October in the Garden - Planting Garlic

Garlic (Allium sativum) is a bulbous plant that has been enjoyed the world over for thousands of years.  We are all familiar with its culinary uses and it has many health benefits as well.  Raw or cooked it is a source of antioxidants, nutrients, and boosts the immune system.  As you may have guessed, garlic is related to onions, leeks, shallots and chives. 

If you have never planted garlic, the beginning of October is the best time to plant in Saskatchewan.  Why plant in October?  Like tulips and daffodils, garlic requires a cold period for proper bulb growth.  If you plant it too early, the shoots will likely come up through the soil, only to be frozen.  In many cases, this will cause plant death.  If you plant it too late, the clove will not have had time to create a decent root system.  

Garlic rarely produces seed.    The cloves inside a head of garlic should be separated just before planting and are the most popular way to propagate garlic.   

After some research, I am finding that the Hardneck varieties are best grown in our Zone 3 gardens. 

Hardneck varieties are very winter hardy.  The size of the cloves in a bulb vary with variety.

Two hardneck garlic varieties that are popular to grow in Saskatchewan are Purple Striped and Rocambole.  Others include Music, Russian Red, and Spanish Roja.

Hardneck garlic varieties produce scapes.  Scapes are the long curly stem and flower bud of a hardneck garlic plant.  At the tip of the scape is a capsule of small aerial cloves called bulbils. Bulbils are clones of the parent plant.   Bulbils can serve as seed but do require two seasons to develop into mature bulbs. The scapes should be cut off in late spring or early summer.  If they are not cut off, the plant will put all its energy into the stem and flower bud at the expense of the bulb.  Garlic scapes are edible and have a green onion/ garlic flavor. 

Location

Garlic is best planted in a sheltered area of your garden that gets 6 hours plus of sun per day. The planting area should have good drainage.

Try to avoid planting garlic  in the same location you have previously planted onions, leeks, shallots, or chives.

Soil

Use a soil that is high in organic matter and add a bit of sand / perlite to the mix.  You are aiming for a rich, sandy loam soil.  Well-aged compost is best tilled into the area before planting.  The optimum soil pH should be between 6 and 7. 

Many gardeners create blocks of raised beds so that the soil is warmed early in spring.  Raised beds also solve any drainage issues you might encounter. 

Planting

Separate the cloves from the bulb just before planting. Plant the individual cloves 5-10 cm. deep; 10 to 15 cm. apart in the row.   Plant each clove with the pointed side up.

Garlic plants have shallow roots.  If possible, leave about 30 cm. between rows as this will avoid injuring the roots and make for easier weeding.  Pay special attention to weeding throughout the growing season as garlic does not compete well with weeds.

Water well once after planting.

Mulch

After planting, garlic must be mulched for the winter.  Mulching helps to keep the soil temperature consistent and protects the cloves from any freeze/thaw cycles that may happen in winter.  Mulch the planting area with a 10-15 cm. deep layer of leaves or straw.  Cover the area with bird netting and stake or pin it down.  This will keep the leaves or straw in place over the winter.  Next spring, after the extreme cold is gone, take off the mulch.

Fertilization

Garlic is a heavy feeder.   If you have added compost to your soil this is ideal, but you can also use a balanced organic fertilizer.  Blood meal is a slow- release nitrogen fertilizer that can be applied around each plant once in early spring and again when the garlic is up and leafing out. 

Watering

Once growth begins in spring, you can water your garlic about 1 inch per week preferably in the morning or early afternoon.  Stop watering once the garlic has matured and it’s almost time to harvest.

Harvest and Curing

Begin to harvest your garlic when one third of the lower leaves have died and turned yellow/brown. Gently loosen the soil around the bulbs with a pitch- fork.  Lift the bulbs and brush away as much soil as you can from the plant.  Begin the curing process right after harvest.  Curing means to dry the bulbs to lengthen their storing life.   If rain is not in the forecast, leave them outside for a couple of days but out of the sun.  Bring inside and spread the bulbs on layers of newspaper for about two weeks in a warm, well- ventilated area.  Cut the leaves off about 2.5 to 5 cm. above the bulb.  Remove the roots, making sure you do not cut into the bulb itself.  The dry outer layers of skin can also be removed.  Place the bulbs in an open mesh bag.  Keep in a cool, dark place with good air circulation.  A good storage temperature is between 10 and 20 degrees C. with a relative humidity of 45 – 50 percent.  Rocambole and Purple Stripe will store for about 4-6 months. 

Elephant Garlic is not a true garlic and is closely related to leeks.  It is larger and milder tasting than regular garlic. 

Do not store garlic in the fridge as this will cause it to sprout and lose its flavor.   

Yes, you can eat garlic leaves.


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