October is Garlic Planting Time!

If you live in Michigan, October is when we usually plant our spring-flowering bulbs, and that includes garlic. I’ve written an entire post with the details about how to grow garlic, but I figured it might be fun to share some step-by-step photos of this year’s garlic planting.

This year, we ordered Red Chinook garlic. It’s a hardneck variety, which is essential here in our cold Michigan climate. One pound of garlic yielded around 60 cloves — if every clove grows into a bulb (or head) of garlic, we’ll have over a head of garlic per week after next year’s harvest.

I might need to plant more.

Most hardneck varieties of garlic provide 5 to 7 cloves per head, so if you don’t use a ton of garlic in your cooking, a pound of garlic should do it for you. We use quite a bit more than that, so I’m thinking of trying to get my hands on another pound of garlic before the month is up.

Buying Garlic for Planting

I usually order my garlic in August or whenever seed catalogs start emailing me that they have garlic available. The earlier you order, the better chance you have of getting the variety you want — certain varieties tend to sell out quickly. So I order in August or September, and then the company ships the garlic at the right time for planting, which is great — you don’t have to worry about storing your garlic before planting and it won’t dry out on you. Once you have your garlic, plant it as soon as you can so it can start getting established in your garden.

If you don’t manage to order in time, or if you, like me, just need more garlic, another good idea is to look at your local farmer’s market or grocer for locally-grown organic garlic. You can plant cloves from this garlic as well, and because it’s local, you already know that it grows well in your area.

Planting Garlic

garden bed preparation for planting garlic

As with all gardening, the most important step is prepping the soil. Here at our new place, we have the exact opposite soil we gardened in for all those years in Detroit. We had heavy clay soil at our old place, and here, our soil is very sandy (Kalkaska sand, to be specific). At our old place, we were always trying to lighten up our soil. Here, our main priority is adding nutrients and moisture retaining materials. The funny thing is that in either situation, you want to add lots and lots of compost.

That stuff is magical. Seriously.

So to this bed, which we just dug last month, we added plenty of compost, composted manure, and peat. Garlic likes well-drained, nutrient-rich soil, so all of that composted manure will be appreciated. To up the nutrients in our sandy soil, I also added a slow-release organic fertilizer to the soil and mixed it in. In this case, I added Espoma Garden-Tone. This bed is dug about a foot deep. Garlic likes deep roots, so it will get off to a good start if you take the time to dig the bed deeply.

head of garlic, garlic bulb, planting garlic

When you receive your planting garlic, it will look just like it does when you buy garlic at the grocery store — in heads (or bulbs).

As an aside, how pretty is that Red Chinook garlic? I just love the color of this variety.

So once you have your bed ready, go ahead and separate these heads into individual cloves.

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A quick note: don’t do this too far in advance. A day or two at most, otherwise the cloves might dry out and they won’t be any good for planting. I always divide my garlic heads right before I’m ready to plant them.

Once you have them divided, it’s time to plant. Dig holes or trenches two to three inches deep. If you have heavy clay, as I did in my old garden, sometimes it’s easier to just dig a long trench, plunk the cloves in, and cover it all over. However, if you have nice, loose soil, it’s very easy to either just poke the cloves into the soil with your fingers, or use a small trowel to pull the soil aside, pop a clove in, and cover it over.

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When you plant garlic, make sure you’re planting it right side up. There’s a root end and stem end. The stem end is pointy, and you want that pointing up.

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I like to set my cloves out into the bed first, so I can make sure I’m getting the spacing right. Garlic should be planted about four inches apart.

What’s Next?

Once you have all of  your garlic planted, it’s a great idea to cover the area with four to six inches of mulch. Autumn leaves work (chop them first with a lawnmower), as does straw or shredded bark. The reason we mulch it is to not only keep the soil moist, but also because in areas where we have issues with the ground freezing and thawing during the season, having the mulch in place helps prevent frost heaving. (Frost heaving happens when the ground freezes and thaws and ends up pushing the bulbs, or even entire plants, right out of the soil. Definitely not what we want!)

And with that, you’re done. Next spring, you’ll start seeing the garlic foliage and scapes popping up in the garden, and then you’ll know you’re only a few months away from harvesting your own home-grown garlic.

I hope this was helpful. If you have any questions about growing garlic, don’t be shy — go ahead and ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer. Thanks for reading!

