It’s Halloween tonight, and perhaps you're feeling the need of some garlic to ward off visiting vampires on this spooky night. Well, it's not garlic harvesting time now, so you may need to hit your local market for a bulb with which to defend yourself. But it is garlic planting time. Stick cloves in the ground now and you'll have a harvest next summer that will not only provide you with ample protection next Halloween, but will add zip and health benefits to many dishes throughout the year.
There are three basic types of garlic to choose from. Softneck garlic stores the best and is a good choice for braiding, but is not as hardy as hardneck varieties. Mild-tasting elephant garlic, with its enormous cloves, is actually a type of bulbing leek. Check with local garden stores, your local Cooperative Extension Service or other gardeners to find the varieties that do best in your area.
Wherever you live, the best time to get garlic in the ground is in the fall, about six weeks before the ground freezes. Separate each bulb into individual cloves but leave their papery wrappers on. Plant them, root end down, pointy end up, 4-8 inches apart, in well-drained soil into which a couple of inches of compost has been incorporated. Plant cloves 2-4 inches deep if you are north of zone 7, 1-2 inches deep in southern gardens. In the north, once the ground freezes, cover the garlic bed with 6 inches of straw or shredded leaves for insulation.
Next spring, when plants begin to grow, pull back any thick mulch and give them a feeding with a high nitrogen fertilizer such as fish emulsion. Be sure to keep the garlic bed weed-free and give the developing bulbs consistent water. Row covers held up with hoops will help keep out onion maggots if these are a problem in your area. If any plants send up a flower stalk, trim it off so it won't take energy away from bulb formation.
In the middle of the summer, when about three-quarters of the leaves have begun to yellow, it's time to harvest your crop. Dig carefully with a garden fork so you don't damage bulbs as you take them out of the ground. Spread the garlic plants on screens or hang them in a warm, well-ventilated, preferably dark spot to cure for 2 or 3 weeks. Unless you plan on braiding the garlic, trim off the leaves, leaving only an inch or two. Store the bulbs in a cool (40-50 F), dry location.
Then next Halloween, when the vampires come calling...