Monthly Archives: August 2012

Grow So Easy – Garlic – How To Grow & Harvest It

I got lucky when I married Italian because garlic is, was and always will be one of my favorite foods in the kitchen.

And it’s one of my favorites to plant.  Garlic is another crop that basically takes care of itself.

If you get the right cloves to plant then give those cloves a good start in the right soil at the right time, you should harvest enough nice-sized bulbs of garlic to last through the year.

Garlic is easy to grow and has much more taste if it's homegrown.

My garlic harvest for 2012.

Where To Buy
My first thought is to tell you where not to buy.

Don’t pick up garlic at the grocery store and expect to plant it and reap a big harvest.  You might get lucky, but you may also be planting cloves that have been treated not to sprout.

You could try buying garlic at a health food store but there is no way to know how viable it is.  If you want to try to grow garlic that is already growing in the soil in your region, try a farmer’s market.  Someone might be selling their garlic and you could get a good starter crop.

NOTE:  No matter where you get your first garlic bulbs, buy more than you think you will need.  Plant them all.  There are only two of us living here but I plant between 50 and 60 cloves of garlic (10 bulbs) every fall.  Sounds like a lot  because it is.  But it won’t all get used in my kitchen.

I share 10 or 12 bulbs but that still leaves 50 bulbs!  How many cloves can an Italian wife (by association) possibly use?  I actually go through about 35 heads a year.  So what do I do with the 15 left overs?

Most of them go right back into my garden.  I plant them.  I always plant enough so I can use my own garlic to raise my next crop.  There are a couple of reasons for using this method.  My garlic knows my soil.  And it’s adapted to my climate. It grows faster and stays healthier because it is acclimated.

Timing Is Everything

If you do, you are doomed to fail.  The garlic cloves you plant are considered dormant.  They have to be exposed to cold temperatures in order for them to begin to grow and change from cloves to bulbs.

If you plant in spring, the bulbs don’t get exposed to low temperatures (32 degrees to 50 degrees for 2 months).  No cold means no bulbs, spindly growth and frustrated gardeners.

Besides, planting in the fall means that Mother Nature gets to do all the work while you sit inside browsing through seed catalogues and dreaming of spring.

Exact timing for planting day depends on where you live and yes, what zone you live in.  In my old Zone (6), garlic was planted on Columbus Day, October 12th.  However, with the slow warming of the earth, garlic planting day has moved back.

In Zone 6b, I don’t put it in the ground until the end of October and, sometimes, even as late as the second week of November.  Put it in too early and it sprouts then freezes.  Again, you could lose your entire garlic crop.

Planting when the world is getting frosty, the snow is falling and the wind is cold  seems wrong and it would be if that’s all you did.  But there’s an easy, cheap trick to keeping your garlic safe through the blustery winter months.

Blanketing Your Garlic
I don’t mean sacrifice one of your blankets and toss it on top of the newly planted garlic bed!  But you do have to cover your babies.

My cheap, easy trick?  Plant the bulbs then mulch with 24” to 36” of straw.  (This works with onions, too, by the way.)

The straw protects the bulbs from the cold, lets them overwinter safely and ensures they will be ready to start growing as early as March.

But once winter is over, it’s really important to uncover the garlic as early as possible so the sprouts don’t rot.  If they rot, you will lose your garlic crop.

Here’s an easy tip for knowing when to uncover garlic (and onions).  When the forsythia bloom, pull back the mulch.  You may even find a few garlic bulbs already sprouted under there.

Depending on your zone, you will probably get a few frosts after you uncover the garlic.  Just toss something over the young plants to protect them.  I use an old queen-sized mattress cover and drape it over the corners of the bed where the garlic is planted.

Harvesting Garlic
How do you know when to pull the garlic up?  Honestly, this has always been a struggle for me.

And the more I researched and read, the more confused I got.  Pull it up on this day/date.  When the leaves on one or two start to brown, push the rest of them over, wait a week and pull them up.  Wait until all the leaves on the plants are brown then pull them up.   Aaaaaaargh…as one our most famous philosophers used to say!

