When one of my favorite TV chefs adds garlic to a recipe, the studio audience always breaks into a cheer. Invariably, he looks at them with mock surprise and asks, "Want me to add some more?"
The response — as he knew it would be — is a frenzy of increased cheering. Taking this as a "yes," he chops, slices or dices more garlic and, often with great fanfare, adds it to the pan.
If garlic makes you want to stand up and cheer, this is the season for you. Not only is garlic good for you, but the falling temperatures and colorful leaves of autumn mean it's time to plant this pungent member of the onion and leek family.
Here's a guide that will help you learn how to grow garlic in your vegetable garden or even in your flower beds.
Choosing what kind to grow
There are two basic varieties of garlic: hardnecks and softnecks. Hardnecks have a very sturdy stem that sends up a flowering stem (scape). When the scape hardens, it's difficult to store garlic by braiding it. Hardneck garlic tends to produce larger cloves than softnecks. Softnecks do not have scapes, tend to keep longer than hardnecks and are the garlic most often seen in groceries.
Prepare the planting site
Choose a site that gets plenty of sun and prepare an organic planting bed rich in aged manure and compost. Add an organic fertilizer and rake it into the planting site. Garlic grows best if grown organically rather than with chemical fertilizers. Be sure your planting bed is free of weeds, as garlic does not like competition from other plants.
When to plant
This garlic stem looks like it's dancing. (Photo: grongar [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
Garlic is a cool-growing plant and should be planted in the fall at least six weeks before the first expected freeze – generally mid-September to mid-October. The goal is to establish roots and a little top growth before the first frost.
How to plant
Break the head of garlic into individual cloves. It is not necessary to peel off the papery sheaths. Plant the clove with the flat end down, and the pointed side up. Place the flat end about two inches below the soil surface and plant the cloves at least three inches apart. Cover the planting hole.
Label the garlic
There are many kinds of both hardneck and softneck garlic. So, don't rely on memory to recall what you planted where. This will be important when buying garlic to plant next fall if you have a favorite.
Mulching after planting prevents weeds, stabilizes soil moisture and temperatures and provides extra nutrients. Hard freezes will kill the tender green shoots and they will die to the ground. When this happens, spread the mulch over them. The plant will be dormant until spring.
Wait for spring
When spring arrives, your patience should pay off. (Photo: ilovebutter [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
When rising temperatures warm the ground in spring, keep the bed free of weeds because it can be hard to tell the re-emerging garlic sprouts from weeds. Pull the mulch back from these new shoots. When scapes come up on hardneck varieties, cut the scapes while they are still young and use them in any recipe that calls for garlic. At this point, the clove you planted in the fall will begin adding more cloves.
When most of the bottom leaves turn brown, harvest the garlic.
Lay the plant, including leaves, in a dry place out of the sun. Brush dirt from the head of garlic, but resist the temptation to wash dirt away to make it as clean as grocery-store garlic.
Keep your garlic in the light but out of the sun in a cool dry place — but not the refrigerator.