Growing Great Garlic (cont)
By: Robert Kourik
When and How to Plant
In Aaron's cool-summer, mild-winter area, planting is best done in the fall, from early October through early December. In cold-winter areas, he recommends planting in September or early October so that the roots can grow down several inches while the soil is still permeable.
Choose the cleanest, firmest, largest heads, and break them into individual cloves. Discard all broken, discolored, and small cloves (use the best of these in the kitchen). Aaron believes the largest cloves beget the biggest heads of garlic. He also finds that cloves with an intact papery skin are the most likely to sprout. Sort each variety into a separate container, and add a tag or landscape flag to mark each planting later.
Before planting, cover all the drip tubing and soil in each box with 5 to 10 layers of newspaper. The paper acts like a biodegradable herbicide and eliminates hours of work by smothering weed seedlings. Aaron briefly presoaks black-and-white pages from the daily paper in a 5-gallon bucket of water, then spreads the sheets with an overlap of 3 to 5 inches. Presoaking prevents gusts of wind from scattering the papers while he is planting the cloves. (He offers a dare: See if you can put out the newsprint without reading old news.)
Using a conical-tipped length of steel reinforcing bar as a dibble, Aaron pokes a hole through the paper where he wants each clove. With huge specimens like elephant garlic (not a true garlic, but a member of the leek family), he spaces the cloves 6 inches apart. Space the smallest varieties such as 'Burgundy', 'Creole Red', and 'Guatemalan Ikeda' 4 inches apart. Push each clove, root end downward, about 2 inches into the soil (or about twice its longest dimension).
Mulch. After planting all the cloves, Aaron applies a 4- to 5-inch layer of turkey bedding to cover and hold down the newspaper and fill in the planting holes. This bedding comes from indoor fowl-breeding houses where only pelletized food is served, so it is a mulch completely free of weed seeds. (No turkeys in your area? Try using very well-rotted coarse wood shavings, dried chopped seaweed or eel grass, a thin layer of grass clippings, or leaf mold.) To settle the mulch, he waters with a hand-held sprinkler.
Fertilizer. Fertilizing is sometimes necessary because the nearly 50 inches of rain falling between October and April on Aaron's garden can leach nitrogen from the soil (this is unlikely where the ground freezes). If rains are severe, he applies a foliar spray of seaweed and fish emulsion four to six times per season, or about every 30 to 45 days. Around late February, he spreads a 1-inch layer of rabbit or goat manure in each box to replenish the nitrogen as the plants begin to bulk up in the spring. An abundance of foliage makes for large heads, which don't form until the last six to eight weeks of growth.
Irrigation. As June approaches, Aaron watches his garlics the way a setting hen watches her eggs. The key to raising heads for long storage is to withdraw irrigation well before harvest, but to still give the enlarging heads much-needed moisture for as long as possible. The end of irrigation, like that of a good joke, is all about timing. Don't stop watering too early, he says. Let the garlics go to full maturity. Look for the first brown tips, and when the brown has replaced about 25 percent of the green, it's time to quit watering. In his region, Aaron is blessed because the chances of significant rain after April are slim. Gardeners in other climates won't have as much control over moisture, but they should stop irrigating early.