Fear not, area garlic lovers: Your sprouts are fine

Is sprouted garlic lost to frost?

Allison in D.C. writes: “Please help with a word or two of advice to the garlic lovers of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia.

“After finding that garlic planting in October mostly led to early sprouting and growth as early as December, I have taken to planting my garlic cloves in December instead. Lo and behold, this winter has been so warm that the garlic I planted in December still sprouted and has already grown six or more inches tall! I’m afraid that the next cold snap we experience will stunt its development or kill it off entirely. Please say it ain’t so.”

It is my distinct pleasure to say “it ain’t so,” Allison; like spring bulbs, garlic sprouts are not harmed by cold weather.

Frankenstein’s Monster says: “Garlic sprouts good!”

“Fire, Bad!”

Allison — and all of the other intrepid garlic growers in our region — can put their “sprouted cares” away. The above ground growth of garlic is very winter-hardy, and that growth reveals that your garlic has also had good root growth below.

Now, Allison: You are very lucky that most of our winter was so warm. If it had been bone chilling cold, your December plantings might not have been able to grow roots and could have perished! In future seasons, go back to October (or even September) plantings. The more time the plants have to grow in the Fall, the bigger the harvested heads will be in the Summer.

Good outlook for this year’s garlic harvest

Allison in D.C. continues: “What can I expect in terms of maturity at harvest time if the plants survive the chill?”

As we have been stressing, your plants will survive any chills to come. And you should expect a very good harvest; your aboveground growth means that your plants have developed good roots, which is essential to the development of big bulbs.

But, your harvest would be even better if you had planted two (maybe even three) months earlier…

Garlic plant care? Not necessary right now

Allison in D.C. continues: “Is there anything I can do to protect or assist my garlic plants? And do you still recommend planting in October now that winters seem to be getting warmer?”

Answer #1: You need do nothing; your garlic is just fine.

Answer #2: Yes, with an asterisk.

Our winters are indeed getting warmer, but that does not call for late planting. Columbus Day (early in October) used to be (back in the 1960s and 70s) considered “the lucky day” to plant cloves of garlic, but for the past decade or so I have followed the lead of commercial growers to plant in September — “right after the kids go back to school.”

Garlic — especially the hardneck varieties that produce those intricate and intense flavors and brilliantly colored wrappers — is not harmed by cold weather.

In fact, if you plant too late in the season, your plants may not develop roots until the spring, which equals much smaller sized bulbs at harvest time. (Or no bulbs a’tall…)

Garlic cloves planted in the early fall have time to develop really strong root systems before winter cold slows them down; and the extra growing time they get early on means bigger bulbs at harvest time.

And again, garlic is very winter hardy; cold weather doesn’t bother it one bit. In fact, the taller the sprouts are above ground at Christmastime, the better the plants will do over winter.

Upcoming garlic care

Allison lucked out with the warm early winter we experienced, because her garlic did sprout, which is good, not bad. Anyway, she wants to know what to do next.

When the above ground plant parts start growing aggressively this spring, remove any mulch and give the plants a nice feeding of compost, worm castings or a balanced organic fertilizer. I especially like the fish and seaweed blends available at most garden centers.

Then replace the mulch, which is hopefully shredded fall leaves or compost and not any kind of wood, to prevent weeds — the biggest enemy of garlic growers.

Then, as spring stretches into early summer, watch for a tall central stalk to appear on each plant. Clip off the bulge that forms at the top of each of these stalks and enjoy these mild flavored “scapes” sautéed in a little olive oil.

Those little bulges would otherwise become useless seed heads that can only diminish the size of the underground bulb.

And if you let them ripen up completely, the seeds shoot all over the place and become “onion grass” — like weeds.

When cut from the stalk young, these “scapes” are a uniquely delicious treat. They get tough as they get older, so if you want the best eating, cut them as soon as that bulge is obvious.

Then comes the final act: timing your harvest correctly. Pull up a sample plant when the bottom third of the greenery of most of your garlic has turned brown. This generally occurs around the end of June or early July in our region.

If the sample looks like a big leek, use it in cooking and wait a week. When your pulled sample has a nice big head covered by a paper wrapper, harvest it all. Don’t wait until the entire plant has turned brown or the wrappers will split and you’ll harvest what looks like George Washington’s old teeth!

Mike McGrath was Editor-in-Chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated Public Radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and Garden Editor for WTOP since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at MikeMcG@PTD.net.

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