What finally cleared it all up for me was a simple, beautifully written article by one of my favorite garden gurus, Margaret Roach, who clearly understands the garlic harvest conundrum.

Too early, and the bulbs won’t have time to develop to their full size.  Too late and the bulbs will be over ripe, cloves will separate and the harvest won’t store as well.

Here’s the gist of Roach’s advice for harvesting garlic:  Harvest when several of the lower leaves go brown, but five or six up top are still green. Depending on the weather, this typically happens here (New York state) in late July.”

Rip & Regret
A word to the wise: healthy garlic develops a pretty serious root structure.  Do NOT try to pull garlic up by its greenery!  You will break the tops off and the garlic bulbs really need their tops to cure.

So, what’s the easiest way to pull these babies out of the ground?  With a garden fork – not the hand-held kind.  You want a flat-tined, digging fork like the kind you would use to dig out potatoes, like the one you see resting next to my garlic in my wheelbarrow.

  1. Start about 2 to 3 inches away from the garlic bulb.
  2. Push the tines down into the earth, almost as far as they will go.
  3. Rock the fork front to back and side to side to loosen the dirt around the roots of the bulb.
  4. Keep loosening until you can easily and gently pull the bulb from the ground.
  5. Equally gently, lay the cloves into a wheelbarrow.  Banging them will bruise them.

As soon as all your bulbs of garlic are out of the ground, you need to get them out of the sun and into a nice, dry, temperature controlled space with good air flow.  I use my shed.  I lay down an old sheet, then place the bulbs side by side but not touching.  I want air flow around each bulb.  And if one’s going south, I don’t want it to take the others with it.

Curing Garlic
Once you have them in your controlled drying spot, leave them alone for 6 to 8 weeks while they cure.  (I do check them to make sure none are going bad…). When they are cured, If they’re soft neck, braid away.

If they’re hard neck (what I always raise), you can cut the tops and the hairy roots off and store them inside.  I actually put mine in a big tray and shove the tray under the dresser in my sewing room.

The temperature is moderate in this room (I keep the thermostat at 62 in the winter) and the light is dim under the dresser.  My garlic seems to keep perfectly there.

NOTE:  check the cloves about every 6 weeks, especially if there is any aroma of  “garlic” wafting through the air.  If you can smell the garlic, it means one of the bulbs is probably going bad.  If you leave it in the general population, it may turn other heads bad, as well.

Save 8 to 10 bulbs of your garlic for planting in October and November and enjoy the rest, all winter and spring.


This winter, according to Accuweather, my Mid-Atlantic zone is running about 10 degrees colder than normal.  I would say so! With wind chills, we have hit  negative numbers like -17 and -24 degrees. For a gardener, sitting inside, listening to … Continue reading

Grow So Easy – Planting Cool Weather Crops Like Beets

One season gardening used to be all I did.  Put in the plants in the spring, harvest in July, August and sometimes in September and clean up in October.  Then the prices of organic produce shot through the roof and I started thinking that there had to be a way to get more out of my dirt than tomatoes, cukes, peppers and eggplant.

My adventure with growing more and longer began a bit late in my gardening life but I’m glad it did.  Truthfully, I probably will never get as far as master gardeners like Eliot Coleman.   who authored a favorite book of mine, Four Season Harvest, but I am enjoying cool weather crops like fresh lettuce, spinach and beets from March through October.


Let’s start this trip with one of my all-time favorites – beets

My mom raised the absolute best beets I have ever eaten.  Every time I drove to her farm in the far end of Virginia, she would somehow know exactly when I was arriving.  There, on the table, steam rising, butter melting, would be a big bowl of sliced beets, just for me.

But I never planted beets in my own garden.  Not before she died, not after she died.  Then, one day, while browsing through, I saw Chioggia beets.  Beautiful, round and ruby-red on the outside but when you cut them open, there are concentric white bands all the way through each slice.

I was in love with beets, again.

Beets Are Easy Peasy
I’ve had beets in my garden now for the last 5 years and think they are among the easiest plants to grow.  But if you Google “growing beets,” you will literally get more than 3 million entries.