Planting and Growing Garlic

garlic4

 

Garlic is a must for many cooks, and the great news is that here in Michigan, it’s actually very easy to grow garlic. It can be tucked just about anywhere in the garden, and, when you grow it yourself, you really get two crops in one. You get the bulbs, which is what most people think of when growing garlic, but you also get the scapes (which are the flower stems) which you can harvest in late spring to early summer. The scapes provide a delicate garlic flavor, and are great in many dishes that would benefit from a bit of garlicky goodness.  Let’s take a look at how to grow perfect garlic here in Michigan.

 

Garlic Types: Hardneck or Softneck?

There are two general types of garlic to choose from: hardneck and softneck. Michigan gardeners will have better success with hardneck varieties.

Hardneck Garlic Varieties (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon)

Hardneck garlic varieties are generally hardier than softneck varieties, making them the best option for Michigan gardeners. They are also the best option if you want to enjoy garlic scapes, because hardnecks are the only type that send up a storng central stem, or scape,  in spring. Hardneck varieties tend to form fewer cloves per bulb than softneck varieties, but the individual cloves tend to be bigger.

Within the hardneck family, there are nine sub-types of garlics: Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe, Asiatic, Glazed Purple Stripe, Creole, Middle Eastern, Turban, Rocambole, and Porcelain. The Purple Stripe and Rocambole types are the hardiest, best for gardeners in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and other parts of the state with very long, cold winters. Gardeners who live in warmer zones, such as those in southern lower Michgan, can easily grow all of the hardneck types.

 

How and When to Plant Garlic in Michigan

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Here in Michigan, you’ll want to plant your garden in October and November — before the ground freezes hard, but after we start getting cooler temperatures. This will allow the bulbs to start forming roots before we get a deep freeze.

Garlic needs a site in full sun to grow well. To plant garlic, dig holes or furrows six inches apart and three inches deep in loose, well-drained soil. Place individual cloves (separate them – don’t plant entire bulbs of garlic)  in the holes, pointy end up, and cover with soil. Water them in. If you have squirrels or other animals that try digging them up, consider covering the area with chicken wire or wire mesh — the foliage and scapes can still grow  through it, but it will deter wildlife from digging them up.

Spread a six-inch deep layer of organic mulch, such as fall leaves or straw, over the planting area. Within six to eight weeks, shoots might emerge if the weather is warm enough.  This is fine — the plant will stop growing once the soil gets cold, and growth will start up again in the spring.

 

Companion Planting: What to Plant Near Garlic

Garlic is one of those crops that you can plant throughout your garden to help naturally deter pests. It actually accumulates sulfur, which is a naturally-occurring fungicide that will help protect your plants from diseases. Garlic also helps repel insects such as aphids.

Best Companion Plants for Garlic

Garlic helps the plants listed below grow better. Because garlic isn’t overly picky about where it is planted (as long as it is in full sun), it’s easy to tuck it into the garden wherever you have a spare spot. Plant garlic near: tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, carrots, and kohlrabi.

Avoid planting garlic near beans and peas, since it may stunt the growth of both plants.

 

Garlic Pests and Problems

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Garlic really isn’t bothered by many pests or disease issues. Rot can sometimes be a problem; guard against this by providing your garlic with good, well-draining soil. The most common pest is squirrels and other animals, which may dig up the bulbs. Deter them with chicken wire, as mentioned above in the “planting” section.

Another common concern gardeners have is that sometimes the garlic will send up green growth in the fall after planting, when we don’t expect to see any foliage until spring. This is nothing to worry about; growth will halt once the weather cools, and the bulb will send up new green growth in the spring.

 

Growing and Harvesting Garlic

Once you have your garlic planted, there really isn’t much to do. In spring, give the bed a topdressing of compost and/or bloodmeal, then do this again once you see the scapes. Harvest the scapes when they just  begin to curl. When the foliage has turned yellow and dead looking, it’s time to harvest your garlic. Dig it up, and let it cure in a dry place for several days.

How to Make Dill Pickles

We plant several cucumber varieties each year, at least half of which are pickling cucumbers. (An aside: a common source of confusion is what makes a pickling cucumber a pickling cucumber. The simple answer is that they have thinner, bumpier skin — the better to absorb all of that lovely brine!)

Dill pickles are actually really easy to make. Here’s how to do it!

I used this recipe because, as written, it’s good for making a small batch of pickles (three to four pints) but, even better — you can halve everything, and make just a jar or two if you don’t have that many cucumbers on hand.

