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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Grow Your Own Garlic!

So many people I know who love garlic never think of growing it themselves. What's up with that, when growing your own garlic is so easy?

Fortunately, now is the perfect time to plant garlic. Early-fall planting gives the cloves the four to six weeks of warm soil they need to get a head start on next year's harvest. And early October is Garlic Festival time at Tagawa's, so you'll have plenty of varieties to choose from, while supplies last. Not to mention lots of expert advice to get you goin'.

There are two main types of garlic you can choose from. "Softneck" garlic includes the strain available in most grocery stores, and plenty more! The cloves can be white or purplish white, and range in flavor from mild to very bold. Softnecks are used to make garlic braids, and have a storage life of up to six months.

"Hardneck" garlic doesn't store as long as softneck, but comes in a beautiful variety of whites, reds and purples, with wonderful names like Chesnok Red and Metechi. The hardnecks seem to do especially well in Colorado.

Your garlic bed should be located in full sun, in a well-drained location. Garlic plants need to stay moist, but never soggy. Garlic loves soil that's rich in organic matter, so dig in plenty of compost or well-aged manure before you plant.

Separate the garlic bulb into individual cloves just before you plant. Press each clove down into the loose soil about two to three inches, pointy side up. (Okay, so I planted all of my cloves upside-down one year. Silly me. All of the shoots found "up" just fine. Still, I wouldn't recommend it.)

The cloves should be spaced about four inches apart. Firm the soil gently over the clove and then water them in well.

Plan on mulching your garlic bed heavily. I've used straw, pine needles, shredded leaves.... and a combination of those things, because that's what I had on hand. As long as the mulch stays on the airy side, and doesn't pack down or smother the bed, you should be fine. That four- to six-inch layer of organic material will help keep the soil's temperature and moisture content more even, and hold weeds to a minimum. Garlic doesn't like to compete with other plants, especially weeds.

Don't be surprised if your garlic cloves send up perky little green shoots during the first month or two. Those tender-looking leaves have a remarkable ability to ignore the snow and cold, and will be just fine.

If we have a dry winter, as the weather folks are predicting, you may need to give your garlic bed some water once or twice a month when the soil isn't frozen. Come next March or thereabouts, the shoots will kick into high gear. Keep up the watering, so the plants never dry out. Again, the soil should be moist, but never soggy. As your plants begin actively growing, feed them with some high nitrogern fertilizer to give them a welcome boost. The staff at Tagawa's can recommend fetilizers that will help produce big, plump garlic bulbs.

If you're growing the hardneck varieties, the plants will send up a flower stalk. called a "scape." Removing the scape when it's about a foot tall will send more energy into the bulb. But I must admit, sometimes I let the scapes go. They twist and curl and make me smile. It's not the purist's way, but a smile is worth something. It's your choice to keep the scapes or take them off. No decision needed with softneck varieties, since they don't produce scapes.

Back off the watering and feeding around the end of May. The garlic is usually ready to harvest in late June into July. When you see the lower one-third of the leaves dry up, it's time! If you're slow to harvest, the bulbs will often shatter into individual cloves when you dig them up.

Lift the bulbs gently so you don't damage them. It doesn't work to pull on the leaves. The stalk will just break, and then you'll have to go searching for the bulb. Remove the clumps of soil around the garlic, and let the bulbs air dry in a breezy place away from direct sunlight. After a few weeks of "curing," you can cut away the roots and most of the stalk.

The garlic will store best in a mesh bag in a cool, well-ventilated area. Never keep the garlic in the refrigerator. You'll trick it into thinking it's been through a winter, and it will sprout.

Come see us at Tagawa's and let us inspire you to plant a garlic bed of your own. If you look at garlic as one of the basic food groups (dark chocolate being another....), you'll be very glad you did.

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