Effective strategies for garlic

Seed garlic performs best if vernalized — being chilled for two weeks at 43 to 50°F before planting. Protective cloches are by Rob Phillips of the Glassworks in North Tisbury. — Photo by Susan Safford

The Island’s autumn beauty is displayed in the deep-toned array of grass and foliage spread across the landscape, and magnificent skyscapes of gigantic grey-bottomed cloud foretell winter’s approach.

The 20th annual Barn Raisers’ Ball, celebrating the Agricultural Society’s historic barn raising, is Saturday night, 7:30–10 pm, at the Agricultural Hall, with Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish. Bring a dessert to share, admission is free.

Garlic culture

In matters culinary, Martha’s Vineyard has come a long way. Back in the day, the post-war “Joy of Cooking” open in front of me listed just ten “Italian” recipes, nothing East Asian, and just two under Garlic, one of which was garlic bread!

If one was planning an “exotic” dish, one had to go to Bangs Market, or one of the other S.S. Pierce emporia on the Island, for those little gourmet oddments such as capers and other condiments. (I am not sure we knew the term “gourmet,” then.) No longer is it sufficient, the way it used to be when garlic was considered to be a socially embarrassing seasoning, to go down to the store and pick up a little box containing two dried-up heads of generic garlic when a dish of something exotic is planned for the menu.

The general consensus is that garlic growing has increased in importance both among Island growers and cooks. Here, where planting garlic is one of the final chapters of the vegetable garden year, when to plant garlic is often debated.

Since there is a wide array of opinion on getting the best results with the culture of this plant, I decided to read up on it and pass along whatever of interest I could glean. I consulted three vegetable-growing books, but many specifics come from two different editions of the Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Fall 2012 and Summer 2013.

In an MOF&G 2012 (Vol 40, no 3) article, Tom Vigue, a Maine garlic grower, says garlic does best when planted four weeks before the ground freezes, because root development begins in the fall. A critical humidity induces root growth, which typically begins one or two weeks after planting. Roots will grow for a couple of weeks more before soils freeze. If planting is too early, it may induce leaf sprouting; if sprouts emerge from the soil and are damaged by freezing, the plants receive a setback; loss of leaves reduces yields.

Vigne claims “the size of the seed bulb is many times more significant than the size of the seed clove in determining the eventual size of harvested bulbs.” Nevertheless, cloves from medium to medium-large bulbs make the best planting stock. Cloves from smaller bulbs will result in smaller, weaker plants, yielding smaller harvests; planting the largest cloves from the largest bulbs results in the greatest lack of uniformity in harvests. Vigue recommends planting three to four inches deep in cultivated and heavily composted soil; and then covering with six to eight inches of loose and fluffy mulch, with the expectation that it will compress under winter conditions.

The MOF&G’s 2013 (Vol 41, no 2) article offers comprehensive coverage of the garlic portion of MOFG Association’s spring growth conference. David Stern of the Garlic Seed Foundation recommends starting garlic culture by sowing oats at the end of August, in soils testing at pH 6.8-7. In October he mows and discs them, makes furrows, and plants and covers the garlic. Stern recommends placing the tip of the clove one and a half inches below the soil surface in furrows where soybean meal, supplying nitrogen (N), has first been laid. Oats reemerge with the first rain and later winterkill.

Growers experimenting with different spacing had differing results. Vigue prefers 5×8″ spacing. Slightly larger, 6×8,” produced slightly larger bulbs but total yield in pounds was lower. He found that scape removal produces larger bulbs and earlier sizing up, but he wonders about its effect on long-term storage. Stern prefers spacing of 6×6″ or 8×8″; closer spacing sacrifices quality. For row crop spacing, plant garlic 4 inches or more apart within rows, with 18 inches or more between rows. Double row planting involves two rows in a 6- x 6-inch grid, with 18 inches or more between the double rows.

Many additional factors are important in garlic culture, one of the foremost perhaps being storage qualities. It is desirable, obviously, for garlic to remain in good condition until planting and beyond, when the next crop is ready for use. About one pound of seed is needed to produce five pounds of harvest.

Hugelkultur: the ultimate raised bed

Springing from the permaculture movement, an interesting development is called “hugelkultur,” or mound culture. It is a wild and crazy composting, where there is no need to worry about layering, turning, and all those other bothersome details of scientific composting: just pile ‘er up and after a month, plant right into the pile.

Due to various ailments that Island trees have fallen prey to, and ensuing breakdown and rot, woodlots are producing piles of rotting wood unable to qualify as firewood. Well-publicized concerns about its fire hazards make finding a use for it a win-win situation, although rotting wood does not generally burn well.

In hugelkultur rotten logs are prized, the bigger the better: it is essentially making raised beds filled with rotten wood. A framework of rotting logs is laid on the ground where the mound is going to be sited. Brush, sticks, dirt, more logs, compostables of all descriptions — all are thrown onto the pile and covered with soil. Some settling occurs, but in a month it is plant-able. The mound is self-watering due to the hydroscopic qualities of the rotting wood, and carbon is sequestered. For more information, go to http://www.richsoil.com/hugelkultur/.