First, you need to assemble your equipment:

 

pick1You need a boiling water canner (if you don’t have one, a stainless steel stockpot will do. A cotton dishtowel folded and laid inside the pot will help stabilize the jars), pint jars, rings, and new lids. **If you want to forego the boiling water processing all together, you can also make refrigerator pickles with this recipe. If you do that, you can use any clean jar you want, and you don’t have to worry about having a pot to process your jars in. I’ll explain more later.

Not necessary, but it’s also helpful to have jar tongs, a magnetic lid lifter, and a jar funnel.

Fill the big pot so that the surface of the water is two inches higher than the tops of your jars. Place jars and lids in the pot (you can do lids in a separate pot, or the same one as your jars — doesn’t matter) and bring the water to a boil to sterilize everything.

While your jars are sterilizing, it’s time to assemble your ingredients.

 

You’ll need:pick2

  • 2 cups of white vinegar
  • 2 cups of water (tap water is fine)
  • 2 tablespoons of salt (pickling or kosher — not iodized table salt)
  • 4 heads of fresh dill, or 4 tsp of dill seeds
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 8 to 10 cucumbers

In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, and salt, and heat over high. You want to bring this mixture to a boil. Meanwhile, start preparing your cukes. Cut a bit off of each end, if necessary, to ensure that the pickles will be about an inch shorter than your jar.

 

You can also cut them into halves or quarters if you want.

 

pick4Once your cucumbers are ready and your brine is boiling, it’s time to get ready to add everything to the jars. Remove the jars (carefully!) from the boiling water canner. Add a head of dill and a clove of garlic to each jar.

 

Then, start packing your cukes in. You want to jam them in pretty tightly. This keeps them from floating in the brine.pick6

 

As you can see, my nine cucumbers was only enough for three pints of pickles. That’s fine, it just means I’ll have some brine left over. Once you have them packed in, it’s time to pour the hot brine into the jars. Do this slowly, and use a jar funnel if that makes it easier for you. You want to fill the jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace at the top.

 

pick7Canning:

  1. Use a flat spatula, butter knife, or bamboo skewer, and press the cukes together to try to release any air bubbles trapped in your jar. If you find that the level of the brine has fallen after doing this, top it up to keep your 1/2 inch of headspace.
  2. Wipe the rims of your jars with a clean, damp cloth, set the lids on, and tighten the rings. You don’t have to go crazy tightening it — just finger-tight is good enough. The seal doesn’t come from the rings at all, but from the lid itself being vacuum sealed on as the contents of the jars cool after processing.
  3. Place your jars into your boiling water canner, and process for ten minutes. Lift them out, carefully, and set them on a counter to cool. They’ll be quite warm for a few hours yet.

You’ll start to hear the lids make popping sounds. This means they’re sealing properly. After about an hour, all of your lids should have sealed. If you press on them and they’re solid, they’ve sealed right. If the lid still pops up and down, you don’t have a good seal. You can either re-process the jar in boiling water, or just put them in the fridge and eat them within a month. Properly sealed jars will keep for a year.

 

If you want to do away with the boiling water processing all together, simply add the cukes, dill, and garlic to any jar, pour boiling brine over it, cover, and let it cool down to room temperature. Then put your pickles in the fridge and eat within a month.

pick8As you can see, it’s not difficult. And believe me, the flavor is definitely worth the effort!

 

Pickling Resources:

While this is a basic recipe I found online a few years ago (and it’s great!) my favorite book about pickling and canning right now is Homemade Living: Canning & Preserving with Ashley English: All You Need to Know to Make Jams, Jellies, Pickles, Chutneys & More. It’s a beautiful book full of well-written recipes that definitely inspired me to try different things in my kitchen. Definitely worth a look.

As you can see from the post, I’m still using traditional canning lids. You may have heard that these types of lids are lined with BPA — this is a concern for many of us, myself included. I do have some reusable, BPA free lids on order, but they haven’t arrived yet. If you’re interested, here is a source that Julia from Snarky Vegan shared with me.

For more pickle-y goodness, please check out this post I wrote for Planet Green: 20 Pickle Recipes to Help You Preserve Summer’s Bounty.

More About Preserving the Harvest:

How To Make Quick and Easy Refrigerator Dilly Beans

How to Make Pickled Green Tomatoes

How to Make Easy Watermelon Rind Refrigerator Pickles

How to Make Chive Blossom Vinegar

How to Fertilize Tomato Plants, Organically

littletomatoesTomato plants grow with such speed and vigor that it’s easy to be tempted to keep feeding them, thinking that we need to add nutrients for all of that new growth our plant has put on. But the truth is that over-fertilizing tomato plants is just as bad as under-fertilizing them.

