Dateline: 11 October 2006
Updated: 10 April 2013
Updated: 10 April 2013
Columbus Day, the second Monday in October, is the traditional target date for planting garlic here in the northeastern United States. The objective is to get your cloves in the earth so they have time to put down roots (but not much topgrowth) before winter dormancy sets in. Then, first thing in the spring, often with snow still on the ground, vibrant green shoots emerge with their promise—spring is about to arrive; tulips and daffodils will follow. Garlic knows.
In past years I have planted my garlic as late as the second week of November and it still turned out just fine. But November-cold ground pulls the heat out of your fingers as you work, leaving them stiff and aching. Things are not usually much better above ground in November. Such weather takes the pleasure out of planting and that is a shame. Planting should be a joyful process, even if it is work. This year I had an absolutely perfect day for planting.
I walked out of my house that morning and, like every good agrarian, paused for a visual drink of earth and sky. There was a chill in the air but the sun was coming up strong and confident. The proverbial frost on my deck pumpkins was just starting to melt. A fading-white, spectral moon hung in the clear blue northern sky. Only hours before, that moon had been so full-orbed and golden in the blackness—a quintessential harvest moon.
Yes, it would be a glorious autumn day in which to plant 1,200 cloves of German Allium sativum. That is my usual planting. It is not a lot but it is as much as I can properly care for as a part time garlic farmer. Next August I will harvest enough bulbs to make around 1,000 ounces of gourmet stiffneck garlic powder. After setting aside for my family’s needs, every granule of the wholesome, flavorful powder will be sold, typically within a couple of months. And I’ll use a portion of my bulb harvest as seed for the next year. Sustainability is a beautiful thing.
The evening before planting day, I spent a couple hours in my shop, carefully pulling the bulbs apart. I set the largest cloves aside for planting. The smaller cloves went into a different pile. They will be peeled, sliced, dried and ground into powder. Cloves with even a hint of mold or spoilage were thrown away. Blemished cloves render sick plants. And only the best cloves make the best powder.
Two days before my day of planting, the 20 ft by 50 ft patch of ground I had selected for growing the garlic in was covered with a dense, lush stand of green buckwheat. I planted the fast-growing, weed-choking grain about a month ago. Prior to that, the ground had been an old hay field, untended for many years. It is my neighbor’s field. He graciously allows me use of it. I pay him with garlic powder.
I mowed the buckwheat down with my push lawnmower. Then I chopped it up and tilled it under with a couple passes of my rototiller. The next day I tilled the ground again, leaving it soft and unmarked by any footprints—a perfect planting bed.
I have planted my garlic in garden beds and I have planted it in single rows but my favorite way to plant is in wide-rows. The beauty of a wide-row is that the plants, once they are grown act as a “living mulch,“ holding moisture in and depriving the underlying weeds of nourishing sunlight.
I have written about my wide bed planting approach in the book, Making Great Garlic Powder: Homegrown And Homemade Secrets From A Garlic Powder Guru. What follows is a quote from the book. Pictures to illustrate then follow:
”I admit to being a little obsessive about how I plant my garlic. Not only do I want the garlic bulbs to grow well, I want them to be visually pleasing in their arrangement. That means I plant my garlic intensively (close together) in wide rows and space the bulbs with geometric precision. You can do this too, if you like, without a lot of trouble, by following my simple planting system. I’ve used this system to plant several thousand garlic bulbs, but it will work just fine for a small planting too. An alternate planting approach is to just space your bulbs by eye in a bed—they won’t mind a bit if they aren’t perfectly aligned, and they’ll taste just the same too.
I start with a tilled-up section of garden space. Then I measure and drive a stake to mark the centerline of each wide-row bed I want to create.... The stakes are spaced [42 inches] apart. I string a line between two stakes, about one foot off the ground. The string serves to help me align my planting template.
The planting template is a piece of 1/8” Masonite (a.k.a. hardboard) twenty-four inches wide and eight feet long. Onto the template I have carefully marked out the bulb spacing I want in the bed. Seven-inch spacing in alternating rows of two and three bulbs results in forty garlic spaces in the template. Using a hole saw in a drill, I make a hole where I’ve marked for each garlic clove to be planted.
