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Fall garlic planting is always a favorite garden activity in our family. Popping the cloves off of the heads and sticking them in the ground is easy and fun. There’s probably a hundred and one ways to plant garlic, but the truth is its hard to do it wrong because garlic is not too picky about the planting method.
When the weather and the soil cools down and the growth of all the crops of the season are slowing down and getting tagged by frost, the choice of where to plant garlic is wide open. Its tempting to be extra exuberant and plant the entire garden in garlic!
In this article I will share memories of how I started planting garlic, some thoughts about garlic as it relates to planting and permaculture, a few examples of how I am currently planting garlic (and elephant garlic) and conclude with appreciation for a generous gift from the wild plants in our garden.
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Garlic is Tough
Garlic is a perennial and can be grown indefinitely. Through our cultural practice we are digging up the garlic every year, dividing the cloves, eating some and replanting the best cloves for the following season.
Left alone and given adequate growing conditions the garlic will continue growing year after year. I have seen garlic growing feral in old homesteads, in old planters, among grass. At first I thought the garlic I was seeing was a wild allium because it looked different. The bulbils at the top of the flower stalk were smaller and the leaves and stalks were skinnier. It is amazing to me to see how resilient garlic can be even when left untended in this way for many years.
I have laid a head of garlic on the ground after harvest season a little over a year ago. It was out of the way and left alone by wildlife. Throughout the rest of the hot season it cured in place and once the wet winter season kicked into gear I was surprised to see the roots grow out of the husks and down into the earth.
They literally planted themselves from atop the soil surface! I thought: “That’s so amazing! But as soon as next year warms up they will surely die.” Nope! Even left un-mulched, the garlic continued to live and eventually sent up strong flower stalks from each clove that went on to produce their own heads.
Given that the cloves are crowded and they remain un-mulched it made sense that they did not make massive cloves. Granted, this garlic was on the edge of irrigation zone and received some minimal regular moisture, but not a huge amount. This garlic was also on the edge of receiving some part shade during the morning and afternoon which I’m sure helped.
To us humans, this garlic that was laid atop the soil did not receive adequate fertility, mulch, moisture and space to develop large cloves that we find most desirable. But to the garlic, it certainly did receive adequate fertility and moisture to thrive, allowing it to grow strong leaves and stalks, reproduce and divide.
It is rewarding for me to note the difference between a plant thriving and the results that we want to see. It helps me stay humble and remember my role in the living ecosystem as a gardener who is working in partnership with living plants. I see our cultural practice with garlic as a seasonal conversation in finding the middle place in the Venn diagram of the plants thriving and us thriving. When we are both thriving together magic happens.
My First Experience Growing Garlic
What I love about gardening with garlic is that its very difficult to mess it up because even in less than adequate conditions the garlic is bound to produce something (as proven above)!
In my second suburban garden I first started growing organic garlic purchased from the supermarket. I planted the cloves all around and in between other plants. At the time I was excited about companion planting, wild gardening and just getting into permaculture.
As the season progressed, I ended up missing the ideal harvest time. Instead of harvesting when leaves are turning brown, the garlic went past the brown leaves stage and the above ground portion completely died back and lodged over. When I saw that happening, I knew the garlic was ready, so I enthusiastically dug them up and left them on the back patio to cure.
Because I waited so long, and because the garlic were not planted in one place, I couldn’t find all of the garlic I had planted. Some of their stalks had died, shriveled and become so scant, decomposed or covered by other plants that they were hard to see. Yet I was so excited that there was garlic to harvest and at the same time I proved to myself that garlic didn’t have to be planted in straight rows, it could be grown as companions with many other plants.
The suburban clay soil that I was starting with was lacking any top soil and the subsoil was dense, sticky clay and very unforgiving. I was in the process of building top soil with municipal compost, free mushroom compost, and various mulch.
Looking back I think I actually got the harvest time right, but I planted the garlic too late in early spring. In my inexperience that came with being a new gardener, I was also missing that the garlic I harvested was telling me a story about the soil conditions.