Over-fertilized tomatoes develop lots of green growth at the expense of fruit production. And as if that isn’t annoying enough, all of that tender green growth is like a dinner bell for nearby pests and a magnet for disease problems. Under-fertilization results in slow plant growth and poor fruit set, as well as blossom drop and fruit drop.

So, how do you strike the right balance between under- and over-fertilizing your tomatoes? It’s actually pretty simple, and something you only really have to worry about twice during the growing season. (Less work!)

Fertilize at Planting

At planting time, I like to add a bit of compost the the planting hole, as well as several crushed eggshells or bonemeal to fend off blossom end rot. If I have it on hand, I also like to add a bit of granulated organic fertilizer to the soil at this time.

Fertilize at Fruit Set

When you see your first tiny fruits start to form on your plants, it’s time to do the second fertilizer application of the season. This is when I break out the fish emulsion, and give each plant a good, thorough foliar feed, as well as the soil around each plant. This will provide valuable nutrients just when your plants need it most.

Supplemental Feeding

If you find that production seems to be dropping off, or your plants just look “tired,” there’s no harm in giving them another foliar feed with the fish emulsion, or with compost tea or manure tea. This can be done once per month during the growing season to keep the plants growing and producing well.

Good Soil = Good Tomatoes

As with any kind of gardening, success with growing tomatoes starts with the soil. You will want to grow your tomatoes in rich, fertile, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter. Incorporating compost and composted manure at planting time, as well as mulching with organic mulches such as grass clippings or fall leaves will make a huge difference — and every year, the soil will just keep getting better.

It seems like it’s not enough; that it should be more complicated than that, doesn’t it? But that really is all there is to fertilizing your tomato plants. Most years, we don’t bother doing a supplemental feeding, and, to be honest, we’ve even forgotten to fertilize at fruit set a time or two and everything has turned out fine. One less thing to have to fuss over — always a good thing!

How to Protect Your Garden from a Spring Frost

Whether you push the gardening season or not, here in Michigan there’s always a danger that a late spring frost will wipe out your lovingly planted spring veggies. The earlier you plant, the more likely this is. The easiest way to almost guarantee that you’ll avoid a frost is to resist planting your vegetable garden (or tender annuals or herbs) until after the last spring frost date. Depending upon where you are in the state, that could be anytime between the first week of May to early July.

However, if you just can’t resist getting your garden started as soon as possible, there are still several things you can do to protect your plants if frost (or even snow) is in the forecast.

How to Protect Your Plants from Frost

If we have a prolonged period of freezing temperatures, your plants may be in trouble no matter what you do. However, if it’s just a day or two, with a bit of protection your plants should be able to come through just fine. The best thing to do is place some kind of barrier over your plants to keep cold air, wind, and frost out of them. Some ideas:

  • Plastic milk jug with the bottom cut out off it, placed over individual plants
  • Old-fashioned garden cloches
  • A cold frame placed over part of a bed
  • A low tunnel covered in plastic
  • A plastic tarp, set over stakes to lift it off of the plants
  • A floating row cover (best for when there’s just a chance of light frost)
  • A sheet or blanket (again, this is a good option for a light frost, not for snow or really frigid weather)
  • A drink cooler, overturned over a few plants. Remove it as soon as possible to ensure that your plants get enough light.
  • A cardboard box. Depending on the size this can cover several plants. Remove the box as soon as possible to let your plants get the light they need.

These ideas will help because they use items that most of us have around the house. We might not all have a cold frame, but chances are good that we can come up with a milk jug or cardboard box if we really need one. Keep these ideas in mind, and you’ll be able to save your garden from those annoying late spring frosts that are a common part of gardening in Michigan.

 

Garden Tip: Make Your Own Seed Tape

Soon, we Michigan gardeners will be stuck indoors, staring forlornly out at our snow or frost-covered gardens. While I’m not in a hurry for that, I know that there are several ways I can keep myself busy, and get my garden off to a good start next spring. One of those ways is to make seed tape. An afternoon or two of work during the winter, and I’ll have perfect, evenly-spaced seeds ready to plant once the time is right.

Supplies:

* Newspaper (black and white, plain newspaper pages) cut into 1 to 1 1/2 inch strips, paper towel, or toilet paper
* Flour
* Water
* Seeds
* Ruler

How To Make Seed Tape

1. Make a paste out of flour and water. Start with 1/4 cup of flour, and add water until you have a paste-like consistency. it should easily coat a spoon, not just drip off.

