With the calendar constantly reminding us September is here, and therefore that fall is rapidly gaining on us, it is time to do a final planting before starting to put the garden to bed. We need to plant some garlic.
This time last year, I went to a large garlic farm at Mersley on the isle of Wight during my trip home to England. This was an interesting place to visit, having evidence of Neolithic occupation with flint adzes and other tools, relics of an Iron Age roundhouse from about 50 B.C., and terraces and the ruins of a Roman temple from 200 A.D. Now, it is the main source of garlic in the British Isles.
Once in the ground, garlic needs no more care until next summer's harvest time, a good plant for those like me who need a rest from garden chores.
There are two main types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. The third type sometimes included in this category, elephant garlic, is not truly a garlic but is related to leeks.
If you are planning to braid your crop into one of those attractive swags, use the softneck variety. I have a pamphlet with detailed instructions on braiding which I brought from the farm, but I have not tried it yet.
Planting is very simple. Just buy a few heads of garlic at the store and separate the cloves. Garlic prefers alkaline soil, so if yours tends toward acid, add a little lime. A pH of 6.7 is ideal. Plenty of organic matter in the soil will produce larger specimens.
Getting the cloves into the soil this month is ideal. Plant them about an inch deep and 6 or more inches apart, with the pointed end up.
Hardneck garlic needs a period of cold to vernalize the clove and trigger the mechanism that induces it to split into cloves and bulb up. Do not plant the smallest cloves, but use them in the kitchen.
Hardneck garlic has just one circle of cloves; softneck will have two or three rows.
Some leaf growth probably will take place during the winter, depending on weather conditions, and an inch or so of mulch will help to be sure the plants do not heave out of the ground with freezing and thawing.
As the days begin to lengthen next spring, leaf growth will stop, and the plants will be ready to harvest when the foliage turns brown in late summer. Dig the bulbs, don't pull them, and hang them out of direct sun for a few weeks, then cut off the foliage, leaving an inch or two of stalk, and store the cured bulbs in a cool, dry place until needed.
Some hardneck varieties, principally Rocambole, will send up a scape, or flowering stem, during the summer. Snip these off to allow the plant's energy to go to producing a larger bulb. I have read the flower stems can be steamed and served with melted butter, or used in a stir fry for a mild garlic flavor. Waste not, want not!
Minced garlic added to melted butter is excellent on mushrooms, broccoli or green beans, and as a spread on French bread. Meatballs and spaghetti sauce cry for garlic, and every joint of lamb needs slivers tucked under the skin. And just slip a clove into a bottle of wine vinegar to add to a salad.
Garlic is a delicious vegetable, easy to grow, planted and forgotten over the winter, delicious next summer. What more could we ask?
Janet Del Turco is a local gardener and a graduate of the Ohio State University Master Gardener program. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.