside down and around in circles, but I also knew that once accomplished, the new cover crop of nitrogen fixers would help them build something far better than what was. Despite a lot of chop & drop, planting an intermittent squash crop (which also served as a groundcover), and additional mulching, the grass still grew relatively thickly. At the north end of this plot is a suffering Mulberry tree, which I hope will make it through the winter. It is surrounded by a beautiful circle of oca roots, their clover-like leaves tucking in at night and opening in the day, but now withered by the frost. The dandelions grow deep and thick here. I envision this part of the garden to expand into a greater guild, but I am currently unsure just how to interconnect it with the rest. I am looking for patterns. But that is for another day. My challenge at the moment was how to turn the southern part of this area into prolific beds of garlic.

Debate #1: Till vs. No-till

I have been leaning more and more toward no-till methods every year. It just makes sense. We have three (yes, count them, 3) rototillers and at this point, all three of them are broken, and no one really cares to fix them. When I spent $150 to fix the clutch on the little Mantis, and then it broke again the first time I used it, I almost threw it into the blackberry brambles, never to be seen again. I am pretty sure there’s an old car back in there. (Not mine, in case you’re wondering.) I figure it is often easier for me to use a hoe, fork, or shovel anyway, which is still tilling, but on a much gentler scale. I chop & drop the weeds into paths, and slowly but surely, the soil is building. Some would say this is not truly no-till. That I should just pile on more and more mulch. I would counter that that is a great strategy for established plants, but not so much for the garlic plot.

I have run across 3 problems with no-till methods:

1) There is never enough mulch. Purchasing mulch is not a sustainable solution for me, although I once purchased a dump truck full to the tune of several hundred dollars. We were amazed as it was unloaded – the pile was bigger than our VW bus! It was still not enough. Lesson learned: for a large garden area, mulch costs can really add up. I read about these people who have access to this stuff for free, but I am beginning to wonder whether they are real. In our area, ‘green grindings’ and other mulch materials are rather expensive. Some say you need 12-18” or even more of the stuff over multiple layers of overlapped newspaper, recycled paper, or cardboard (some call this “Lasagna” gardening, and being Italian, you’d think I’d like this). Heck! I can’t even find cardboard and newspaper these days! I once got accused of STEALING some that was thrown out behind a store. Agghh! That was the end of it for me. I am not really sure I want all those glues and junk mail in my garden anyway. I’ve gone back to unprocessed vegetative material, grown on our own land so I know where it comes from.

2) Nothing seems to make the “unwanted” leave. I have laid down black plastic for an entire year, and when I removed it to plant currants and gooseberries, dandelions and quack grass were still growing, and within a month, morning glory had also sprouted and covered the area. Thickly. They grow under boards, carpet, even concrete. Groundcovers are out-competed. Ok – perhaps I didn’t lay the mulch down thick enough. Maybe if I just keep piling it on, they will eventually give up.

3) New plants need extra care and protection. When your expensive permaculture plants die because some hungry critter tunneled through and ate their roots is one thing, but when grass and bindweed and other opportunists threaten to move in and choke them out, you have to take action, and piling on a thicker layer of mulch does not always hack it. A combination of weeding and mulching seems to be my best method so far, and between the two, I’d rather be mulching.

Sketchy Advice #1: “Just poke a hole and plant through the mulch and sod”

Some would advise just poking a hole through the mulch and the sod still covering the soil and dropping in a seed – or in this case, a clove of garlic. See Item #3 above. An established plant would probably do fine, but a seed? And would the ground be soft enough to allow a garlic bulb to expand properly? I didn’t want to take the chance.

How to proceed? Take serious action!

Enter Stage Right: the most amazing tools ever: the Magna Grecia Hoe and the Scythe

Definitive Tool #1: The Magna Grecia Hoe 

Garlic Bed Prep & Plant

Top photo: Mulberry tree surrounded by Oca plants.
Following photos: Steps in building the beds – loosening the soil, mapping them out, adding green and dry materials, topping with soil and amenities, raking smooth, planting with homemade garlic-spacing tool (and don’t forget to label the varieties!)

