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Intrepid Urban Farmer: A life-lesson on garlic, the Stinking Rose, is it’s OK to do it the hard way

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By Ginger Dawson
Special to NKyTribune

Getting involved in this gardening business takes time.  Like life, it takes time to find out about things regarding nature, and I include in that, most importantly, human nature.  Now there’s a topic.  Can anyone tell me that they knew anything about that right out of the chute?

Being somewhat of an autodidact, I have, by nature and temperament, chosen to learn by experience.  This is what I call it.  My parents have called it “learning the hard way.”

Last year’s harvest. These were the largest heads.

It is not my fault if this life business did not come with an owner’s manual.  Gardening doesn’t either.  You can read books, do searches online, consult with fellow gardeners, and still–only experience is going to teach you.

I won’t embarrass myself, or bore you, with accounts of my experiments in living (otherwise known as “learning the hard way”).  That’s a bumpy ride for another day.

I can bore you plenty with writing about gardening.  And, at least, you may find that useful. 

We will focus today’s life lesson on garlic.  The Stinking Rose — a good name, overall (like life).

I have raised garlic for quite a few years now.  Garlic is easy to raise, but its trajectory is not like other vegetable crops.  

In the Spring, practically every other vegetable has the same rhythm and season:  you starts the seeds in early Spring, put the young plants in the garden after the last frost, monitor growth and harvest through the season, and pull it all down and clean it up before winter sets in.

With garlic, this is all different.  You have to remember certain things.  Like planting.  This is important.  No planting, no garlic.  Once it’s in the ground, it takes care of itself, mostly.  It comes up in the Spring; you see it, you are cued that you planted something there; you follow the directive and harvest accordingly.

Individual cloves of garlic separated and ready to plant.

I just got everything cleaned up from this past Summer, and now it was time to plant garlic.  I know this like the back of my hand, yet some years I have been caught short.  Like this year.  I had some preliminary preparation going on in the bed I was planting it in, but the end-of-season work and other distractions side-tracked me.  

I got the crop in; the job slid in under the finish wire, and the deed is done.

Here is how I plant garlic:

— I prepare my raised bed by amending it with a couple of bags of rotted compost and cow manure.  I try to do this early–about a month before planting.  If you forget or can’t get to it, don’t worry about it, but do amend when you remember.  Raised beds are ideal for raising garlic, as the soil needs to be light and loose so that the heads can grown and expand without the obstruction of heavy, compacted soil.  

Planting a clove. I have short fingers, so you may want to temper that knuckle-depth.

— I take the garlic heads that I raised last year and select the largest ones.  I usually plant about 50 cloves, so that seems to be about ten to twelve heads.  Garlic has the pleasant habit of adapting to its environment over time, so continuing to grow and replant the same strain is a definite benefit.  The largest heads will perpetuate a good natural selection and yield a custom-tailored crop for you.

— I plant the cloves of garlic (you know, the things that you cook with) in a six inch grid pattern about two to four inches deep.  I just grab a clove of garlic and bury it in the soil to about the depth of my knuckles.  I then gently firm the dirt over it.  I do this all with my hands; tools are not necessary.

Be sure to put the butt-end, where the toe was attached to the head, to the bottom. The garlic sprouts from the pointed end.

— When I am finished, I cover it all with a layer of straw and then secure wire fencing directly over the bed.  This keeps the neighborhood cats out of it.  No kitty, I didn’t prepare this glorious litter box just for you.

The wire fencing has a grid that is big enough for the garlic to grow up through next spring, so I can leave it in place for the whole growing season.

— I sit back and wait for the garlic to sprout and look forward to harvesting the scapes.  Stiff-neck varieties shoot up a beautiful curly-cue stem topped by a seed head.  I cut these off to enable the plant to direct its energy into developing a larger clove head.  Scapes are a wonderful culinary delight, in and of themselves, and I like to make pesto with them.  They are also good prepared many other ways.

The straw cover and the wire fencing that keeps it all from being one giant litter box!

— When the plants mature to a harvesting stage, the two outer layers of leaves will start to turn brown.  There is no exact science for this, so I pull up a head to see what it looks like.  The paper (outside covering) of the head should look very white (when you clean the dirt off) and the delineation of the individual cloves should be barely apparent.  Of course, size is important, too.  After these few years, I have developed an instinct for this.  This is one of those things that you cannot learn in a book.  The heads of garlic will keep better over the winter if they are not overly matured in the garden.

— When I harvest, I put the garlic plants in an airy, shaded area and let them cure for a couple of weeks.  When they are ready, I cut the stems to about eight inches and store them in my basement in a dark, cool area.

— Then, next year, I do the whole thing all over again!

This is the one thing that lets me know that I am sane.  I do the same thing over and over again, and I do expect the same result!  Gardening is a great life lesson, and of course, I’ve done it the hard way.  But, for some reason, I’m happy about that.

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Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it.

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3 Comments

  1. Tocs Law says:

    Right out of the “chute” … I believe its a horse racing term.

  2. Ginger Dawson says:

    Thanks for the correction. But first, thanks for reading my column!

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