March 10, 2010

Timing's the trick with garlic

— The garlic hasn't done really well over the past couple of years, so I booked a refresher course. The course was rained out the night I could attend, so I called up the teacher -- David Gardner of Sanford -- to get the benefits of the class without having to make the drive.

Talking with Gardner, I found out that he had made at least a few of my mistakes.

It's nice to be in good company.

The first step is to start with good stock. Gardner said the Common Ground Fair in Unity has a lot of people selling good garlic cloves for planting, including stock from Johnny's Selected Seeds and Fedco.

Gardner prefers stiff-necked garlic to soft-necked garlic.

''I have done both,'' he said, ''but I hardly ever used the soft-neck garlic, because it has umpteen cloves, and they are small.

''My favorite garlic, and Johnny's sells it, is German Extra Hardy. It is a big garlic, has no more than four or five big cloves. And when harvesting, you can stand over it and pull it right out of the ground. Soft neck you can braid, but you can't pull it out of the ground. You have to dig it out.''

Timing is very important with garlic, and that is where I made my mistakes.

Last year, Gardner planted his garlic on the last day of October and the first day of November, but any time in the last week of October to the first week of November will work.

You'll want to put the pointy end of the cloves up, planted five inches deep in well-tilled, fertile soil. He used to raise chickens, and used the manure in the garden, so his soil is fertile.

When you are buying garlic cloves to plant, you take what you get. But when you are planting garlic that you have grown, you can do a little bit of natural selection.

''The key is to give away or use the small- and medium-size bulbs and keep the bigger-size bulbs to get the cloves for planting,'' he said. ''After several years of that, you get really good-size bulbs.''

Gardner has a lot of oaks on his property, so once the ground is frozen, he shreds a bunch of oak leaves and makes a fluffy pile about six inches high on top of the garlic.

''I just leave it on and never take it off,'' he said. ''I never have to weed there over the course of the year. The garlic is the first thing up in the spring, and these leaves compost and break down, and it provides good nutrients for the soil.''

You don't have much to do in the summer. If the garlic you are growing produces a scape -- a curly stem that grows through the leaves and will eventually produce seeds -- you'll want to remove it. The seeds would take energy from the bulb and result in a smaller bulb.

Where I have gotten in trouble with my garlic is that I waited too long to harvest, so the bulbs separated and the garlic wasn't good. Last year I gave up, but I missed the garlic.

Gardner said that when he first grew garlic, he followed advice that said to treat them like onions -- waiting until the tops died to pull them and then leaving them in the sun to dry. ''That is the worst thing to do,'' he said.

He changed his ways after reading ''Growing Great Garlic'' by Ron Engeland, a professional garlic farmer from Washington state. In addition to information about growing garlic, the book gives a lot of garlic history.

''You pull the garlic when you have four or five green leaves left,'' Gardner said. ''Each leaf has a wrapper around the bulb, and you want to have four or five so you can sacrifice a couple to clean it up.''

Once you pull the garlic, you'll want to get it out of the sun immediately. He ties about 10 bulbs together and hangs them in his garage, but says putting them on a barn floor or screen to dry also works well.

Once you have the garlic ready, cook it. Gardner especially likes to cut the top off, wrap it in aluminum foil with some olive oil, and cook it for 10 minutes. You then eat it as roasted garlic. He says the aroma is wonderful.

CATCHING UP

Royce O'Donal is still trying to reduce his inventory of topiary.

He has been creating the sheared shaped plants at his home in Gorham for years. But since his wife, Sally, had a stroke, he doesn't have time to take care of the plants.

Last year, he donated some to the Brain Industry Foundation for a fundraiser at O'Donal's Nursery. Royce sold the nursery last year to his son Jeff.

Some of the topiary has gone to Habitat For Humanity homes and some has been sold, but he still has 60 to 65 topariaries on his property, some quite large.

Mychal Graber of Old Sheep Meadows Nurseries in Alfred says the day lilies are growing wonderfully this year with all the rain.

I toured and wrote about the day-lily operation at the farm in 2006, and Graber says she has created some excellent new crosses since then.

''We have some day lilies that are bud builders, that just keep building buds,'' she said.

One, called Meadow Stephanie's Star, has three branches, starts blooming in mid-July and goes until the end of August.

Graber generally sells her day lilies by having people come and look at them in bloom. Then she digs them in late August or early September, after they are done blooming.

Call 324-5211 or visit www.old sheepmeadowsnursery.com.

Tom Atwell can be contacted at 791-6362 or at:

tatwell@pressherald.com

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