Strolling down a street in Boston recently, my wife and I were hit by the unmistakable, wonderful aroma of sauteing garlic wafting from an Italian restaurant. Our first impulse, naturally, was to go in and eat. Unfortunately, we'd just had lunch.
The second thing that popped into my mind was that it is time to plant next year's crop of garlic in our garden.
Garlic, unlike most vegetables, is planted in the fall for harvest the following summer. Most gardeners don't think about planting anything edible at this time of year. Many have only just found a way to offload their bumper crop of 25-pound zucchini.
If you've never tried growing garlic, you need to know that it couldn't be easier than it is. After you harvest the first crop, you'll wonder why you didn't start growing it sooner.
Garlic is adaptable to a variety of soils, but prefers to grow in well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. Young starter bulbs should be planted about 4 to 6 weeks before the ground freezes to allow them time to root before winter arrives. Garlic bulbs prefer cool soil and will be happy when temperatures start to fall.
Prepare your bed by removing weeds and tilling the soil. Adding composted manure or well-aged compost prior to planting will yield larger bulbs. However, most garlic will still grow and produce bulbs in average garden soil.
Starter bulbs can be ordered online, and there is a surprisingly large number of varieties to choose from, ranging in flavor from mild to strong. One of the best online sources is Fillaree Garlic Farm (www.filareefarm.com) in Washington State. It sells certified organic garlic, has a wide assortment of varieties to choose from, and is ready with helpful advice.
When your garlic arrives, separate the bulbs into individual cloves if the vendor has not already done that for you. Garlic cloves should be planted about 2 to 3 inches deep with the point end of the bulb up. Space the individual cloves about 6 inches apart with about 5 or 6 inches between rows. On average, 1 to 5 pounds of seed should yield enough garlic for most families.
Keep in mind when planting that larger individual cloves will yield larger bulbs at harvest time. If you have more than enough cloves in your order, plant the larger ones and bring any leftover smaller ones into the kitchen to cook with.
Once you have finished planting, water well and mulch the area with 3 to 4 inches of straw. Straw helps retain moisture, keeps the soil at an even temperature, and prevents weeds from growing in the bed.
Be certain to use straw rather than hay, as hay contains copious amounts of seed that will germinate come spring. After harvesting your garlic next summer, the decomposed straw can be tilled into your garden soil.
In early spring, your garlic plants will emerge as green shoots above the straw. As they grow, they will form a stem with leaves. When the plant's bottom leaves begin to yellow and there are about four to five green leaves above the yellowing leaves, it will be time to harvest.
Carefully remove the bulbs from the ground, shake off any loose soil, and bundle the plants into groups of six to eight plants. Hang the plants, bulbs down, in a warm, dry location with good air circulation, out of direct sunlight, until the green parts of the plant are dry.
Once the bulbs have finished drying, cut the top part of the plants off and discard. Store the garlic bulbs in a cool, dry place out of direct light. Do not store your bulbs in the refrigerator; high humidity levels there will cause them to spoil more rapidly. Depending on which variety you grow, your dried bulbs should last anywhere from three to nine months.