Don’t be scared!

There are only a couple of things you need to know to raise not just 1 but at least 2 crops of beets every year. (That’s how many I can grow in Zone 6.)  WARNING: if you ignore what you are about to read, you will get red marbles…that will not cook or eat easy.  I know.  My first crop was used in a game of ringer.

The Dirt
This is almost one of the only requirements of beets and it’s one of the most important.  It’s also the bit of information I didn’t have when I raised my first crop of red marbles.  Beets really, really like loose, well-drained soil. They will put up with a wide range but won’t grow as big or as beautifully.

So do a bit of soil prep if you can. It may take a bit of time and effort but it’s worth it; I know.  And if you get the soil right, it’s smooth sailing to harvest time.

Remove stones since they will hinder growth.  If you’re growing in clay, add compost to loosen the soil and keep the soil from crusting after watering or rainfall.  And make sure your soil is acidic – beets like a pH range of 6.2 to 6.8.

When To Plant
Don’t plant in the middle of your summer season.  Beets won’t like it.  They are a perfect cool weather crop.  Although they can live through the heat (like the rest of us), they prefer a temperatures of 60 to 65 F and bright sunny days but they can also survive cold weather as long as they don’t get caught in a freeze.  So, beets are a great, “long-season” crop.

How To Plant
Beet seeds are outdoor babies from the get go.  As soon as your soil can be worked in the spring, you can plant them.  The seeds aren’t really just one seed – each of these little jewels contains a couple of beet seeds.  Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and I drop each seed about 3 inches away from the other seeds.  I also plant in rows about 12 inches apart.

Beets seeds are pretty slow to germinate so make sure you keep the bed moist until you see their little heads peeking out of the soil.  I usually water a bit, every day.  Once they start to pop up through the soil, I keep watering but usually every other day.

Once they are established, just make sure that you don’t let them dry out.  But don’t overwater either.  Too dry or too wet and your beets will not be happy.

TIP:  I don’t thin; I transplant.

Most advice online and in books says you have to thin beets rather than transplant.  Wrong!

Despite what people will tell you, you can transplant beet seedlings and almost double your crop. And it’s easy to do.

I wait until the leaves on the plants are about 2 inches long before I try transplanting.  The night before the big move, I water the bed thoroughly.  Then, early in the morning, armed with a #2 pencil, I head to the raised bed where my beets live.

I look for beet plants that are too close together. Because I’m not be most patient person when dropping seeds in soil, I can usually find 3 or 4 beet babies clumped together.


Once I’ve found the baby beet clump I want to move, I gently dig around the whole clump and bring up a shovel full of soil with the beet roots intact.  Then I push my pencil into the ground, making holes spaced about 3 inches apart, for each of the babies.

Teasing the roots apart, gently, (a trick I learned from my Amish neighbors) I drop each beet baby into its own hole, pack dirt gently around it and move on to the next clump.

I have not lost one beet baby using this method and I practically double my yield.  Oh, and beets are a twofer in my garden – I also eat beet greens in salads.  Wait until the leaves are 3 to 4 inches high, then cut a couple off each beet plant.  The beets will keep growing and you’ll have some truly delicious greens for lunch or dinner.

Care & Feeding
Like I said, beets are easy peasy.

I have never fertilized my beets and they grow like champions.  It could be because I enrich my raised beds with a bit of compost every spring.  I do put a bit of mulch – straw – down around the plants once I divide and transplant them.  It helps hold moisture during the hotter, summer days.

Keep The Beets Coming
I plant in March, April, May then hold off until early August when I start putting in seeds, again.  I do that to avoid asking the beet seeds to germinate when the daytime temperature is above 80 degrees.  They don’t like it.  Plant in early August and within 55 to 70 days, you should have your next crop.

Nowadays there are so many varieties of beet to choose from — Early Wonder, Detroit Dark Red, and Red Ace.  You can even add some color to your beet dishes with the lovely striped Chioggia (which started me on my life of beet crime) or Burpee Golden and Albino White

No matter how you slice them…beets are a great addition to any garden.

