October is garlic-planting time in the valley.
A member of the lily family, garlic is one of the oldest cultivated plants, documented as a crop grown in Egypt during the time of the pharaohs. The Romans fed their soldiers garlic to increase their strength, and Thomas Jefferson made many mentions of it in his Monticello farm diaries.
When you grow nearly 30 varieties of garlic each season, you learn some insider tips for growing. A few of Karen Toll's garlic observations:
• Different varieties seem to have variable performance. Some grow great one year and mediocre the next for no apparent reason.
• Hardneck garlic varieties tend to have less storage capacity than softneck varieties, but the hardneck types have a greater flavor variety than the softneck types.
• Garlic varieties can be divided into three groups: hot, mild and no heat, and within each group, individual varieties have variable flavors.
• Elephant garlic is not really garlic; it's related to the leek.
• Toll's best reference book, her garlic bible, is "Growing Great Garlic,"
by Ron L. Engeland.
While garlic is a relatively easy plant to grow, it does require some diligent, ongoing care to produce a good-sized bulb in early summer from just a clove planted in autumn.
Purchase a bulb of garlic from the grocery store, and your choice at best will be red or white. This lack of available garlic varieties led Karen Toll to begin her quest to grow and collect garlic varieties that she now sells in small quantities at her roadside stand just outside Grants Pass.
"Even nurseries carried only limited varieties, so I started searching mail-order catalogs, as well as the Internet, to try out varieties that sparked my interest," she explained.
Over the years, Toll has learned which varieties perform best in our climate and which to cull from next year's planting. The winners remained while the losers became planting room for next year's new trials.
Good drainage is the most important growing requirement for garlic. Fashioning slightly raised planting beds or mounds helps alleviate drainage problems. "Tight" soils that stay too moist, especially during rainy periods in spring, encourage root rot.
While garlic doesn't require a lot of fertilizer to produce a good crop, providing nutrients can play a vital role in its success. Prepare the bed by turning under a 4-inch layer of compost or aged manure. In addition, per 100 square feet, add 2 cups of kelp meal, 3 cups of bone meal and 2 cups of 13-13-13 fertilizer.
Garlic is planted in rows with 7- to 9-inch spacing between cloves, the rows spaced a foot apart. Each bulb will have approximately six cloves, planted 2 inches deep, pointed ends up.
Planting in early October, Karen Toll hopes to get 10 to 12 inches of fall growth before the first hard freeze begins. In early to mid-December, she mulches with straw over the growing bulbs to help protect them from "freezing out" during weather extremes.
Rain provides most of the moisture from fall to early spring. During dry times, a little watering may be necessary to encourage continual growth. The main chore of garlic care from winter to spring is weeding, which needs to be done by hand so the garlic plants aren't damaged.
"Weeding is a constant chore," said Toll. "Once you're done with the rows, then you have to start all over again."
Irrigation is begun in early to midspring depending on the weather. The planting should be watered deeply about once per week.
In early summer, the leaves begin to dry out naturally from the bottom of the plant upward. Each leaf represents a layer of skin on the bulb, thus more leaves produced on the plant mean more layers of skin, which improves the bulb's storage quality for table use through the winter and spring.
"When the bottom leaves are yellow and there are five green leaves still on top, it's time to dig," described Toll. "The old-fashioned way was to let the leaves all die down before harvesting, but the bulbs would be overmature and would easily crack, not holding their shape."
Use a garden fork to loosen the soil beneath the bulbs when harvesting.
"It's important to hang the bulbs immediately after digging and keep them out of the direct sun," she added. "Hang five bulbs together and hang from the leaf end of the garlic plant. The weight of the garlic creates a straighter stem when dried and also enables good air circulation for the bulbs to properly heal."
Dry the bulbs in a shady, outdoor location and protect them from the rain, she said. Rafters in the garage or another outbuilding make great drying structures. It takes three to four weeks to dry.
Once bulbs are dry, cut the necks, leaving at least 1/2 inch above the bulb. Trim back the roots, wipe off excess dirt and store in an onion bag in a cool, frost-free area through the winter.
Toll's farm stand in Grants Pass, where she sells unique garlic varieties, is at 2123 Arnold Ave., one mile up Dowell Road from Grange Co-Op. Her phone number is 541-479-3897.
When it comes to mail-order garlic, no one has a better selection — more than 200 varieties — than Filaree Garlic Farm, which has been producing organic garlic in Washington for 30-plus years. Their website is www.filareefarm.com, or call 509-422-6940 for a catalog.
David James has been writing gardening stories in Southern Oregon for 35 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.