The garlic was telling me despite the late planting time and despite the new, fresh, slightly raw and imperfect top soil, there was enough life and and access to fertility in the soil that it could grow some cloves. The garlic was in fact very happy to be growing in the garden conditions that I had provided.
Every season I continue the physical work of improving soil for the plants. But now I see I am also growing soil for myself. As I cultivate the soil in the garden, my inner soil is also being cultivated and mulched. Season after season I am noticing my rigid expectations and desires slowly giving way to experiencing more gratitude for the living world.
Planting Garlic in Permaculture Gardens
Even we grow garlic annually they are actually perennials, which means that garlic already has one of the qualities that permaculture often strives for.
Most annuals do best in garden beds dedicated to annual production. Most annuals can benefit from mulching during the hot season but many annuals, especially in the tender seedling stage can be damaged or killed by slugs, and decomposer invertebrates that thrive in heavy mulch.
Garlic on the other hand can be mulched quite thickly as soon as it is planted. Garlic and leek leaves have no problem poking through fairly thick layers of ground leaves, wood shavings, or manure. This gives us more flexibility on where garlic can be planted.
We can plant garlic with well mulched perennials and on the edges of between annual and perennial zones. I sometimes plant garlic close to a young tree or shrub which allows me to use a space for a few seasons that would otherwise be unusable when the tree or shrub is older and has a stronger, larger root system and casts more shade.
Like fava beans and onions, garlic is a climate appropriate crop in our region. During the wet, cold rainy season irrigation is not needed. Some irrigation may be needed in spring and early summer until harvest time, but it will be minimal compared to crops that are growing through the hot months of the summer and fall. A well mulched garlic bed ensures that the soil stays wetter longer.
Planting in fall or winter allows me to think about stacking in time and space with annual crops. For example, if garlic is harvested in July, and if your season is long enough, you could interplant with summer loving plants like herbs or tomatoes that will just be coming into their prime when garlic is being harvested. On the other hand a garden bed could be sown with cover crop after the garlic is harvested or left fallow for the rest of the season and over winter.
In our climate, I’ve also found that garlic can do quite well in a part shade environment. Since the garlic has all winter to get established, I think the partial shade is actually helpful in requiring less water in the hot summer days leading up to harvest time.
In general the garlic is fairly easy to grow, even for beginners, it is resilient and low maintenance. It can grow during seasons many of our other crops do not grow and with a slender profile it is versatile when it comes to where it can be planted.
Garlic is a great companion for a homestead garden or polyculture. When planting garlic as companions, it might make sense to plant small clusters or groups, rather than individually as in the examples in the My First Experience Growing Garlic section above, so that it will be easier to find them come harvest time.
Planting Stock & Time
Typically when planting garlic I choose the biggest, healthiest looking and feeling garlic cloves. If I have extra garlic I’ll choose the largest cloves while saving the smaller cloves for eating. Larger cloves will yield a stronger garlic plant which will help it yield a larger head by harvest time.
We’ve learned that we need to take care in curing and storing garlic to make sure it drys enough and stays moisture free. We want to reduce mold and extend the shelf life of our garlic since we want to eat it through the winter and on into the next season, right on up until the next garlic harvest if possible.
On the other hand, the storage medium of our planting stock is in the soil which is moist and encourages growth. There is a few months between harvest and planting where we are curing our planting stock.
I’ve observed garlic’s natural lifecycle every season when some garlic heads or cloves are missed at harvest and remain in the soil. By the time I am planting the next season’s garlic crop those missed garlic cloves have already sprouted above the soil and are a few inches tall. Sometimes I harvest them as garlic greens if I want to use that space but when I leave them in the soil, the following year they make a nice head if they are in a spot they like. This may or may not be the case in colder or warmer climates, but what I am trying to say is that there is flexibility in the planting time.
I’ve planted garlic as close as 4″ spacing on all sides and had OK results but that is on the tight side. Now with more garden space, I like more spacing, at least 6″ in smaller beds or I might plant 4″ apart in rows that are 8-12″ apart if I have more room.
