Advice to grow by
The Press Democrat, October 16, 2021
ADVICE TO GROW BY » MASTER GARDENERS
Garlic very easy to get started in October and Planting Cover Crops
Question: My neighbor shared some of her garlic harvest with me. She says it’s easy to grow. How and when can I start growing my own crop?
Answer: Your neighbor is right! Garlic is easy to grow, and October is the optimal time to plant it in Sonoma County.
Garlic is usually planted from individual cloves that make up a bulb. To ensure your garlic is disease-free with large, robust cloves, buy garlic bulbs from a reputable nursery that offers a choice of many noncommercial varieties.
You can find two main types of garlic: hardneck and softneck. Softneck varieties are easier to grow in our USDA zone 9 climate, but hardneck varieties are easier to peel, more flavorful and have larger cloves. Plant several varieties of garlic, including some hardneck, and see which ones grow best in your garden.
Prepare a planting bed of soil that gets six to eight hours of sun each day. Amend the soil with organic compost to promote drainage and add nutrients. Select the largest cloves from each bulb and plant them pointy side up, 4 to 6 inches apart and 2 to 3 inches deep, in rows 8 to 12 inches apart. Apply a 1- to 2-inch layer of organic mulch on top of the garlic to protect them from winter rains and discourage weeds. If you’re planting several varieties, label them.
Keep the soil evenly moist, never soggy. Drip irrigation on a timer provides the most consistent amount of water to the root system, where it is needed most. Just remember to turn the drip off during winter rains, to prevent the soil from becoming soggy.
Harvest dates vary according to garlic variety and weather conditions.
On average, garlic matures in seven to eight months. Garlic planted in October is usually harvested in late May, just in time to free up planting beds for tomatoes and other hot-weather crops.
Garlic is ready to harvest when about half the leaves start to turn yellow- brown. At this stage, gently check around the bulb to see if individual cloves are evident. Once the bulb is the size you want, stop irrigating for a week to let the soil to dry out.
To harvest bulbs, lift them carefully and gently brush any soil from the roots. Leave the outer skins intact and lay the plants flat on a screen in a dry, warm place out of direct sun, with good air circulation. Let the plants cure until they are dry to the touch.
Once bulbs are cured, store them in a cool, dark cupboard. Garlic keeps for several months and enhances the flavor of so many dishes. Happy planting and bon appetit!
Question: I’m not growing a winter vegetable garden. Is there anything I can do to improve the soil in my garden?
Answer: Absolutely! One of the best things you can do to improve the life in your soil and benefit both your garden and the environment is to plant a cover crop that:
- Adds nutrients and improves soil structure
- Reduces erosion and water runoff
- Sequesters carbon
- Controls weeds
- Loosens compacted soil
To grow a cover crop, start with a mix of legume and grass seeds, commonly called “green manure mix,” that you can find at local nurseries and seed companies. The mix often includes vetch, clover, fava beans, peas and annual ryegrass. A cover crop made up of a variety of plants establishes a network of mycorrhizal fungi that helps plants access nutrients and water, resist disease and thrive without added fertilizers.
Bacteria in nodules on the roots of legume plants convert nitrogen in the air to forms that the plant can absorb. When the plant dies and decomposes, the nitrogen then becomes available to other plants, thus increasing soil fertility.
The grasses take up soil nutrients while their penetrating roots draw moisture and carbon deep in the soil.
Soil is a complex living matrix of inorganic particles, microscopic invertebrates, fungi and bacteria. As plant material and invertebrates die and are decomposed by fungi and bacteria, a carbon-rich humus is created that acts like a sponge, drawing in moisture and holding it in the soil. The resulting soil matrix is rich in organic matter and provides a fertile growing medium for spring planting.
October is the best time to plant the green manure seeds, to give the cover crop plenty of time to mature. Here’s how to plant it:
Step 1: Clear out any leftover summer crops. Cut the spent plants at ground level and leave the roots in the soil. Pull up any diseased plants by the roots and dispose of them in your green yard waste bin.
Step 2: Spread a 1- to 2-inch layer of organic compost on the soil.
Scatter the green manure seeds liberally on top. Rake in the seeds and add another thin layer of compost on top.
Step 3: Water the beds by hand until the winter rains begin.
After that, sit back and watch your garden beds become lush blankets of green growth!
In the spring, when 10% to 30% of the legumes are flowering, cut the cover crop plants down to the base of the plants. Use a no-till garden approach called “chop and drop.” Chop the crop material into small pieces, lay it on the soil and add a thin layer of organic compost. Soon the pieces decompose and transform back into soil.
Within six to eight weeks after you chop and drop, your enriched garden beds are ready to plant with spring and summer vegetables.
For more information on cover crops, check out these websites and publications:
- Cover Cropping for Vegetable Production at bit.ly/3Fb1Qaj
- Building Soils for Better Crops at sare.org
- USDA: Cover crops and Soil Health at bit.ly/3m6glTN
Contributors to this week’s column were Janet Barocco, Cathy McFann, Pat Decker and Patricia Rosales. Send your gardening questions to email@example.com. The UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County (sonomamg.ucanr.edu) provides environmentally sustainable, science-based horticultural information to Sonoma County home gardeners. The Master Gardeners will answer in the newspaper only questions selected for this column. Other questions may be directed to their Information Desk: 707-565-2608 or firstname.lastname@example.org.