2. Check the instructions on the back of your seed packet (or at the end of this post) to see how far to space seeds apart. Use the ruler, and write marks on your strips of newspaper at the correct intervals.

3. Dab a bit of flour paste onto the marks you wrote.

4. Place a seed (or two, if you’re concerned about whether they’ll germinate or not) into each dab of flour glue.

5. Write the name of the variety on each strip of newspaper.

6. Wait for the flour glue to dry completely, then store your seed tapes in an airtight container, preferably in a cool place until it’s time to plant. The refrigerator works well, as does an unheated garage.

When it’s time to plant, simply place your seed tape in the garden, and cover with soil, 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep, depending on what type of seed you’re planting. Water in well, keep it moist, and wait for those first sprouts to show up.
Seed Spacing for Common Herbs, and Vegetables

Space your seeds on the seed tape according to the following general recommendations. You can also find this information on your seed packet.

Herbs:
* Basil: 4 inches
* Chives: 6 inches
* Cilantro: 6 inches
* Dill: 12 inches
* Mint: 12 inches
* Oregano: 6 inches
* Parsley: 6 inches
* Sage: 12 inches
* Thyme: 8 inches

Vegetables:
These are small-seeded vegetables that are commonly sown directly in the garden.

* Arugula: 4 inches
* Asian greens (bok choy, tatsoi, mizuna): 4 inches
* Beets: 3 inches
* Carrots: 3 inches
* Collards: 6 inches
* Kale: 6 inches
* Lettuce: 6 inches
* Mustard greens: 6 inches
* Radishes: 2 inches
* Rapini: 6 inches
* Spinach: 4 inches
* Swiss chard: 6 inches

Seed tapes are an easy way to get your garden planted. Even better, you can make these seed tapes during the winter and early spring, while you’re waiting to get out into your garden. They’re also a great project to do with kids.

I originally wrote this post for Planet Green, and wanted to share the info with my readers here at Gardening in the Mitten. You can view the original post here.

All through October, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite gardening tips. To check out other “31 Days of…” bloggers, check out this post.

brandywine tomato

Three Types of Tomatoes, and How to Decide What You Should Grow

It’s easy to see why tomatoes have so many fans: not only are they delicious, but they are also visually stunning, with a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. But did you know that there are actually different types of tomatoes, and that some are better suited to certain types of dishes than others? The three basic types of tomatoes are slicers, paste tomatoes, and cherry-type tomatoes. Here’s what you need to know about each.

Slicers

These are the tomatoes that you eat, apple-style, right in the garden warmed from the summer sun. They are superior for slicing for sandwiches and burgers, or chopping into a salad. They tend to be juicier than paste tomatoes, and are therefore much better for fresh eating.

While people generally think of “beefsteak” type tomatoes when they think of slicers, that is only one type of slicer. Slicing tomatoes come in many different sizes and colors, not to mention flavors. Some wonderful slicers include:

Brandywine
Cherokee Purple
Kellogg’s Breakfast Tomato
Aunt Ruby’s German Green
Black Krim
Japanese Black Trifele
Pineapple
Persimmon
Uncle Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter

These tend to be indeterminate varieties, though some varieties, such as Sub-Arctic Plenty and Celebrity, are determinate, and therefore better suited to small gardens.

Paste Tomatoes

“Paste tomato” is somewhat of a misnomer, because there is so much more you can do with these types of tomatoes than make tomato paste or sauce! Besides the requisite sauces, you can make fresh salsas, ketchup, tomato juice and dried tomatoes. In general, these tomatoes are “fleshier” than slicers, with less juice and gel and thicker walls. Some of the most popular paste tomatoes are:

Roma
San Marzano
Polish Linguisa
Hungarian Italian
Italian Red Pear
Opalka
Principe Borghese

These are almost always determinate tomatoes, making it easy to harvest and sauce or can all at once.

Cherry-Type Tomatoes

One thing you can say for almost any cherry-type tomato (which includes not only cherry tomatoes, but currants, pear, and grape tomatoes)is that they are prolific. These tomatoes are excellent for eating raw in salads, or just popped into your mouth as a snack. Cherry tomatoes are usually indeterminate, and will produce lovely little snacks for you until the plants are killed by frost. Some favorite cherry-type tomatoes are:

Sungold
Chadwick Cherry
Yellow Pear
Juliet Grape
Red Currant
Super Sweet 100
Sweet Million
Tiny Tim

If you only choose one of each type of tomato, it’s safe to say you’ll be able to fill just about any tomato-related need you may have.