Monthly Archives: April 2018

Grow So Easy – Growing Garlic

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

Growing garlic is easy.

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.

The Bad News
Garlic is planted in the fall. If you didn’t put your garlic seed (cloves actually) in the ground in October, it’s too late to plant it now.

If you plant in the Spring, you are doomed to fail.  Seed garlic is dormant.  It MUST be exposed to cold temperatures in order to grow and change from cloves to bulbs. 

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 catalogs and dreaming of spring.

The Good News

Garlic growing in the spring

Garlic in the Spring

If you planted your cloves in the fall, you should already have healthy, happy garlic babies growing in the soil.

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; you blanket them in straw. 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.

Garlic growing through straw

Garlic poking through its blanket

Once Spring arrives, it’s important to uncover the garlic as soon 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.

Protect cool weather crops with window frames

Sheers stapled to window frames

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 window frames that I’ve stapled old curtains to or 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.

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Free Organic Gardening Book – How To Harden Off Before Transplanting

Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and zucchini wait for transplanting

Veggie plants waiting for transplant.

Is it planting time yet?

Every single year, that is the question I ask myself.

Why? Partly because I want to put my hands in dirt and partly because I am surrounded…by plants. They are everywhere…

This is my office…cum plant nursery.

Yesterday the temperature was 82 degrees; this morning, it’s 42 degrees. The weather seems to be even more capricious than ever and that means planning a planting date is pretty much impossible. The upshot is that this gardener remains indoors with trays of plants crowding the top of her desk and claiming space on the floor.

Zucchini, cucumbers, peppers and eggplant being baked in the sun.

Plants being burned by the sun.

Well, the plants and I are indoors except when we are both, literally going outdoors, for a few hours, every single day.  I put them out in the morning but by 2:30 PM, all of them are back, inside, feeling the burn.

This is the dance I like to call the “hardening off” cha cha! 

Peppers, cukes, zukes and eggplant baking on the patio.

Veggie transplants baking in the sun.

Hardening off is necessary to move the plants from a controlled environment into the world of wind, sun, rain and changing temperatures. Don’t harden off and your plants will die. 

So, for the next 2 weeks or maybe even 3, I will be lovingly, carefully and constantly toting trays of plants in and out of my office door.

At some point, I will have to make a decision to put them in the ground then stand by my raised beds, saying small prayers over their little green bodies.

After all, planting time here in Eastern Pennsylvania is usually early May, the merry, malleable and every changing month of May! So here’s hoping I get my garden in the ground by May 6th and the wind and snow head North for their last blast of winter!

Free Organic Gardening Book: Tomato Stakes

Tomatoes too big for pots

Office full of tomatoes in April!

I share a ton of tips for tools, growing and planting in my book and on this blog.

In fact, I share ways that can help you drop the cost of gardening down to pennies and, if you save your own seed, down to zero.

Today, I want to share 2 new discoveries I have recently made.  You might say I discovered these tools and wrote these tips out of desperation.

You see, I am surrounded by  rapidly growing seedlings like these tomatoes and I needed to think fast about keeping them healthy!

So today, instead of a chapter in my organic gardening book, I’d like to introduce you to marshmallow sticks and dress socks! (No, I have not been drinking my homemade brandy this morning…yes, these are real tips that are very helpful.)

Socks and marshmallow sticks on the job

Marshmallow sticks & socks!

As you know, every year I try a few new seeds in my garden. This year, I went for Brad’s Atomic Grape Tomatoes from Baker Seeds.

They were described on Baker Seeds as, “… elongated, large cherries in clusters.

The color (and flavor!) is a full-blown assault on the senses—lavender and purple stripes, turning to technicolor olive-green, red, and brown/blue stripes when fully ripe.”

These seeds are vigorous – all of them sprouted…along with the 30 other tomato seeds I planted, a bit too early. Most of them are what is known in tomato land as “indeterminate” i.e. they grow to be 9 to 12 feet high!

Tomatoes in needs of stakes

Last year’s knitting needles don’t cut it.

So, today, I am surrounded by 22 tomato plants (and I have 17 more in the basement) that have simply outgrown their 5″ peat pots and my amazing plant stand!

And I won’t be able to re-home some of them and transplant the rest for another 4 to 5 weeks.

Panic set in…and after a sleepless night or two, I started searching for solutions. Luckily, I found a place to get black plastic nursery pots at a reasonable price. So I picked up some organic potting soil from my local feed store and set about transplanting the biggest tomatoes first.

Then I realized I needed to stake these babies, even in their new, 8″ high pots. However, the only stakes I could come up with – aka “splits” as they are known in the biz, were bamboo, dyed green and the only quantity for purchase? 1000. That’s not a typo; I could only find them in packs of 1000.

I’m 70 years old. The odds of me using 1000 bamboo splits before I…split, are slim to none. So I started to think laterally and guess what?

Marshmallow sticks for tomato stakes

Marshmallow sticks in a bundle.

That’s how I found marshmallow sticks. I got one package of 100 sticks, 3/8″ in diameter and 30 inches long on Amazon for chump change.

They work beautifully which leads me to my second discovery. I retired 3 times…(bear with me, it is relevant). I was an executive for most of my career and introduced the pants suit to my 20th century corporation 30 years ago. (It was an unwritten rule that women had to wear dresses or skirts — yep…amazing considering that this was the 1990’s.)

Anyway, pants suits meant dress socks. When I finally retired, for the 3rd time, I donated almost all of my “executive” wardrobe to an agency working with battered women — so-called displaced homemakers.

Socks and marshmallow sticks

The dynamic duo for tomato staking.

But I forgot about the socks….until I staked my tomatoes. What better way to tie the tomato plants to the marshmallow sticks? Soft, easy to cut and even easier to tie, my heap of socks began earning their keep again!

 

 

Socks as tomato ties

Tender ties for tomatoes.

The short ties are soft and easy to put in place, tenderly holding these baby tomatoes against their marshmallow sticks.

I also cut long ties that will be used for these babies once they are trellised in my yard.

And I kept some of the socks whole so I can slip them over cucumbers and zucchini that are being attacked by stripey, aggressive and tiny beetles (on my top 10 list of bugs I hate!)

So, I may not outlive the marshmallow sticks and, considering what the socks are made of, I know I won’t outlive the plant ties but I am truly, deeply grateful for both. Now I know my beautiful, too tall tomato plants will not just make it to the great outdoors but will thrive there.