It’s fall, and it’s really starting to feel like it. The first signal was when the days became noticeably shorter. Now, temperatures are dropping, and leaves are changing color. Geese are flying high in long Vs, heading south.
After a hectic and scattered summer that kept me away from gardening more than I wanted or expected, I have a lot to do yet this year. Before the snow flies. In two or three months.
Here’s my current list of fall garden projects, which is certainly incomplete:
Removal of invasive barberry using herbicide (need to research too)
Site visits of a few friend’s gardens (consultations)
Learn to chainsaw/Help take down trees
Innoculate mushroom logs
Plan and plant cottage foundation area
Transplant silver maple seedlings to woods
Protect seedlings from deer browse (need to research too)
I like the annual cycle of gardening with a big rush of activity in the spring followed by steady work until, hopefully, a big veggie harvest in the fall (and hopefully not too long of a winter). It provides nice routine and rhythm to each year. But it also means that spring can feel overwhelming.
I’ve been trying to avoid the spring overwhelm by moving as many activities to the fall season as I can. I try to clean my beds up reasonably well in the fall so that they take less work in the spring. I turn my old compost in the fall, and start a new pile each winter. When I need to test my soils, I ideally do that in the fall too.
I even tried planting potatoes in the fall last year! My thinking was: When I accidentally leave potatoes in the ground over winter, it leads to great volunteer plants the next year. So why can’t I just plant potatoes in the fall? The results this year were mixed, and It’s probably worth trying it again this fall.
This brings me to garlic. Or rather, GARLIC!I think that garlic might be my favorite vegetable to grow because:
Garlic is easy to plant and grow.
The garlic that I grow has cloves that are bigger and easier to peel than store-bought garlic.
Garlic is planted in the fall and dug up at the end of the next summer, so it avoids the spring overwhelm.
Garlic means that by October, I can feel good that next year’s garden is already started.
The Basics of Growing Garlic
1. Selecting Good Seed
When it comes to growing garlic—and all plants, really—the source of the seed makes a huge difference. In the case of garlic, the “seeds” aren’t really seeds at all. They are garlic cloves, but ones selected specifically to grow lush, new plants. It’s important to get high-quality seed from a trusted source, which could be a seed company or a local garlic grower. Garlic seed can be pricey up front, but the investment is worth it—after your first year of growing garlic, you’ll be able to save your best garlic bulbs for the following year’s crop.
Be sure to consider your local climate when selecting your garden seed, as there are two types of garlic. Hardneck varieties are named such because they have a very stiff stem. These varieties tend to be better-suited to cold climates and produce scapes, which can be eaten. Softneck varieties don’t have a stiff stem, and so these are the types that you may see sold braided at farmers’ markets. These varieties do better in milder climates and tend to have smaller cloves. Grocery stores sell softneck garlic varieties (but don’t use garlic from the grocery store for your seed, as it won’t grow well).
If you purchase your garlic from a non-local source, the seed company will be able to provide details about individual varieties. Two companies that I’ve purchased garlic seed from in the past are Great Northern Garlic and Seed Savers Exchange, although there are many great independent growers to choose from.
2. Preparing Your Soil
Garlic grows best in a sunny site with moist, well-drained soil. Rotate your garden crops and avoid planting garlic in any area that grew garlic, onions, or leeks in the previous year.
Garlic has a relatively small rooting zone and will benefit from having soils have have been prepared to give the bulbs room to grow. Be sure to weed the garden area well. Use a tiller or digging fork to loosen the top 6-8 inches of soil, and add compost if it is available.
Garlic is planted in the fall because the bulbs (especially hardneck varieties) require a cold period for bulb formation. The ideal timing for planting is about 6-8 weeks before the ground freezes. (You can look up your last frost date here if you are in the US.) The garlic planting season starts around mid-September and runs through about mid-December in the the Northern Hemisphere. Here in Upper Michigan, I’ll be planting garlic before the end of September. In the Southern Hemisphere, planting occurs between mid-March and mid-June. In short, planting in colder climates should start around the fall equinox, and planting should occur by the winter solstice in warmer climates.
Individual garlic cloves (i.e., the seeds) are planted to become garlic bulbs. Cloves should be spaced 6-8 inches apart from each other and at a depth about 3 times deeper than the height of the clove (about 2-3 inches deep). You can use a stick to poke holes into the ground at the appropriate depth and spacing, and then place cloves in the holes, pointy end up. Tamp down the soil to cover the seeds, and water the soil if needed.
Finally, mulch the bed with 3-6 inches of weed-free hay or straw. The mulch helps retain moisture in the soil and minimizes competition from weeds.
Garlic is pretty low-maintenance during the growing season. The mulch should reduce the need to weed, but be sure to remove competing plants when they turn up. Feel free to apply an organic fertilizer (such as fish emulsion or fertilizer tea) once a month. The mulch will help retain soil moisture, but ensure that the soil is moist and water as needed. Begin to reduce watering in mid-July (or mid-January) as the plants start to wane because drier conditions in the late-season will help the garlic keep for longer.
Hardneck varieties of garlic produce scapes: these are twirly flowering shoots that emerge from the top of the plant in summer. Be sure to remove these by the time that they make 1-2 curls, as this will help the plants focus their energy on producing a nice, large bulb. Garlic scapes have a nice garlicky taste and can be used to make many recipes; pick them early so that they don’t get too tough.
Garlic plants will die back as the summer progresses, and plants are ready to be picked when most of the lower leaves have browned. Use a digging fork to gently life bulbs from dry soil. Be sure to set aside a few bulbs to eat now—it’s important to enjoy your harvest!
