October is the month for planting garlic which will be harvested next July. You can plant into November — and several gardeners I know do plant late — but late planting reduces the number of days the garlic has to put down roots and thereby reduces the ultimate size of the garlic bulb next summer. If the aim is the largest possible bulbs at harvest, then plant now. If you don’t care about the size of your bulbs, plant now, plant later next month. Whatever.
To plant garlic requires some preparation upfront. First, be sure you select an area for your crop that gets full sun and has good drainage. Select only firm, rock hard bulbs for planting. Then you must pop your garlic, peel it, the night before you plant. Popping removes of the paper skin surrounding the garlic cloves. The most important thing in popping garlic is not to use too much force and bruise the clove or to nick it with a finger nail. To pop the bulb, grab the stem right at the top of the bulb and twist it strongly; this breaks the papers around the bulb. Then, bring your hands together palms up to create a bowl. Rest the bulb in the bowl of your palms and brace with your finger tips. Use your thumbs to press the bulb with a light but firm pressure so the paper loosens and falls off. Your thumbs are moving out and across the bulb from the bulb’s base to top. Use your thumbs to rotate the bulb so you remove all the paper and the cloves fall apart.
The good news is that you don’t have to remove the entire paper from each clove but if the skin does come completely off, a naked clove is okay. Once the cloves are freed from the bulb and the root stem, take one clove at a time and twist the paper top of the clove where there’s a little slack until the skin breaks and starts to pull away from the clove. Being careful not to bruise or nick your garlic, use your thumbs to rub off the paper. Place the peeled cloves gently in a paper bag or cardboard box for planting tomorrow. While you’re popping the cloves, remove from your planting set any garlic that are discolored, nicked, sprouted or have a damaged root plates at the bottom. These garlic you can use for supper. Only the best garlic is planted and produces the largest, most savory bulbs.
Plant garlic cloves 6 inches apart in rows six inches apart. Using a trowel or a stick, punch a hole two inches into the soil. Gently place the clove in, root plate down and tip up. Cover. Mulch lightly.
One of the many amazing things about garlic is that it will grow all winter, putting down roots and forming its stalk and first leaves inside the bulb. Should the garlic put up green sprouts before frost, I don’t think you need to worry. The experts are mixed about fall sprouting. Some feel that the fall sprouting takes energy that would otherwise go into the bulb and so detracts from the size of the final product. Others contend they witness no change in final bulb size when the garlic crop has sprouted in the fall. To me, it’s actually reassuring to see it sprout: I know it’s alive, well planted and will be up in the spring.
Most everything I know about growing garlic I learned from Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers (1991) by Ron L. Engeland. Mr. Engeland’s knowledge is exhaustive and he pours all his extensive expertise and passion out into this slim book. I also learned a lot about garlic from Jack Spicer to whom I’m grateful.
Happy fall planting!