Planting Garlic in the Mountains
Garlic, Allium sativum, a member of the lily (Liliaceae) family or Alliaceae family depending on your source, and 2004 Herb of the Year, is a great plant for mountain gardens. Originating some 6000 years ago, it traces back to the Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan, evolving from a wild species to the cultivated treat we know and love today. Its bulbs have been used for food and medicine by our earliest ancestors. At one time it was even so highly prized, it was used as currency. Like many of the minor bulbs, it craves a period of cold, does not require a lot of water and has the ancestral qualities that make it work in the mountain areas.
There are two basic varieties of Alliums sativum, sativum (common softneck garlic - SN) and ophioscorodon (hardneck garlic - HN). Try some of both varieties, softneck has a much longer storage period (6-9 months) while hardneck lasts 3-4 months, so us HN first. Garlic can be planted in the spring or fall, but requires 9 months gestation and will be more robust with a fall planting. For mountain gardens it is recommended that your garlic go in after the first killing frost before the ground freezes so, generally late September to late October, depending on the year. HN varieties grow very well in cold areas. Plant cloves (no need to unwrap from their papery cover) pointy side up just like any other bulb, about 2-3 or even 4 inches deep for mountain gardens. Larger cloves may require deeper planting. Garlic prefers well amended, well drained soil, high in organic content.
Although garlic is not too picky about water, proper drainage matters greatly. Poor drainage leaves garlic susceptible to a variety of diseases. It also likes full sun, so plant in a perspective that allows the ground to be fully exposed to sun throughout the winter, so that when the sun is available it melts the snow or ice and keeps the natural water moving. A good layer of mulch to mitigate soil temperatures and keep them even as possible is advised. 3-4 inches of good organic mulch is recommended. Having said this, garlic needs a period of cold and performs best with 6-8 weeks of below 40 degrees for optimum bulb development. This is followed by the increase of day length and heat of spring to initiate bulb growth. That may come later in the mountains and harvest day will come later as well. Garlic is ready to harvest when leaves begin to yellow and brown and fall over, but there are still abut 3-4 or 50% green leaves on the plant. You should with hold water from the plants 5 or so days, porcelain HN just 2-3 days before harvest, so watch when the yellow and browning begins, so the papery skins surrounding the bulbs stay dry.
· Leave garlic bulbs intact until you are ready to plant, then break into cloves. Leave paper coverings on cloves.
· Plant in rows, 4-6 inches apart. Plant with pointy end up, root plate down and cover with 2-4 inches of soil depending on bulb size and your elevation. Roots will grow before winter.
· Garlic does not do well with competition, so keep beds weeded. A good 4 inch layer of organic mulch will help mitigate weeds and keep the soil temperatures even as well to avoid frost heaving.
· In the spring when scapes appear on your hardneck garlic, cut them off once they come up and bend before they straighten back up. Eat and enjoy them as they are a spring delicacy.
· Harvest when leaves are 50% brown and you have with held water for about 5 days to allow papery covering to dry well.
· If you are unsure that your garlic is ready, you can brush the soil away from one of the bulbs by hand to check the size and readiness of your bulbs.
· Use a spading fork to loosen the soil about 3 inches from the bulb and tip the bulbs up from underneath. Shake off soil, and put in well ventilated, cool, dry place to cure for several weeks. After the bulbs have cured (have the papery cover), remove the brown foliage and cut the roots, use a soft brush if further cleaning is needed.
· Softneck garlic has a longer shelf life than hardneck, so use the hardneck varieties you have grown first.
Some great garlic resources are:
Engeland, Ron L. Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers. Okanogan, WA: Filaree Productions, 1991.
Meredith, Ted Jordan. The Complete Book of Garlic; A Guide for Gardeners, Growers and Serious Cooks. Timber Press, 2008.