Sometimes the best approach is to manually remove the weeds (quackgrass, thistles, etc.) that are determined to reside there. I will tell you upfront, this is not your average hoe. This is one seriously hellacious tool that will vibrate the core of the earth you stand on. When you need to loosen the soil without chopping everything up into tiny bits, this is your tool, and for the right application, you would be amazed at how well it does. This is like a hand-powered tiller of sorts, but with a couple of tines, not whirling blades. Some claim it can loosen up a rock-filled plot of ground faster than a tiller, and I do believe it. It breaks open that dense sod in easy-to-remove clumps, aerates the soil, allows the microorganisms to get to work at a little quicker pace, loosens compacted ground. Plus, it will not create hardpan. And it’s a good workout, too. Available through Scytheworks.com.

And while you’re at it, reconsider this oft-held belief:

Silly Notion #1: Dandelions are Weeds

Dandelions are the ultimate powerhouse when it comes to harvesting minerals from deep down in the soil and concentrating them in its roots and leaves. I can think of few plants that grow so easily and return so much. Rich in vitamins and minerals, they are even being used against inflammatory diseases, including cancer. So it makes sense, in the process of hoeing and building the new garlic beds, since we’re not in a violent motorized hurry, to HARVEST those dandelions, set them aside, wash them, dry them, or simply return them to the soil from whence they came. Dandelions are a resource, not a weed. And I would say similar things about chickweed, plantain, clover, lamb’s quarters, and others. Using a hoe allows you to be selective in your destruction.

Ultimate Tool #1 for Mulching: The Scythe

This tool has changed my life. I have to do a separate blogpost on it, because I truly can’t cover all the benefits here, but suffice to say, even a 100-lb little old lady can cut down a field and provide a goodly amount of mulch material. It would be even better if the field were growing clover and rye, but plain ol’ pasture grass is also good. The activity is meditative. Strengthening. Non-polluting. Anti-oil & gas. Is it enough mulch? Not yet, for my garden. But I am realizing mulch is a harvestable crop in its own right; mulching is an ongoing thing, and cutting hay with a scythe is a lot less hard on the body than is yanking out weeds.

Looking for a well-made scythe? Quality makes a huge difference! Check out Scytheworks.com.)

Which brings us to … the Nitty Gritty

Work Party #1: Building the Beds

Using my handy-dandy Excel tool, I figured (in an instant!) that I could build 5 beds in the available space. I am a strong advocate of building beds for a number of reasons: better drainage, better identified pathways (even the dog understands where to run and where not), a means of keeping the soil soft and minimally disturbed after construction, warmer in the early spring, etc. Some would argue with this, and I don’t know many commercial garlic growers who find them all that practical. However, for the backyard farmer/gardener using hand tools, beds are preferable in many cases – and they don’t need to be terribly high or even permanent.

Ok. We are finally ready to get this show going. All I have to do is cut back the squash, pull out the vines and underlying mulch to get them out of the way, scythe back the weeds, since it’s such a tangle in there, and pile them to the side. Loosen the ground with the hoe; harvest the dandelions; destroy the thistles. Test the soil, while I’m at it. Lay out the beds with a measuring tape, a few wooden stakes, and some cheap yarn. Layer back on the old mulch, the vines, and the scythed dandelion leaves and grasses. Add a little blood meal. Shovel dirt from the pathways into the bed areas and rake in a little bone meal and lime. Maybe add a few wheelbarrows of aged compost, too, while I’m at it, since I have it available. And that’s exactly what I did. In fact, I built 5 of these hummers. Whew.

Reality Check #1: How Much Garlic to Plant Again?

Because if you have followed me this far, you know there are reasons you should revisit this question and its far-reaching implications. I could repeat this scenario, and even plant more garlic in assorted patches (yes, I will still plant some in the orchard, for example, and I just finished planting a bunch of bulbils in pots) – but wait! Don’t forget – it’s easy to poke a clove in the ground, but that is only one part of the deal. We also have to weed, water, harvest, cure. In fact, I have learned the hard way on more than one occasion, that having the right place to cure the bulbs is just as important as keeping it weeded and watered, because damp weather conditions can ruin 9 months of labor, overnight!

So – despite temptation to do otherwise, I am continuing my scaled-back crop, because it was such a pleasure to give the bulbs the attention they needed this year and still have time for other things (like playing with grandchildren! We’re talking priorities here!) I ended up planting just 4 beds; the 5th bed, I am saving for seedlings. In early spring, when the ground is too wet to work, I will already have a bed available to start some things that need to be in a safe, protected place before they are turned loose in the jungle – er – garden.

~*~

I am hoping many of you will get back to me either through comments or email to share ideas of your approach to integrating your garlic crop into the rest of your garden this year and what you did to build your garden area. Thanks for listening; thanks for sharing!

~blythe


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