Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Growing Great Garlic

I won’t fake modesty here. I grew some great garlic. You can, too. It’s easy.

The garlic heads pictured here were harvested over the July 4th weekend… just a bit earlier than normal in this hot growing season.

I grow hard neck garlic, Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon, also known as ophio garlic, serpent garlic, top setting garlic, and echte Rokkenbolle or Schlangenknoblauch (to my German friends).

Hard necks produce a reproductive structure called a “scape”, a firm stalk ending in a swollen capsule which contains bulbils, not flowers. The scapes are quite tasty themselves, if harvested when they snap easily from the plant in mid spring.

Hard necks are different from the soft neck garlic you get in the grocery store. Hard necks have a shorter shelf life, fewer (but larger cloves) and for many people, have better, bolder flavor. As the name indicates, soft necks have no hard stem. They braid nicely. Most of what you see in the grocery store are softnecks, grown in China.

Oh, it gets even more complicated than this with different types of both hard neck and soft necks. And the names given to local selections of each type muddies the water even further. Recently, USDA researchers have concluded that there are actually many fewer garlic varieties than the common names would imply. Local adaptations and response to environment account for the perceived differences. For a great read on garlic, consider the text, Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland. It sorts out a lot of the terminology, history and origins of this unique food and provides excellent advice on growing all types of garlic. Penn State’s Growing Bulb Crops publication also has enough info to get you started.

Back to the basics. So, if harvest time is about the 4th of July, when is planting time? Columbus Day…more or less. That’s a good general guide for planting garlic in Pennsylvania. You simply stick a clove, (root end down) an inch or two deep into well prepared, rich garden ground, spaced about every 7 inches. It often makes sense to make a bed and plant three rows together, about 10 inches away from adjacent rows. Cloves will root well and make a few leaves before the soil freezes up. Then mulch with straw or leaves and wait for them poke thru in the spring. Keep the planting weed free. A shot of rich compost or fertilizer in early spring is a good idea.

That’s about it. Garlic has few pest problems besides weeds. A few hand weedings, as the mulch deteriorates, is necessary. When to harvest is an important consideration. Too early and clove size and maturity is reduced. Too late and cloves separate within the head and quality and shelf live diminish. I have followed Engeland’s advice and harvest my Ophios when 40 % of the lower leaves have died, leaving about 6 green leaves at the top of the plant at the time of harvest. Your goal it to have well segmented cloves that have not begun to separate within the head. This is usually about mid-July for the varieties I grow.

Post harvest care is important. I move my harvested garlic immediately to a shaded, well ventilated area to “cure”. Although many folks seem inclined to let it lay out in the hot sun, this is not the best approach. Since most of it is consumed by Christmas, no special storage is required. Most references say to store garlic at 55-65 degrees F and 50 % humidity. So a cool cellar, or similar space, will work very well.

Note that you’ll likely be saving some of you own crop as “seed”. Not literally. You’ll save some heads that will be broken into separate cloves for planting in October. So if you happen to harvest some over mature heads, they make good planting stock. Or, just eat them first.

Of course you have to get started somehow. Where do you get planting stock? Your best bet may be a local farmers market that is selling their own, farm grown garlic. This will obviously be well adapted to your area. If this doesn’t work, the internet is full of sellers in the Northeast US. Don’t plant store bought garlic. It is unlikely to be well adapted to our growing conditions.
I still have a lot to learn about garlic. I’d like to try some soft necks. Add a few more hard necks. But the important things I have learned are that hard neck garlic is easy to grow, it’s better tasting than store bought and it keeps well until Christmas (and beyond). Give it a try this fall.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Getting Dry... Good, Bad and Ugly

OK getting dry might be an understatement. It is DRY in Bucks County, PA. When I see roadside weeds wilting, it’s dry. And today’s newspaper says, “Hot and dry with no rain in sight”. I think that means no rain in the forecast. Sure enough, the 7 day forecast is bone dry.

Let’s start with the good aspects of dry. My farm friends (who have irrigation) tell me that they will take a dry year over a wet one anytime. It is possible to add water but impossible to take it away. Heat and sunshine combined with timely irrigation equals wonderful tomatoes, peaches and other produce. Sure they have the chore of moving pipes and running pumps but they have control of the water. Same thing goes for home gardens.

And that late blight problem we are watching… it's gonna have trouble getting cranked up in these conditions. Notice how the sycamores have leafed out again after the ravages of early season leaf diseases. Thank the dry heat.

The bad…I think most folks underestimate the damage water stress causes to plants. Especially woody plants. It’s pretty obvious when you neglect to water the petunias or tomatoes. They wilt and probably recover when watered; if not, they die and you move on. In any event, they are annuals so you get another chance at minimal expense. With woody plants, the effects of drought are often harder to see and the effects may take awhile to manifest themselves. Often times it is borers, or even disease, that finish off these drought stressed plants. It may take years.

Just for fun, I observe lots of new landscape plantings. New housing developments, commercial sites, even the grounds of our Extension office. Frequently (if not usually) the newly established trees and shrubs are subject to severe drought stress in the first 12 months of planting. When they can least tolerate it. It is good to recall that these plants arrive to the site with a severely diminished root system. A lot of it was left behind in the nursery when the plant was dug. Even containerized plants have an abnormally restricted root system. Believe it or not, sometimes the plants that are established on these job sites arrive already drought stressed. Dormant plants that don’t “ leaf out” normally are suspect in my eyes.

OK. What does this mean? Right now, trees and shrubs that were planted within the last 12 months need water. If you wait until leaves wilt and fall off you have waited too long. Anticipate the watering needs of these plants and give them a good soaking before they wilt. Check back in a week and repeat if necessary. A good soaking is hard to quantify. How about this… 5 – 10 gallons per tree, applied at the base of the plant, slowly so that it soaks into the ground. Repeat weekly as needed. This requires a hose and some time. A watering can won’t cut it. Mother Nature will eventually come to our aid but until them, make a date with your trees and shrubs weekly. That green thing shown above is a "gator"; an irrigator bag. A handy device that allows the bag to drip water into the soil at a nice, slow rate, but you can fill it quickly.

The ugly…of course, complete neglect in a drought results in dead plants. Maybe not dead now but drought stress can show up as “winter injury’, borer damage or even disease in the long run. Going on vacation? How about a good soaking before you head off. The trees, not you.

Finally, although it is hard to imagine in a drought, it is possible to have too much soil moisture. You can over water. Automatic irrigation systems (improperly manage) kill plants.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if it rained an inch a week, every week, preferably between midnight and dawn. There are places in the world where temperatures and rainfall regular and predictable, within the growing season. Pennsylvania isn't one of them.