By the way, one of my favorite resources when I am trying to get solid, informed, basic growing information is the so-called “land grant” colleges like Penn State and Ohio State.  They usually offer fact sheets like the one on beets that was posted by Ohio State.

Next week, another favorite in my fall garden (and another easy one to grow) — lettuce!

Grow So Easy – Fall Planting & Gardening Zones

Fall Planting in August?
We’re not even through summer vacation but if you want to extend your gardening season, you should already have the plan laid out and maybe even put some of those seeds in the ground!

That’s right, late July and early August, especially in my zone – 6b – starts right now!

But before we talk about what to plant, when and why, let’s take a quick look at two maps that will help you buy and grow plants best suited to your home town.

Who Says I Can’t Grow Avocadoes In My Back Yard?
When I first hit the dirt and started planning and planting my garden and grove, I considered it a challenge to be told by nameless people, “You’ll never get avocados (pineapple, artichokes, guava) to grow in this zone.”

Unfortunately “they” were right.

If you live in California or the Florida panhandle, you can grow avocados and other tropical fruits and veggies.  You can’t if you live in Pennsylvania.

With dead plants, bushes and trees piling up in my back yard, I decided that maybe, just maybe, I should look into this thing called “zones.”

In The Zone
If you aren’t familiar with zones, don’t panic.  This isn’t the periodic table of elements.  This is the updated (2012) United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) zone map.

organic gardeners use the USDA zone map to help them choose cold-hardy plants and trees,.

Gardeners have come to rely on the USDA zone map to choose cold-hardy plants and trees,.

Zones aren’t nearly as complicated as some people would like them to be.  They just look intimidating at first glance.    So, here’s how to read this thing.

Find your approximate location in your state.  For example, I live in Southeast Pennsylvania so my color is a medium green.  Then check the chart on the right side of the map.

Based on color and location, my zone is 6b.  The coldest my zone is supposed to get is -5 degrees Farenheit.  Notice the words “…supposed to be”  and take this information with a grain of salt.  It’s a guideline, not a rule.

The USDA zone chart, which has been published since 1960, helps with getting a handle on when you can set out plants without freezing them to death.  And if you look for the zone chart, you’ll find that it’s being used in lots of places that can help you, too.

Seed packets, plants, trees and bushes are usually sold with the same zone chart and the suggested planting times.  Both help you quickly figure out what will live or die in your backyard…based on environment, alone.

Armed with your zone, you could start to make plant choices that work for you. But there’s one other “zone map” you might want to know about before you buy.

Recently (1995 and if you’re talking planting, that’s recent), a new zoned map has entered the gardening scene.  This one, published by the American Horticultural Society (AHS), looks similar the USDA chart but it tracks heat.

Download your copy and start looking it over.  This map tells you how many days per year the temperature in your back yard is over 86 degrees.

So what?  That’s the magic temperature where plants start to suffer from too much heat.  Who cares?  Why should I track heat?

Because it can do as much damage as cold, maybe even more.  Frost kills plants, buds and sometimes even bushes and trees, instantly.  Heat is a little subtler but just as deadly. And heat damage is even worse during a drought.

What should you look for if you suspect the heat is hurting your plants?

The AHS says the damage can appear in several places.  Flower buds wither. Leaves droop. Leaves may turn brown or even white as the chlorophyll disappears.

AHS describes “death by hear” this way; “Plant death from heat is slow and lingering. The plant may survive in a stunted or chlorotic state for several years. When desiccation reaches a high enough level, the enzymes that control growth are deactivated and the plant dies.”

In his new book, Grow Fruit Naturally: A Hands-On Guide to Luscious, Homegrown Fruit ” , Lee Reich calls the AHS map, “…a work in progress” as it was just recently developed and is still being tweaked.  But the heat map is a good guide to understanding how hot it can get in your garden and how much damage heat can do.

And it should help you to start thinking about what might have a better chance of surviving once you put it in the ground.

Next week, armed with what will survive and thrive in the heat and the cold, we’ll get into what is going into the ground in my garden, right now.  Think beets, lettuce and spinach.