Most gardeners know that fall is the time to tuck bulbs like daffodils and tulips in the ground to reap a visual harvest of beautiful blooms the following spring.
But did you know that fall is also the time to plant bulbs in the food garden for a delicious edible harvest the following summer?
Bulbs of garlic and shallots, both members of the onion or Allium genus, are planted in autumn for harvest in summer of the following year.
Both can be used when freshly harvested, or cured and stored to provide zest to your cooking for months to come. And both are easy to grow if you've got a spot with full sun and well-drained soil.
Planting and Growing Garlic
The ″stinking rose″ is a kitchen essential, beloved by cooks for its piquant flavor and appreciated by gardeners for its ease of cultivation. There are two basic types of garlic to choose from. Softneck garlic has a soft center that does not produce a flower stalk, usually forms multiple layers of cloves around a central core and keeps the best in storage. This is the type of garlic you're most likely to find in your local supermarket. Most softneck varieties are adapted to milder winter areas, but a few are adapted to colder climates and will thrive in zones 3- 4. Hardneck garlic has a hard central flower stem or scape around which fewer, larger cloves are clustered. Generally hardier than softneck garlic, it's a good choice for Zone 6 and colder areas.
Plant garlic from a week or two after the first killing frost up until about a month before the ground freezes. Depending on where you are gardening, this could be as early as September or as late as the beginning of December. Unlike an onion, which is one single bulb, garlic is a compound bulb composed of a number of bulblets or cloves, each in its own papery wrapper. Just before planting, separate the garlic bulb into individual cloves. Then plant each clove about 6 inches apart with the pointed end up, leaving the clove's papery covering in place. In colder areas plant cloves 2-4 inches deep; from Zone 7 south, plant them only 1-2 inches deep. Southern gardeners may see leaves emerge in fall, but in colder areas you won't see any action until spring.
Once the ground begins to freeze, mulch the bed with straw, weed-free hay, or pine needles spread 4-6 inches deep in northern areas; less deep in milder climates. When top growth begins again in spring, pull back the mulch from over the garlic plants and sidedress them with a complete fertilizer. Garlic doesn't compete well with weeds. Mulching the garlic bed with weed-free straw will keep weeds down and prevent you from disturbing garlic's shallow roots with hoeing or hand weeding. Cut off any scapes (flower stalks) that arise from hardneck garlic varieties to direct the plants' energy back into forming larger bulbs. These scapes are edible; try adding them to a stir fry for some mild garlic flavor.
Harvest garlic when about three-quarters of the lower leaves have yellowed, usually in early to midsummer, depending on your climate. Dig bulbs carefully rather than yanking them out of the ground by their tops. Then let bulbs dry, or cure, for two to three weeks in a warm, airy place out of direct sun until completely dry. Cut the dried tops off, leaving an inch of stem (unless you plan to make braids), brush off any dried soil, and trim off the dried roots. Bulbs will keep for quite a while if stored in a dry spot at 40-60 degrees F.
Planting and Growing Shallots
The ″gourmet″ reputation of shallots comes from their delicate flavor that is prized by cooks and no doubt contributes to their often high price tag in the supermarket. But these refined members of the Allium clan are easy to grow from sets, or small bulbs, in the home garden, for a frugal and delicious harvest. (They can also be grown from seed.)
In USDA Hardiness zones 5 and warmer, shallots can be planted in the fall, with the timing and care similar to that of garlic. Separate the bulb into individual cloves (unlike garlic, each bulb usually has only two cloves) and plant them, pointed end up, with the tip just level with the soil surface. Be sure to plant in soil with excellent drainage. Mulch well with straw in late fall and pull aside the mulch when plants come back into active growth in spring. In early summer, harvest and cure shallots as recommended above for garlic. In Zones 4 and colder plant shallots in early spring for a late summer harvest. In milder climates, you can plant both spring and fall for a double harvest.
So think spring in the vegetable patch as well as the flower garden when it's time for bulb planting this fall. A little time spent planting garlic and shallot bulbs as the weather cools and the days get shorter will reward you with an ample and easy harvest next year.
Susan Littlefield is horticultural Editor for the National Gardening Association.