By Joseph Robertia
With the exception of those planting bulbs of tulips, daffodils or other perennials, fall is a time when many gardeners are putting their planting beds to bed for the season. But on Saturday, green thumbs learned about one more option to nestle in the soil before winter snow arrives.
“Garlic takes time, so you plant in fall to get 6 inches of root growth before the ground freezes,” said Lori Jenkins, of Homer, who taught a garlic-planting workshop hosted by the Central Peninsula Garden Club.
Marion Nelson, club president, said that the workshop was organized in response to requests from the community.
“Garlic has always been a topic of interest. Years ago we had one in January, when it was 20 below, and the room was jam-packed, so there is definitely interest,” she said.
Fall is when garlic growers need to sow their crops, so this time of year is fitting to educate anyone who might never have tried to grow garlic— or tried and failed, as many of the two dozen or so participants admitted to having happen.
Hearing horror stories about garlic is nothing new for Jenkins. She has been a 30-year grower of garlic, considered a vegetable by some, herb by others and even medicine by a few. She and her husband, Wayne, and son Obadiah, founded the Alaska Garlic Project, the goal of which is to raise gourmet varieties of seed garlic to provide locally grown garlic starts to others around the state.
Jenkins has 12 varieties of garlic growing and attempts to cultivate them in various conditions, including indoors in a 72-foot high tunnel, as well as outdoors in raised beds.
“It’s really not difficult to grow, but it does take attention,” she said.
One of the most common reasons of failure for many first-time growers is starting with less than desirable seed stock — primarily, garlic purchased from the grocery store.
“Most store-bought garlic is from California or China. It’s some of the least gourmet garlic, but stores well, and it’s almost always of the soft-neck variety,” she said. Soft-neck garlic is a different strain from the hard-neck variety, similar to the difference in cherry tomatoes from the larger ones.
Hard-neck varieties do well in Alaska, so are a good choice for first-time growers.
“They also get huge compared to the store-bought varieties, have edible scapes (a bloomlike stalk), and in general are much more yummy. They’re the best for roasting, baking or using in salsas,” she said.
Another common mistake many garlic novices make is “popping” the cloves from the main bulb much too early. These individual cloves are planted to produce the next season’s clove, rather than growing garlic from seed, which takes years. But Jenkins said that cloves should not be popped until they are ready to be planted.
“Otherwise they dry out and won’t germinate as well,” she said.
Jenkins shared other tricks of her trade, such as amending soil with compost prior to planting to increase nitrogen, using fish bone meal or blood meal when planting, placing cloves 3 to 5 inches deep and 6 inches apart, with 8 to 10 inches between rows, and, perhaps most importantly, mulching the bed once it’s planted.
“I’ll mulch with at least 8 inches of material at the time of planting,” Jenkins said. The mulch material — preferably straw, but leaf litter, seaweed and sawdust also work — insulates the beds through the winter.
“Covering the insulation with cardboard can also prevent them from sprouting in January, when we always seem to get a warmup here on the peninsula, before it drops back down to below freezing, which will burn them,” she said.
Explaining garden principles is one thing, but hands-on learning is even better, so Jenkins had the workshop participants head out from the lunchroom of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, where the workshop was held, to plant one of the beds in the food bank’s garden.
Several of those in attendance said that they felt much more confident giving garlic another try at home. Jenkins sent participants on their way with their new knowledge and a bulb of gourmet garlic to bolster their odds of success.
“I learned a lot,” said John Cristiano, of Sterling, who was one of the few workshop participants who had had some previous success with garlic.
“This is my fourth year growing it, just sort of learning as I go, but my bulbs were getting smaller and smaller. Now that I know about the compost, blood meal and other things, I have a better game plan,” he said.
Juanita Owens, of Sterling, had never known garlic success in the past, but was more optimistic after Saturday.
“I’ve tried twice and never gotten a bulb bigger than my thumb, but this has been very helpful in showing me what my problems were,” she said. “It makes me really want to get home and get my beds ready.”