by Peter Heffelfinger
posted October 12, 2020
Garlic … and goodbye until spring
Unlike the tulip and daffodils that do so well in the cool maritime climate of the Skagit Valley, garlic is an overwintering bulb that prefers drier winters without the threat of ongoing rains, annual floods, and the host of fungal diseases that lurk in our soil. When I first started growing garlic on Fidalgo Island in the late ‘70’s I had luxuriant stands of silverskin garlic for braiding. The winter rains were more constant, but much lighter, with more drizzle and mist instead of the heavy downpours that we get now. As long as one had raised beds for good drainage, garlic could do well. But since I was growing in a vale of rich stream bed soil next to a lake, the moisture levels ultimately led to a case of the dreaded “white root-rot disease” that affects garlic. Once the fungus is present the soil, there’s no cure other than not growing this particular allium for 12 years, or finding a new site.
So, I moved my garlic crop to a sandy plot on the Skagit Flats. With the beds built up at least 6 inches and drainage ditches all around, the garlic did well in spite of occasional seasonal floods in the area from the Samish River. I also switched to hard neck garlic, whose stiff upright stems did better in the increasingly wet winter climate. Although silverskin varieties last longer in storage, I found that I could keep the hard neck bulbs all winter long by leaving a short 2-inch long stem on each head, perhaps to serve as a wick to draw out any moisture. I store the garlic in closed brown paper bags on shelves in an unheated appliance room, making sure the bulbs have been well cleaned, with the roots cut off, and only a minimum of sheath skins left on the head to avoid inner moisture accumulation and spoilage.
At my valley site I’ve had reliable crops for almost a decade. This past year, however, when I harvested the crop there was mold on almost a third of the heads (not on the roots, thankfully). It may have been due to the layer of commercial mulch that I put on the beds the past two seasons to keep down weeds, or maybe due to the wet winter. Plus, I harvested late in the season after an unexpected, heavy rain. One never really knows. Thankfully I grew a large enough crop to save the best for seed and still have enough to use all winter.
In any case, it’s garlic planting time again, and hopefully there will be less damage showing up next spring. I try to get the garlic in by Halloween at the latest, using the largest cloves, planting the cloves 2 inches deep, 4 inches apart, in rows at least 6 inches apart. I make 6 inch high raised beds with a 1-3 inch deep drainage ditch around the edge to keep moisture away from the bulbs as much as possible. I rotate the beds each year around a larger plot to minimize disease.
If you have well-rotted manure available it can worked into the beds beforehand. Otherwise wait until late February or early March to apply a fertilizer to overcome the unavailability of nitrogen in our still-cold spring soils. Some growers suggest using high nitrogen blood meal applied once, while others say a standard 5-5-5 formula can be applied at monthly intervals in the spring. It likely depends on the fertility of your particular site. Remember though to go easy on the fertilizer. You’re growing underground bulbs, not large cabbages or tall tomato vines.
Left: Red Russian garlic
I grow hard neck varieties: Music, Deja Vue, Red Russian, and Korean Red, acclimated to our Northwest conditions, and bought originally from local seed companies. You can also find local garlic at area farmers markets. The larger, more open cloves of the hard neck varieties are easier to peel than the smaller, tighter skinned silver skins. The hard necks also develop curly tops known as “scapes” a month or so before harvest. Remove the scapes as soon as they start to appear, to concentrate all the growth in the bulbs. Scapes can be stir-fried, grilled, steamed with salmon, or used to make soup stock. An early taste of garlic greens before the lifting of the bulbs later on. The stems can also be chopped, blanched, chilled, and then frozen for later use in winter soups.
The second planting of cauliflower matured in September, a bit smaller than the large mid-summer heads, but still appreciated. The fall cabbages and collards are taking off in the fall rains, and the first of the winter-hardy leeks are ready to be pulled. The Brussels sprouts are suffering from aphids again, but with frequent sprays of soapy water I trust there will be a few buds unaffected later on. The Mizuna and Purple mustards, the turnip greens, along with the broccoli Raab, are now ready for the first picking. Hopefully the greens will keep going most of the winter. With the cover crop of annual rye planted in the outdoor beds, the major part of the garden cycle is drawing to a close.
Above: Peter Heffelfinger in hoop house (photo courtesy of Skagit Valley Herald)
Inside the hoop house the cucumber vines are still producing a few last cukes, high up by the center ridge pole, where a little heat still accumulates. Once the tomato and cuke vines and the pepper plants are removed from the hoop house, those beds will also be sown with rye. After the rye is sprouted, the plastic roof will be taken down to save it from winter winds. The “greenhouse” beds then get refreshed by a six-month exposure to the elements, to prevent disease build up.
Indoors, the last of the tomatoes are ripening on trays in a warm room, and the final gallon of sauerkraut is ready to be put in small jars and stored in a fridge, along with the jars of brined pickles. The pumpkins and winter squash are still curing in the shed and the potatoes are safely stored in their dark boxes. Ready for winter.
The 2020 season has been a challenge, with rains in June, heat in August, and forest fire smoke in September. But with a few over-wintering crops, and much produce in various forms of storage, we should be able to carry on to the next growing year.
Note: I will be taking a break from doing the ‘Fidalgo Grows’ blog. I’ve enjoyed all the responses and questions and hope my information has been of use. I also hope to start up again next spring. Thanks to Evelyn Adams and Jack Hartt for their support.
On behalf of Transition Fidalgo & Friends, and all of those who benefited from this blog, deepest thanks to Peter for sharing so generously of his time and wisdom. See you in the spring!