Plant garlic this fall for next summer's harvest

Don Kinzler
Forum News Service

Lean closer and I’ll tell you a secret: I’ve never grown garlic. Never one to pass up a new planting adventure, I’ve got garlic bulbs ready for fall planting.

I learned much about vegetable gardening from my mom, yet we never planted garlic. We were a German household, and Mom never cooked much with fresh garlic. My wife, Mary, jokes that to us Germans, cooking with herbs and spices means having onions in the hotdish. And Mary’s half-Norwegian heritage isn’t much better, as a well-spiced dish means salt on the mashed potatoes. All in good humor, of course.

Fall is the time to plant garlic. The cloves, which are the sections into which the garlic bulb is divided, are best planted soon after the first hard frost, around late September or early October. Latent heat in the soil prompts the cloves to form roots and underground shoots this fall, which will emerge next spring.

Garlic for planting can be found at garden centers, or from mail-order companies. There are two categories of garlic, called hardneck and softneck. Hardneck types are hardiest and most suitable for northern gardens. “Music” is the most popular variety grown in the region, along with “German Red” and “Spanish Roja.” Grocery store garlic doesn’t perform as well for garden planting.

Here are some tips for planting garlic:

  • The cloves grow best in a rich, well-drained soil. Add several inches of compost to the soil and work in.
  • Good fertility is a must. Add 2 to 3 pounds of 10–10–10 granular fertilizer per 100 square feet, and work into the soil.
  • Separate the bulbs into individual cloves the day before planting. Set cloves upright in the furrow, pointed end up, 4 to 6 inches apart and 2 inches deep. Space rows 18 to 30 inches apart.
  • Water deeply to activate the cloves.
  • Mulch with 5 inches of straw, hay or leaves, to insulate the soil and protect the sprouted bulbs over winter from extreme cold temperatures and prevent freezing and thawing.
  • Remove protective mulch in late March or early April, before sprouts begin growing.
  • Weeds are a major enemy of garlic, because the sparse foliage of garlic doesn’t provide much competition for emerging weeds. Weed by hand beginning early in the season for maximum bulb production.
  • Water carefully during the growing season. Garlic grows best in moist, but not wet, soil. Garlic produces better bulbs with optimum moisture, but bulbs will rot if soil is kept too wet, and bulbs won’t achieve best size if soil is too dry.
  • If you’ve been successful growing onions, similar techniques will produce good garlic.
  • As the garlic is growing, the flower buds, called scapes, can be harvested when they curl in June. Scapes are mild in flavor and great in recipes and stir fries.
  • Harvest the bulbs in July or August when foliage turns yellow and lower leaves are brown.
  • Instead of harvesting by pulling the bulbs, gently dig, which causes less damage to bulbs and stems.
  • The tops don’t need to be completely dry before harvest, because if the bulbs are left in the ground too long and fall rains begin, bulbs can rot.
  • After digging, place bulbs, tops and all, on a screen or other mesh in a well-ventilated spot at room temperature for two weeks of curing.
  • Remove tops from the bulbs, leaving about 1 inch, after leaves turn brown.
  • If stored at room temperature, garlic will remain in good condition for one to two months. For long-term storage up to nine months, garlic is best maintained at 32 degrees with low relative humidity. Good airflow is necessary to prevent any moisture accumulation.
  • Your own stored garlic cloves can be used for next fall’s planting. According to the University of Massachusetts, garlic bulbs saved for planting the next years’ crop should be stored at 50 degrees. Storage below 40 degrees results in poor future bulbs, while storage above 65 degrees results in delayed sprouting and late maturity.
  • For additional garlic growing tips and recipes, North Dakota State University Extension’s bulletin “From Garden to Table: Garlic” can be accessed at
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Fielding questions

Q: Could you tell me why the needles on our Scotch pine are turning very yellow-brown in the last couple of weeks? We live on a farmstead by Gardner, N.D. I also noticed many pines along 19th Avenue North in Fargo are doing the same thing. Is there anything I can do for it? — Shirley H.

A: This is a normal cycle of needle drop and is highly visible across the region, based on the high number of questions I’ve received. This process of nature often causes alarm when evergreen trees start to shed inner needles.

Although most conifer trees are considered to be “evergreen,” their needles don’t live forever. What makes them evergreen is that their foliage persists more than one year before falling. Since new needles are added every year, there is always an overlap between green needles and those that are due to fall.

Older needles on the inside of evergreen trees are shed each fall after they turn yellow, brown or reddish tan in color. Sometimes this natural process is very subtle and goes unnoticed because only the innermost needles are affected. Scotch pine trees hold their needles for two to four years. Spruce trees also cycle their needles out in the course of two to three years.

As long as the needles on the exterior of the branch tips are green, the tree is just following its natural course, and there’s no action needed. Purdue Extension indicates that environmental factors can amplify and influence this cycle as well, such as stress from drought, soil compaction or excessive moisture. This summer’s long stretches of heat might be a factor in increased needle shed.

Q: I read with interest your article on how to winter geraniums. Mine are about 25 years old and are getting lanky. I’ve kept them in our cabin at 40 degrees in a sunny window over the winters. The stems are thick, so would I still get new growth if I did cut them back to 3 inches above the soil and repot, as you suggested with younger plants? One was given to me from a friend at North Dakota State University and are double-blossomed so are special to me. — Polly W.

A: I ought to hold a contest for the oldest geranium. Older geraniums like yours develop thick, often woody stems, which can become lanky, as you mention. The best way to develop younger branches lower on the plant is to cut the older branches back severely, which forces new sprouts to emerge from below. Three inches above soil line is a good target point.

Although geraniums can be left as-is for many years, older woody stems can be susceptible to rot. Sometimes they’ll bloom more profusely on fresh, vigorous, rejuvenated branches.

I would give the odds of cutback success at 99%. Because there’s always a slight chance of mishap, when I’m cutting back an old geranium with sentimental value, I take cuttings from the branch tips, and root in a mixture of half sand, half peat moss, as added insurance of the plant’s survival. Rooted cuttings are part and parcel of the mother plant, so you’re not in effect losing the original plant.

Q: I’m in the process of selling my parents’ home and there’s a beautiful fernleaf peony that I gave them that I would like to transplant to my home. Can I still do that and will it survive the winter? What extra measures should I do to protect it at this time of the year? — Jackie D.

A: You are in luck. September is the preferred time of year to dig, divide or move all peonies, including fernleaf peonies.

Water well after transplanting and there really is no other care needed because they are fully winter hardy and this is the right time to move them. Around Nov. 1 you could add 12-18 inches of leaves or straw over the plants if you’d like added insurance, just in case we get a severe winter with little insulating snow. Remove mulch in early April.

For planting, separate the bulb into individual cloves. Forum photo by Alyssa Goelzer
A reader wonders why the needles on this Scotch pine are turning yellow-brown this fall.