Why I plant my garlic earlier than recommended

(Photo by Michael Tutton)

Into the ground goes the stinking rose. That’s garlic. As a matter of fact, by the time you read this, my garlic cloves will have been in the ground for a while – since the beginning of the month – already sending roots out into the soft earth.

Planting garlic this early is sacrilege in most garlic circles. But it may make sense. Garlic needs a period of cool weather, with temperatures in the 40s, to develop heads. Without that cool period, a planted clove merely grows larger, without multiplying – which is why it’s planted in fall. Spring-planted garlic might still get sufficiently chilled, or needs to be artificially chilled, but yields are generally are lower than fall-planted garlic.

Lower yields could also be because the cloves, planted in spring, must put energy into growing both leaves and roots. Roots grow whenever soil temperatures are above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, so fall-planted cloves start growing roots immediately – and for quite a while, because, with the ground cooling more slowly than the air, balmy weather lingers long in the soil in fall, especially when it’s covered with an insulating layer of wood chips, compost, straw or other organic mulch.

My reasoning for late-summer planting rather than fall planting is that the sooner the bulbs are in the ground, the more time roots have to grow before temperatures drop consistently below 40 degrees. More root growth now means more roots to fuel leaf growth in spring, which in turn means bigger heads to harvest next summer. More root growth also means that cloves are more firmly anchored into the ground through winter, so are less likely to heave up and out of the ground as it freezes and thaws.

The caution against planting as early as I suggest is that leaves might awaken and push up through the ground in fall, only to be snuffed out by winter cold. True. But garlic is a monocotyledonous plant, so its growing point, like that of other “monocots” (such as lilies, onions, grasses, orchids and bananas), lies beneath the ground, protected from cold. The usual recommendation for garlic planting is to plant early enough to allow time for some root growth, but late enough so that leaves don’t appear aboveground.

Leaves peering aboveground in fall might even help spur root growth – at least once they start exporting energy. (Their initial growth is fueled by energy reserves in the planted clove.) Even if winter cold kills the leaves, they will have done some good if they begin growth soon enough. The sloppy mess of frozen leaves could, admittedly, breed unwelcome bacteria or fungi.

Biological systems are complex, and plants don’t read what I write and may not follow my reasoning. Just to check, I planted only half of my garlic bed; I’ll plant the other half in a month: the recommended planting time. Next summer I’ll know if my garlic cloves followed my reasoning.

Garlic is for the future; sweet corn is for the present. Whoever it was (and there were plenty of those “whoevers”) who recommended against growing sweet corn in a small garden because it wasn’t worth the space did a disservice to gardeners. My garden isn’t all that big, yet we’ve been harvesting all the sweet corn that we can eat and freeze since early August, and will continue to do so for much of this month.

My vegetable garden is in 18-foot-long, three-foot-wide beds, and I planted four beds at two-week intervals from early May until the third week in June. I sowed the seeds in hills (clumps) to end up with three to four plants every two feet in a double row running down each bed. Planting in hills provides better pollination and resistance to wind than planting rows of single, more closely spaced plants.

Each stalk yields one or two ears, so a conservative 1.5 ears per stalk and three plants per hill computes to yields of 81 ears of corn from each of four beds. That’s a lot of sweet corn! And not just any sweet corn, but Golden Bantam sweet corn: the standard of excellence in sweet corn a hundred years ago. You can’t buy ears of this variety these days. It’s the only one that I grow.

Pumping out all those delectable ears requires good growing conditions, to wit: very fertile, well-drained soil; water as needed; and little competition from weeds. I slathered the beds with an inch or more of compost in spring, and all summer the plants’ thirst has been daily and automatically quenched with drip irrigation.
I didn’t even have to devote those beds to only sweet corn for the whole season. Earliest plantings were preceded and are followed by quickly maturing vegetables such as lettuce, spinach and radishes. Turnips, winter radishes and bush beans are other possibilities to follow harvest of those first sowings of sweet corn. A row of carrots and beets was sown up the middle of the second planting shortly after the corn emerged, and is doing fine now that the corn has been harvested and those plants cleared away. I’m still trying to figure out what to plant to follow the third planting, which is just finishing up.

I also grow popcorn, but that’s another also-delectable story.

Any gardening questions? E-mail Lee at [email protected] and he’ll try answering them directly or in his Almanac Weekly column. To read Lee’s previous “Gardener’s Notebook” columns, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com. You can also visit Lee’s garden at https://www.leereich.blogspot.com.

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