By Christine March, Master Gardener, SCMG
Most of us associate the fall gardening season with planting the bulbs that will provide beautiful and much-needed colour in the spring, but there’s another bulb you might consider planting now as well – especially if you enjoy cooking. Garlic!
The genus Allium is the source of many of our kitchen staples such as onions, leeks, shallots, and garlic. Nothing is more rewarding than growing your own edibles and growing garlic couldn’t be simpler.
There are two main types of garlic: softneck and hardneck. Both will grow well here in Southern Ontario. Softneck produces more cloves per head, but in colder climates like ours hardneck is the better choice. Hardneck varieties survive our tough winters, and store well once harvested. Hardscape varieties also produce garlic scapes which not only look very cool, but are also quite delicious.
As with all plant material, start with the best quality you can find. DO NOT plant the garlic you buy at your local supermarket. Most of it is imported from far away lands and has been chemically treated to ensure a long shelf life. There are numerous sources of quality Canadian “seed” garlic such as reputable nurseries and garden catalogues. The organic garlic heads you buy at your local farmers’ market are also a good choice.
Garlic can safely be planted until late October. You want to get it in the ground before a hard frost so early roots can be established. Planting too early could encourage leaf growth which could kill the plant if nipped by a hard frost. Follow these few tips to ensure a healthy harvest next summer.
Like tulips and narciccus (amongst others), garlic is a true bulb. In other words, each clove is an underground storage structure containing its complete life cycle. Garlic prefers fertile, well drained soil in a sunny location. Adding composted manure to your planting beds will help ensure good bulb development.
Take your head of “seed” garlic and separate into individual cloves. (This is known as “cracking the bulb”.) Choose the largest individual cloves and plant about 3” deep – pointy end up! – and about 4-6” apart. Water well. One clove will produce a whole head of garlic so you’ll need enough space for healthy bulb development. Cover with soil and a good layer of mulch. This will help protect your garlic during a nasty winter.
Active Growth and Harvesting
In spring you will see young shoots poking through the mulch. This is a good time to sprinkle on an organic fertilizer. Fertilize again about a month later. Water during dry spells. In early summer hardneck varieties will produce scapes. Cut these off to encourage maximum bulb development, but don’t throw them away! There are many recipes that use these delicious scapes – garlic scape pesto anyone?
Your garlic is ready to harvest when the bottom two or three leaves are starting to turn brown. (In my Zone 5A garden my garlic was ready in mid-July.) Gently pry the bulbs loose using a garden fork, being careful to not damage the bulbs.
The key to successful bulb storage is curing. Simply hang the freshly harvested bulbs in a cool, dark space, or on a rack, with good air circulation for a few weeks. Once properly cured, clean the excess soil from the bulb and trim away the stems. Your heads of garlic should keep for months in a cool, dark space.