Tag Archives: fall gardening

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Falling For Garlic

This week The Real Dirt is featuring a guest blog from Patrick, Community Gardens Operations Coordinator. Patrick grew up in Wisconsin, and from day one wanted to be outside whenever possible. While earning his degree from the University of Montana, Patrick enrolled in the PEAS Farm class, and couldn’t give it up – staying for two semesters and a summer session. Through the PEAS Farm and his Environmental Studies Program classes, he’s decided he wants to keep working on local food efforts now that he has earned his degree. When he’s not digging in the dirt, he is hiking, biking or fishing with his dog, Lola.


Fall can mean a sudden change of pace for those of us who spend time working in the dirt.  Our lives as well as those in our gardens undergo some major changes as we transition from the warmth of summer into Missoula’s cool and dark winter.   For many of us, this is a bittersweet time.  We will miss our time in the garden, fresh picked meals, and chatting with fellow gardeners.  But winter also offers a chance to reflect on the past season, plan for the next, and hunker down with a warm winter dish.

An oddball in our fall routine of closing our gardens down, putting our storage foods up, and settling into a new schedule is garlic.  This time of year, when all of our crops are reaching the end of their lives, or have already passed, another round of garlic is getting ready to grow.  We plant our garlic in the fall to overwinter so that it can begin to grow as soon as weather permits in the following spring.  Garlic can also be planted in the early spring as soon as the ground is workable.  However, bulb production seems to be greater when fall planted.  Also, fall planting is simply a much welcomed change of pace from our usual fall routines.

Planting Garlic

When planting garlic we do not plant seeds, we plant individual cloves.  The first step then is to harvest and cure your previous garlic crop.  Read Emy’s blog post about harvesting and curing for more details.

Since we produce our next garlic crop asexually through cloning, we want to make sure to choose the right cloves to plant for next year.   We want to choose cloves that exhibit traits that we like, and would like to continue to see in our crop.   So we don’t plant small cloves or cloves from heads that have rotten, because we don’t want small or rotting heads next season.  After the garlic has been cured, choose the cream of the crop; good looking cloves with desirable traits.

Choose cloves with desirable traits.
Choose cloves with desirable traits.

If you did not grow garlic this year, don’t worry!  Simply use garlic that you normally buy from the farmers market or grocery store.  (It is best to save cloves from a local garlic source, as you can be sure that they will grow well in Missoula!)

Once you have your chosen cloves, keep them in a dark, dry space until late fall.  I normally plant garlic in late October when the weather is getting cold yet the ground is still workable.  Garlic can be planted pretty close together; I usually plant cloves about 5-6 inches apart.  Make sure that the cloves are planted root end down, and cover with soil.photo-4

Your next round of garlic is now underway for next season!  Cover your garlic beds with a significant amount of straw.  The straw will help keep weeds down and also balance out temperature fluxes in the soil surface.photo-1

Next spring when things start to warm up, start pulling back/removing a portion of the mulch.  Leave some mulch in place as weed suppression (garlic has a small leaf area and is a poor competitor against weeds), but do be aware as too much mulch can cause rotting at the base.

Head over heels for garlic

There’s not too much going on in the garden at this point in the season… unless you’re a garlic lover! Now is the time to plant your garlic for next year. Here are a few tips:

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Gather the largest, best-formed cloves of garlic.  Garlic cloves are essentially clones of their garlic plant, so you want to pick the cloves that look the best.  That way, they’ll produce big n’ healthy cloves just like their forefathers and mothers. So grab a nice looking head of garlic and pull its cloves apart, making sure to leave the papery husk on each individual clove (sometimes this is easier said than done, but it helps protect the cloves from disease and pests once in the soil). Then put aside the ones with the nicest shape – you know, the ones you really want to chop up and eat. Those are the ones you’ll want to plant.

It’s best to plant garlic cloves that are from garlic you or a friend grew or to buy seed garlic. Although technically you can plant cloves from grocery store garlic, it may not be a variety that is well-suited to grow in Montana, or it may have been treated which will make it harder to grow. If you don’t have trusted garlic to plant this season, purchasing some seed garlic online or at a local nursery could be well worth the investment because next year you can save that garlic to plant for the following year (no additional expense necessary). It’ll be a garlic revolution! (Or maybe just a new garlic-y tradition for you and your family….)

Plant in well-drained soil and rotate your garlic beds. Garlic doesn’t like to be over-saturated and will benefit from being rotated to different garden beds from year to year to help it fend off disease (although garlic is relatively disease and pest-resistant). Once you’ve chosen your garlic bed, plant the cloves you set aside into the bed. The cloves should be placed about 1-2 inches down into the soil, with the pointy end facing up, and they should be planted about 4-6 inches apart from each other. You can lightly water your garlic in at this point.

Mulch after planting. Mulching your garlic bed with 4-6 inches of straw will protect the cloves from extreme temperatures over the winter. If your garlic is exposed to many freeze-thaw cycles it can either rot or be pushed to the surface, where it won’t germinate.

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Voila! You’re work is done for the time being. In early spring you’ll see small shoots of green emerging from the bed of straw and this will let you know your garlic is doing just fine. At this point, you’ll want to keep the garlic bed well-weeded and moist (but not waterlogged).

If you planted a hard-neck variety  of garlic, scapes will form in spring that can be harvested for an early garlic treat.

When the leaves and stalks start to dry out, it is starting to get ready for harvest. It’s a good idea to stop watering your garlic once it gets to this point. Once 3 or 4 of its leaves are yellow, usually around August or so, the garlic is ready to be harvested.

And to carry on your garlic tradition, save some of your garlic for re-planting for the following year’s harvest!