Monday, June 27, 2011

Growing garlic

Why do you garden? It's a lot of work. You wouldn't be doing it for no reason at all.

One reason to garden is to produce foods that you can't buy. Ground cherries come to mind.

So does garlic. For the past three years, only garlic from China is available in supermarkets. Not only is it tasteless, but it's been ferried and transported from the other side of the world, wasting precious fossil fuels on a vegetable that grows well right here. (Secretly I wonder if China keeps all the good garlic for themselves and ships us the garbage.)

If you long for the good ol' days of tasty garlic, you might want to consider growing your own. And now is the time to start finding some garlic to plant.

Steps in growing garlic:

1. Visit the market in early July to find locally grown garlic.

It should be available very soon. (My garlic is already harvestable, a good two weeks early due to all the rain.) Ask the vender a lot of questions. Where was it grown? What kind is it? When do you usually plant it? Do you have other kinds?

Consider visiting a few stalls and getting a variety. One popular garlic for Ontario is known as Music -- developed by a Mr. Music in Uxbridge, Ontario. Remember that each clove will produce one bulb, so buy enough for a year's worth of garlic plus enough extra bulbs to plant in the fall.

As an alternative, you can order seed garlic from seed stores for delivery in September. But they'll be more expensive.

Do not, do not, do not try to plant grocery store garlic from China. I promise it will be tasteless and not worth the effort.

2. Store the bulbs in a cool, dark place.

Cool, not cold. (Never refrigerate garlic -- it develops mould.) The back of a cupboard will do, as long as it doesn't get too warm there in the summer.

3. Plant in mid fall.

In October, you'll probably be pulling up your vegetable harvest and composting your plants. At that time, the CPCG will probably arrange for a delivery of soil amendments to dig and rototill in so that the beds are ready for planting in the spring.

Once that's all done, around Halloween, prepare a square in the corner of your garden for garlic. Sprinkle in some organic fertilizer or a scoopful of good compost and dig it in a little.

Separate your bulbs into cloves, leaving the papery coverings intact. Poke each clove into the ground, pointy-side up. Cover the cloves with soil but there's no need to push them down really deep. Plant in a square of tight rows, not in a long, single row. The cloves don't need more than 3 inches of space on each side.

When finished planting, gently step all over the bed to press the soil down. Then cover it with leaves, straw, or wood chips. Garlic is very frost-hardy, so don't worry if the tip starts to grow through the mulch before the snow cover arrives.

Then forget about it till spring.

By the way, if you like shallots, plant them at the same time in the same way. I've found that grocery store shallots grow just fine in our climate and produce a sweet-tasting shallot.

Next year

In March, you'll notice the garlic tips poking through the mulch. At this point, you can rake the mulch aside and get rid of it, in case it's harboring any insect eggs. Or you can just leave it in place -- it's your call.

Give the garlic bed another sprinkle of organic fertilizer and gently rake it in. Keep the bed as free of weeds as possible throughout the growing season.

In June, the garlic plants will grow a graceful, curling flower stalk known as a garlic scape. Snap off the scapes to promote good bulb development. Use the scapes in soups, stirfries, and oriental cooking.

Once the garlic has seven leaves and seems to be drying out in early July, it's getting to be time to harvest it. As a precaution, I always check with the organic market venders to find out if it's time to harvest yet -- they're very helpful. If you leave the garlic in the ground too long, the bulbs will start to open, and they won't store as well.

To harvest, loosen the soil with a pitchfork and pull each garlic out of the ground. Let the garlic dry outside in the sun for at least a week to help develop a strong bulb cover. You can do this on your back deck, but farmers just leave the garlic sitting in the field.

Once it's completely dry, brush off any remaining soil and dirt. Trim the roots off the bulbs. Then either cut the stems or figure out how to do that cool braiding thing.

Store your garlic in a cool, dry, dark place. As long as the garlic doesn't freeze, it will be good till next summer.

If it's still early in the summer, plant a quick-growing vegetable where the garlic was growing, such as lettuce, broccoli seedlings, or beans.

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