Bed #1: Light Till
This garden bed is a nice size and lies between a small greenhouse, a pathway and a small plum tree. This bed will hold our main crop of Music hard neck garlic. This year we discovered two other varieties that we like better than Music, but since we grew much more Music than the other varieties, it is still our main crop at least for one more season. (More on our garlic trials here)
We’ve grown in this bed for three seasons now. The first two seasons I broadforked the bed, pulled out many rocks, added manure and other organic matter as well as biochar. This third season the cultivation was minimal since it had already been tilled twice before and only a few additional rocks were pulled out.
Last fall around this time I planted fava beans in this bed and they overwintered well. Weeds grew up and at some point in the spring, before the weeds outgrew the fava plants, I chopped the weeds and left their leaves in place to be the mulch layer. With the roots in the ground many of the weeds continued to live. Around summer time I transplanted small tomatoes into this bed, mostly on the sunnier edge. When the fava beans were drying down and beans harvested the tomatoes were starting to come in strong.
All that is to say that we had a harvest of dry fava beans followed by a harvest of tomatoes from this one bed. Finally now that we are weeding the bed in preparation for the garlic planting, the edible weeds that were saved became a third yield, which wouldn’t have been possible if they were pulled out in the spring. More on that a little later.
Any weeds that were not saved for the kitchen were taken over to an adjacent new garden bed that is being built up with various organic matter from the garden and elsewhere. About 3 or 4 wheelbarrows were dumped there. Its always satisfying to build compost in place and with little effort.
So back to the soil preparation. The soil is not soggy but also not too dry so I didn’t irrigate it prior. Pulling the weeds was extremely easy. In many cases I could pull up large tap roots with ease. However I did use my garden fork to loosen the soil first and that helped it go faster.
I decided not to do any major tillage in this bed since the soil is already in really nice shape, having already dealt with compaction, rocks and adding organic matter over three seasons. This time I am adding more charcoal to allow biochar to happen in place. (I am OK not charging my biochar prior to planting the garlic knowing the wet cold season is ahead, growth will be slow while the charcoal slowly becomes innoculated and moisture is prevalent.)
So I brought in some charcoal, raked it out to evenly distribute it and lightly and quickly (not thoroughly) turned the soil with a garden fork to roughly incorporate the charcoal.
I used my garden rake to make furrows for planting the garlic. At this point it was easy to walk down the furrows and drop garlic cloves after making holes 2 or 3 inches deep with my homemade dibble stick. As I walk in the furrows behind my planting my feet inevitably cover the clove and press it down to make good contact with soil.
Finally the bed was mulched rather thickly. In this case I am using goat stall bedding which is a mix of shavings, alfalfa straw and goat manure. The shavings make the mix rather fluffy and over the next few months rain and snow will press the shavings down and it will reduce in size significantly. So my 6-10″ of mulch will become at least half that deep. The garlic should have no problem poking through the fine materials which doesn’t mat up like a thick layer of leaves might.
Beds #2 & #3: No Till Method
Two raised beds will be the home to our two new favorite varieties of garlic this year: Siberian hard neck and St. Helen soft neck. This was our first season growing both varieties and we ended up with more than enough cloves to fill one raised bed each.
These beds are protected from gophers with hardware cloth which will hopefully ensure no predation on these crops as we are multiplying our future planting stock.
Before planting the two raised beds the weeds are removed. The soil is fluffy and somewhat moist and removing the weeds is extremely easy. I did nothing to prepare the soil other than a light raking to even it out a bit. I didn’t add anything to the soil but the mulch that I will be adding after planting will be additional organic matter for these beds.
Since the soil is already in great shape, not compacted and rich with organic matter I am just going to plant the garlic with no tilling. I lay out the garlic cloves in a 6-8″ spacing. Once they are laid out I take my dibble stick, make a little hole and plunk the garlic between 1-3″ under the soil level with the pointy end up. Precision is not really necessary here.
At the time of writing this post I haven’t mulched the bed yet, but I will be doing it soon when I get another load of mulch. I have a few weeks at least to mulch the garlic before the leaves start coming up.
Bed #4: Perennial Edge
I am also planting elephant garlic, which if you haven’t heard is technically a leek. But it makes cloves like garlic, and cultivation and propagation is essentially the same as with garlic so we treat it the same. I like growing elephant garlic for their bulbs, fat leek stalks and their leek scapes.
