A Somewhat Unconventional Garlic Garden

After rescuing my website yesterday after near heart failure that I had wiped out everything, I had to get outside (note to website folks: the theme Atahualpa is a fantastic theme – and I love it – but it does not mesh well with WP e-Commerce, which apparently has issues under certain conditions). The computer snafu took up valuable time on a beautiful day. There is a sense of urgency in the air at this time of year. Multicolored leaves are falling; rainclouds are always on the forecast; sunny for now, but not warm – it is definitely time to get that garlic in the ground. More than once I have planted in the pouring rain – something I’d like to work around, if possible. I have spent a lot of time building beds in preparation for this day. We are just so incredibly fortunate here in the Pacific Northwest. When the weather is lousy, it is truly lousy – but we live for these gorgeous fall days.

The great thing about planting garlic is that it can be as simple or as elaborate as you want it to be. It can be a few cloves stashed strategically here and there, long rows within beds that span the horizon, or something that twists and turns resembling some kind of labyrinth. I like to make my life complicated, so this year, I chose the latter. Rectangles are just so – well, square. Not that squares don’t have their place; they are just disappearing in my garden. People who like efficiency go with rectangles. I admire those people. I just happen to be more of a freestylin’ sort of person, which is the beauty of a garden – you make it however you want it to be – as it grows and evolves, it becomes an extension of yourself – and THAT is why, as I was planting 10 varieties and over 500 cloves of hardnecks yesterday, I couldn’t help but scratch my head and wonder about the subconscious forces in my decision to go with something that ended up looking a lot like, well, maybe a whirligig, a funny word that somehow exemplifies my life.

Actually, I am still following the Master Plan. Yes, I do have one. Every year, I rotate my garlic crop around 6 squares (yes! Squares!) architecturally laid out in two rows of three (so linear – so logical – and Dad, I want you to know, contrary to popular belief, I DO maintain a level of structure in my life!).

So, this year, it was time to plant in the far northwest plot, where I had earlier this year planted several shrubs, most notably, the nitrogen fixers, Autumn Olive and Goumi Berries, both Eleagnus species, and a Nanking cherry. My plan was to plant garlic around these shrubs, which would provide nitrogen and shelter from the wind, and the garlic, in grateful return, a certain level of pest protection – hopefully a mutual beneficial relationship. I would also build beds around the shrub circles with pathways between – kind of a series of connected keyhole gardens. The vision was beautiful. The beginning reality was something like this:

Building beds for garlic
Building the garlic bed: I reached a “scratch-my-head” moment – like, where am I going with this?

The beauty of the idea, however, is not only aesthetic, despite what you see in the picture at left. It is efficient. MORE efficient, in fact, than rectangles. Ideally, anyway.

See, in a traditional garden with paths between single rows, paths can take up half the garden space or more. If the garden is in beds, that wasted space is reduced, but still might take up a third of the overall space. However, if you plant your garden in a large circle with a short path that cuts into the center to give access, i.e., a “keyhole” or a “U”, you reduce the path space even further, leaving more room for garden. Another idea is the “Mandala Garden,” which is like a keyhole garden inside a series of keyhole gardens that wrap around its perimeter. Sounds complicated, but Toby Hemenway makes it sound so simple in Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Homescale Permaculture (Second Edition).

I love that idea, but it is not something I achieved, because I was working around a series of 7 shrubs in a 25-ft square area, which did not allow room for a 3-ft wide perimeter planting space.

Did I mention there’s a lot of math involved in gardening? The geometry in this is just mind-boggling. If you haven’t downloaded my Excel Garlic Planting Guide, please feel free to do so. It works great with rectangles, but you can make it work with circles, too. All you have to do is remember that the perimeter of a circle is pi (3.14) times the diameter. Think of the perimeter as the line along which you plant. Of course, you don’t plant on the outside edge of the circle – you give the plants some edge space – so the diameter is shorter, accordingly. If you are planting more than one row in the circle, then that would be an inner perimeter – so your spacing would be figured on a series of perimeter lines wrapping around the circle.

Let’s just say figuring out how much garlic I could plant in my garden space this year and which varieties I could fit where was a fun challenge.

All math aside, though, this year’s garlic patch is going to be the most beautiful ever.

Final garlic beds, ready for planting
Ah! But now the garlic beds are starting to take shape! Just what shape exactly, I’m not sure!
Garlic Beds Wrap Around Shrubs
This would be the final take on the first picture, which admittedly, was a bit confusing, unlike this picture. Ahm. Actually, it’s simple. The garlic goes everywhere that is not a path, except for places taken up by a shrub.

I love the way it curves and meanders; it gives more bulbs a warm southern exposure in the process. I can’t wait to see the little shoots emerging from the soil and what it might look like as they grow up around the shrubs, which I expect will also take off this next year, too. Stay tuned!

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