Garlic, nepetas, neem


July is here, yet it feels as if it has been July for three weeks already. Nightly, the fireflies’ lavish twinkling display is the leitmotif to the basso profundo of the bullfrogs’ unearthly nocturnal clamor.

Garlic Harvest

I have already harvested half of my garlic crop, which normally used to occur in July, when the tops start to yellow and turn brown at the tips.

I have come to prefer hardneck, also called rocambole, garlic for homegrown crops. While the hard core of the stem, hence “hardneck,” remains at the center of the garlic head, thus making them unsuitable for braiding, the individual cloves are large and easy to peel and the flavor is sensational. The one I like, “Music,” is also sometimes called porcelain garlic. This may all sound confusing, but it will be helpful if you decide to order some seed garlic and plant them come November.

I use a spading fork to dig the garlic. I plant it fairly deeply, two to four inches, so that frost does not damage the cloves over the winter. It sprouts a veritable bottlebrush of roots that hold the plant very securely in the ground. The aim in harvesting while the tips of the leaves are just turning brown is that the white skin covering the head has not split open. When this happens the garlic is still useable but does not store or look as well.

Cure the garlic in a cool, airy spot, spreading it out so that air can circulate and dry out the stem and foliage, which should be accomplished after two to three weeks. Cut off the tops and trim the roots and rub off the first layer of the papery outer covering. Reserve the very biggest and best heads as your seed garlic for planting next year’s crop in November.

The garlic is ready to enter in the Agricultural Fair, where competition among the garlic growers is stiff. (This year, by the way, a separate category for elephant garlic is planned.)

Fair entries

Speaking of the Fair (August 19-22), this is a great time to plan and consider what you want to enter. The summer flies by swiftly and special projects take time to conceive. The Fair booklet is not yet off the presses but will be in the mail shortly. If you do not receive one, stop by Agricultural Hall to pick one up.

Desirable blue

Nepetas are workhorse perennials: adaptable and adding that cloud of desirable lavender-blue color to so many gardens. Smaller forms with finer texture thrive at the front of the sunny border or rock garden, while taller forms fill space equivalent to a medium-size shrub, such as hypericum or potentilla, farther towards the back.

Nepeta’s spikes of small flowers, however, quickly age to grey after a spell of wet or foggy weather. Therefore, another blessing of this useful and attractive plant is that once it has lost that lovely lavender blue, it may be cut back hard, by between one- to two-thirds, whereupon it will flush again with more bloom. Even without flowers, the blue-grey cast of its foliage and its mounded shape contrasts nicely with other greens in the garden.

I hear the name of this plant pronounced in various ways, but correctly it is said “NEP-et-tah.” To hear more phonetic pronunciations of plant names, go to

A personal favorite is the fine-textured cultivar “Select Blue,” low-growing at about 12 to 15 inches high and across. Rarely does the mounded shape of “Select Blue” flatten and split open from heavy rainfall. “Dropmore” and “Blue Wonder” are slightly larger and often require unobtrusive support in the form of twine and stakes. “Walker’s Low” is, contrary to its name, one of the larger nepetas, selected as perennial plant of the year for 2007 by the Perennial Plant Association. Another of this size is “Six Hills Giant.”

Nepetas prefer full sun and slightly dry situations on the Island, are salt-tolerant, and unappealing to deer. Although they are in the catmint family, generally they provoke only mild interest in cats — it is the human gardeners that really love them. Watch for volunteer seedlings, although some are described as sterile, such as “Blue Wonder,” “Select Blue,” and “Blue Ice,” an extra compact one.

Neem in the garden

Last summer’s blighted tomato and potato crops were a disappointment for many gardeners and farmers. Once the spots appear, it is almost too late. Take precautions with preemptive foliar sprayings, now. The question is: what will work? Copper compounds are the traditional product whose variety has been reduced; I see mostly wetable powders, which are unhandy and pose some health issues. Compost teas are less well known but should be utilized more often.

Neem is the name of a tree (Azadirachta indica) from India, growing throughout the dry tropics, and also of products made from it. It has hundreds of uses — medical, cosmetic, and culinary. Horticulturally, products made from the neem tree are used as sprays to control numerous garden undesirables. In addition to insecticidal properties, neem products also have antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal applications.

Neem oil sprays and derivatives appear to control insects by interfering with growth mechanisms. Neem extracts have been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for use on food crops. It is non-toxic to birds, animals, beneficial insects, or man and protects crops from over 200 of the most costly pests.

I began using neem oil spray to control lily leaf beetle. The destructive larvae stop eating and fail to progress. Beetles continue to be present but in reduced numbers. I think for cucumber beetles neem is my best option.