This last season I harvested half of the elephant garlic as leeks and the other half were allowed to finish their season and develop big heads. Funny enough about that time a gopher got into the bed and started eating the bulbs. After some frustrating days of losing a bunch of plants I managed to trap the gopher and we still ended up with a harvest of bulbs.
After choosing planting stock from those elephant garlic heads, we were left with a fair amount for eating as well.
In this case I am using the space around a young apple tree. I am planting the elephant garlic on and outside the edge of a thick ring of wood chip mulch. I am confident that the leeks will come up through the edge of the wood chips where the mulch is not too thick, but I would not plant them in the thickest area of the wood chips.
Outside the wood chips the soil is still mulched with wood shavings. The soil below has already been cultivated for two seasons and I am very happy with how it is so I am doing nothing to prepare this bed. I will simply plant now and add a bit more mulch later.
I took my elephant garlic cloves and placed them about 6-10″ apart, more or less. In the same manner as the garlic, I used the dibble stick, made holes and pushed the elephant garlic cloves down at least an inch (fatter ones were harder to push down) if not a few.
Finally, I marked the space that was planted with a few sticks to remind myself where they are planted for mulching and if I want to plant anything else here before the tell tale leaves come up.
Planting = Harvest
I love putting seeds, bulbs and plants into the ground. To me they represent hope for an abundant future, feeling connected to plants and my love for the soil which my food comes from and to which I am ultimately connected.
When I started preparing Bed #1 for planting garlic I was in a bit of a stressed and frustrated mood. By preparing the soil I was able to physically move some of those emotions through my body. As soon as I touched the soil I was immediately transported back into a place of joy and open to receiving the beauty of the garden.
As I looked down to check on the soil I was greeted by my friends the weeds. I remembered back to growing fava beans in this bed. As the fava beans grew up I decided to prune the weeds for mulch (rather than pull them out), leaving the roots and crowns intact so the weeds could remain as a living mulch between the fava plants. And now at the end of the season they are so vibrant!
As I pulled up a chicory plant I was astonished to see how deep and thick the roots were. Then another and another. I am exclaiming with joy every time I pull another chicory.
Taking a step over I found a patch of Queen Anne’s lace. Pulling up the wild carrots brought a rush of sensation to my nose as I smelled the familiar carrot smell. I am excited to see the beautiful white, supple roots and start dreaming of fall time stews and soups.
And then I found a few thistles with nice roots. I remember back to my frustration with thistle spines as I pulled them out of past gardens. Now I am spending time with friends, gently and slowly caressing the leaves out of the way so that I can pull up the tasty roots.
I am blessed to find a multitude of dandelions in our raised beds and this time of year with the cooler weather setting in they are starting to become less bitter.
Finally I harvest a bunch of first year lemon balm that reseeds itself wildly throughout our gardens and edge spaces to add to our dried herbs we’ll use for winter teas and meals.
I remember back to my first gardens. Back then I did enjoy weeding but it was more of an OCD love of weeding with a pride for immaculate space. Every time I found a weed I was given the opportunity to appease my OCD again. But sometimes weeding was a stressful chore because the weeds easily could easily ahead of me.
Now I am rejoicing with my friends the weeds who are adding beauty to the garden and helping me put food on the table. They are growing in between the crops and giving us extra food throughout the entire year. They are growing abundantly in beds where my crop failed to germinate or produce much yield. I can look at those crop failures with disappointment and wonder when I can be a better gardener, or I can look to the weeds that are always abundant, vibrant and harmonizing.
Someone else might look at the garden and say it is wild, unruly, getting ahead of us in weeds, too much competition for our veggies. I look around and can’t help but glow inside knowing that nature is providing abundant beauty, life and nourishment.
I look at the garden spaces where I have added organic matter and irrigated and enjoy seeing the weeds explode into luscious growth with essentially no disease or pest issues. And I look around my garden and see all the other weeds that are still living lush and loving the seasonal shift to colder weather, and realizing how many wild roots are still in the ground… its going to be an abundant winter.