To use the template, lay it on the tilled ground and position it so the center holes line up directly under the string. I then mark each planting space by dusting some white powdered lime over the holes. That done, I pick the template up and move it down the row, repeating the process....
In the book there is an illustration of the template. This next picture shows the string line with the planting template centered underneath. At the other end of the row is yours truly planting garlic cloves (the cloves are in the white bucket). My incredibly handy homemade garden cart is clearly visible, as is my faithful dog, Annie. She likes to stay close by when I’m working in my garden. In the background is my home. The trees beyond are quickly approaching peak autumn color. The yellow and red leaves are just beginning to fall. I know that one good storm, with wind and rain, can strip most of the leaves away in a matter of hours, so I made a point that day to observe and appreciate the beauty around me.
And in so doing I saw my first-of-the-season V-formation of Canadian geese fly over. I stopped to count them. Twenty eight, heading southeast. By the way, you can see the nicely tilled ground in the left of the picture.
planting garlic 1:
I plant German “stiffneck” garlic. It has large cloves arranged around the central stem. So each clove is triangular shaped in cross section, like the wedge-shaped slices of a pie. When planting, I cradle the clove with three fingers. My thumb is on the outside of the bulb (the crust edge of the pie piece) with my index and middle finger on the other sides, as shown in the next picture. the pointed tip of the clove is facing my palm. You want the pointed tip aiming up when planted. If you plant the clove upside down, the greens will emerge under the clove and have to fight their way upwards to the sun.
I plant by pushing my fingers into the earth until the bottom of the clove is seated down into a firm bed of soil. Around 3” deep is good, and that is about up to my knuckles—a little deeper than shown in the third photo below. Notice also in the right side of the pictures you can see the tip of a planted clove.
planting garlic 2:
In this next picture you can see across several planted and cratered wide rows. Each 20-foot long wide-row contains 95 garlic cloves and there are thirteen rows.
And here (below) is a close up of me, taken by my son, Robert (who took most of the pictures in this essay). I’m enjoying myself. Planting garlic on a warm, sunny day in October beats working in a factory, which is what I do for a living. I actually got a bit of a sunburn that day.
If you are particularly observant, you will have noticed that in the first picture of me planting (when I was starting out) I am standing and bending over to place the cloves in their allotted positions. But in this later picture, I am planting on my knees beside the row. That bending over can be hard on a back!
After the planting is done, it’s time to cover the cloves and fertilize the crop. I do this all in one operation by putting a handful of compost on top of every “clove crater.” The next picture shows my compost pile, with son, James.
This compost pile is located adjacent to my chicken yard (the fence in the background). It is actuallypositioned right where last year’s chicken yard was. Some of the fence posts are still there and visible in the picture.
I build my compost pile by tossing all organic matter from my yard, garden, and kitchen into the chicken yard all summer long. The chickens scratch through and add their contributions. Then, in the fall, I fork the perimeter into the center and end up with a big heap. The pile in the picture has been rotting down, undisturbed for about a year. It is dark, crumbly, absolutely beautiful compost.
I usually sift my compost through a mechanical compost sifter that I invented. But I recently took the motor off to power an apple grinder (another invention I’m working on). So I didn’t sift the compost before putting it on my garlic. I just pulled out larger sticks and stones and bits of plastic baling twine, and I even found the good paring knife we lost last year. The resulting compost was almost like sifted, as you can see in the next photograph.
What you can’t see in the above photo is the dried blood meal I mixed into the compost with a hoe. Altogether I used a 50 pound bag of the dried blood powder to fertilize this year’s garlic. The blood is a slow-release organic source of nitrogen that the garlic will utilize to grow healthy, lush leaves in the spring.
This next picture shows me putting a liberal handful of compost onto each clove.
The final planting step is to cover the rows with a blanket of straw mulch. I don’t have a picture of that because I am publishing this essay two days after planting and I don’t yet have the straw to mulch with. But there is time yet to get that done before the snow and bitter cold of winter arrive. The hardest work of planting is done and it is always a good feeling when your crop is in the ground.
I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to how I plant my garlic. If you have any questions, feel free to ask them below.
I invite you to read more of my garlic-related blog essays:
Making Pickled Garlic Scapes
Selling My Garlic Powder At The Farmer’s Market
Home-Based Agrarian Enterprises & Garlic Powder Profits
Curing Garlic Bulbs