Fall is an important time for growers of garlic. Savvy garlic growers know that planting cloves in the fall yields larger bulbs than those planted in the spring. Some garlic partisan’s will tell you garlic that experiences a winter in the ground will taste better but we’ve never been able to conduct a side-by-side taste test. That’s because all the growers we know plant garlic in the fall.
But it is true that garlic planted in warmer regions needs an exposure to cold to grow properly. Hardneck garlics need a cooling period — two or three weeks at 40 to 50 degrees — before planting to grow properly in areas where soils temperatures stay warm.
Autumn is also a crucial time for those who’ll plant in spring. This is the time to prepare your soil so that it’s at its maximum growing potential come March and April.
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Work your plot deeply and add plenty of organic compost as growing garlic requires a lot of nutrition. Some gardeners will spread two or three inches of manure on their plot along with wood ashes, greensand or another source of potassium. Bone meal or phosphate rock is also helpful in supplying phosphorus, a mineral crucial to good garlic stands.
Adding kelp meal or a good organic fish fertilizer helps ensure you have an abundance of the nutrients garlic needs. Spreading manure in the fall gives it time to mellow ahead of spring. Too much nitrogen will encourage top growth rather than bulb growth. Everything, as always should be in balance.
The variety of garlic you plant is important to your success. Most commercial garlics are suited for the gentle growing conditions centered around Gilroy, California and aren’t ideal for growers in colder regions.
Hardneck varieties or “topsetting” varieties are a favorite in northern gardens. The shoots of the garlic plants form a flower stalk or “scape” while softneck varieties do not. Hardnecks do have a harder stem, making them difficult if not impossible to braid. They also don’t keep as long as softnecks. Some softnecks will grow in colder climates. Here’s a good explanation of the different kinds of garlic with some helpful growing tips from people who should know cold weather growing: the University of Minnesota Extension service. Ask your local gardeners which varieties work best in your area.
Plant fall garlic a couple weeks after the first killing frost. Some gardeners like to soak their cloves in a jar of water with a tablespoon each baking soda and seaweed extract to help fight off fungal diseases. The cloves (not the whole bulb) should be planted root side down, pointed-side up in furrows so that two inches of soil cover the top of the cloves. Space them six or so inches apart.
If you live in a particularly wet climate, plant your cloves at the surface and heap two inches of soil over the cloves to create a raised mound that will dry out more quickly. These same guidelines apply to spring planting.
Mulching fall garlic is important. Five inches or more isn’t too much. The mulch may not prevent some ground freezing but it will help prevent frost heaves and the like that will displace your garlic cloves. Leaves, so abundant in the fall make a good mulch if you later amend with an organic nitrogen fertilizer in the spring. But any weed seed-free mulch will do. We can’t emphasize that weed-free part enough. Young garlic plants are especially hindered when competing with weeds. Weeds will reduce the garlic’s bulb size if left unattended. Work hard to keep your garlic patch free of weeds, fall and spring. Read our article How to Keep Weeds Out of Your Organic Garden here.
Your fall planted garlic may show shoots growing through the mulch ahead of winter’s onset. This won’t hurt the plants, especially if you apply more mulch ahead of the really cold weather. The shoots will go dormant over the cold season and then start growing again in the spring. Like the first sign of crocus peeking up through the soil, garlic shoots are a sign that spring is about to arrive. Garlic is ready to harvest mid-summer, after its shoot start to tun yellow and die back. Or you bend them over yourself. But we’ll talk about that when summer returns.
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