Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
October, 2005
Regional Report

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Garlic and basil, what perfect companions!

Growing Great Garlic

It seems I always have garlic on my mind as the weather gets crisp. I grow it every year, but this was my best year ever. I can finally say I've gotten the hang of doing it right! I harvested several fist-sized heads in July and have enjoyed cooking with them all summer. Their flavor is wonderfully intense, unlike the garlic you find in the grocery store.

Now I'm ready to plant for next year's crop. Although it's technically okay to plant in spring, fall planting is really best for the largest, longest-keeping bulbs. It's important to plant early enough to give the bulbs plenty of time develop a sturdy root system yet not so early that they put out leaves in fall. If they get a good start, they will send out healthy foliage the following spring and you will be harvesting garlic in mid to late summer.

I started growing garlic by purchasing heads from someone who grows it in my area, and I still get the best crop by buying garlic grown in my region. If imported from a different region of the country, garlic seems to need two or three years of adjustment before producing large cloves.

Hardneck vs Softneck
I have the best production from hardneck garlic and, although this type doesn't keep quite as well as softneck, the flavor is more intense -- exactly what I want in garlic. Hardneck garlic sends up a tall stalk in the middle of the leaves in early June. The stalks are topped with curly false seedheads called scapes, which should be pinched out to allow the plants to put more energy back into the bulbs. I saute the scapes in olive oil and add them to rice, a wonderful early summer treat.

Softneck garlic has no central stalk and will keep for six to nine months if properly cured. My softneck types produce smaller heads, but the flavor is good even though not so strong. It's certainly nice having both types and I will hopefully have garlic all winter.

When to Harvest
I harvest my garlic when about 40 percent of the leaves have turned brown. I spread it on screens in my shed where it stays cool and shady, with lots of circulating breezes. After about two weeks, most of the moisture is gone. I cut off the stalks at about half an inch, trim back the roots, and put it in mesh bags to bring into my cool basement.

It's hard to give them up to the garden, but I've saved the biggest cloves from this year's crop for planting next year's garlic. I like to wait until the day before planting to separate the cloves so they will not dehydrate. The garden is ready for them, with a fresh covering of compost. I dig a hole or trench, and sprinkle soybean meal in it before putting in the cloves. Soybean meal is a good slow-release fertilizer recommended to me by a commercial garlic grower. I plant the blunt ends of the cloves down, about 2 inches apart in rows a foot apart.

Garlic bulbs are available at most garden centers and nurseries. Don't use supermarket garlic because it's likely to be treated with a sprouting inhibitor, which takes a long time to wear off.

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