6. Storing Garlic
After harvesting, the garlic bulbs will need to dry (or “cure”) for longer-term storage. Lay entire plants on a flat surface in a dry place that is away from sunlight. Leave the plants dirty and unwashed at this stage, because the main purpose is to allow the remaining nutrients in the green parts of the stem to be translocated to the bulb. Ensure plants are spread out and have good air flow to prevent mold. This can mean laying plants out in trays, on shelves, or tying (or braiding softneck varieties) small bunches together and hanging them from the rafters of a well-ventilated shed.
After a few weeks, the bulbs should feel dry, At this point, you can snip off the leaves (leaving a few inches of stem) and roots. You can also gently brush off any dirt, but be careful not to damage the inner layers of the bulb because this will reduce its shelf life. Place the bulbs back on trays or place into mesh bags and allow them to cure for another month.
As you go through your garlic, be sure to set aside your biggest and best bulbs to use for your next year’s garden. Storing your seed garlic at a temperature between 50-65ºF (10-18ºC) is ideal, particularly if you live in a milder climate with a longer time between harvest and planting.
Store the rest of your garlic in a cool, dark, and dry place to keep it flavorful as long as possible.
There are two quirks of my personality that have a habit of sabotaging me this time of year. One is my natural tendency to want to hibernate as the days get colder and darker, and I’ve written in the past about how I struggle in the fall to keep up my positive attitude and maintain healthy habits. The second is that I always want to be doing something productive. It’s hard for me to convince myself to go outside to take a leisurely walk on cloudy cool days because it doesn’t feel productive; I might, it feels like, as well stay inside and get something done around the house. For these reasons, I don’t go outside as much as I would like to in the fall, which also means that I don’t get much exercise either.
So this year, I conspired against myself. There is a row of box elder at the property, running along a tall bank on the edge of the old river channel. The trees are short and mangy, which is pretty much the standard with box elder. As we think about the work we want to do on the land, we see opportunity to plant different trees in this place.
I decided that my project for this fall and winter would be to take down this row of trees so that we can plant something else (probably oaks) there in the spring. Also, I decided that I would do as much of the work as possible using hand tools. Hopefully, I thought, having something productive to do during the cold months would be a convincing way to sidestep my tendency to cocoon this time of year. A few weeks ago I bought a small double-bit ax (which turned out to be more like a large hatchet) and small bow saw with an extra blade made for green wood. Then this weekend was the time to test it all out.
Overall, it was a good start to the project. I cut down a half dozen or so box elder trees. Some were only a few inches in diameter and it only took a few seconds to saw them down. It was interesting to see that box elder trees have pink wood at the boundary between the heartwood and the sapwood. This is a known trait of the species, but I just learned it while watching the saw kick out pink shavings as it cut through fresh wood.
I knocked down several smaller box elders and dragged the tops into the woods, piling it up to make homes for little critters and decomposing organisms (aka rabbitat). I also cut down some tag alders along the shore that seemed likely to compete with the future seedlings for light. Some of the tag alder I dropped directly into the old river channell, presuming that beavers will appreciate them once the water is fully iced over. Others I temporarily placed in a pile along the shore—in a week I’ll come back and see if beavers have taken advantage of the easy food source (and saved me some work of dragging the brush elsewhere).
The last tree that I decided to knock down that day was also the largest. It was about 8-10 inches around, and it took me a half hour of work to get it down. I alternated between using the ax to make a notch in the direction I wanted the tree to fall, and sawing on the opposite side. Much of the time I would saw while kneeling on the ground, making in easy to take small breaks, look around, and enjoy the day. After it dropped, I sawed off the smaller branches of the crown and carried them into the woods, leaving the large bole on the ground to deal with later. While picking up the last of the sticks, I heard a funny sound across the old channel and stopped to look and figure out what it was.
It was an otter. I quickly grabbed my tools and hurried the dogs to the cottage, and then came back with binoculars. Hiding behind the newly-fallen tree, I watched the otter feed in the old river, which was skimmed in a thin layer of soft ice. The otter would swim in the breaks between the ice, dive down, and resurface in another opening.
When I decided that I was going to cut down the trees by hand, some of my friends laughed at me a little and asked why I wouldn’t use a chainsaw. While I was dragging tree limbs into the woods, I could imagine my husband pointing out that we have a tractor that could make the job easier. I knew it would be hard, and I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do it. But in just a few hours, I removed about a quarter of the trees without too much difficulty. It was exactly what I wanted: an excuse to go outside and work, so that I could really play.
My new Thanksgiving tradition is to go for a run. Not a formal Turkey Trot like many towns have, just an average solo run from my house, down the road, and back.
My first Thanksgiving run was two years ago. That year, the first snow dropped about two feet of fluffy snow in a single day right before the beginning of the gun deer season. Cold temperatures and deep snow meant that some hunters were stranded in their deer camps, while others couldn’t get get to theirs. On Thanksgiving day, it was cold, maybe only 15 degrees out. I bundled up and went for a three mile run, excited to be outside and have the day off. The roads are quiet on Thanksgiving, and so I probably only saw a car or two. Near the end of my run, a man was driving his four-wheeler in the opposite direction. We were both bundled up and looked cold. I was enjoying my run and felt that of the two of us I had the better deal, but he may have thought otherwise.
I don’t remember last year’s run, except that I did run and that I remember thinking how different the conditions where from the previous year. We had a mild fall last year, and it was only on the evening of Thanksgiving that the weather switched and our first snow started.
This year, the conditions were somewhere in between those two years. Our first snow came about a week ago, and a few inches of sloppy, slushy snow fell last night. Getting ready to run, I put on wool socks and prepared to have cold, wet feet the entire time. But I was lucky and the snow on the road had melted enough that I didn’t need to run through much slush. It was almost entirely quiet out on the road, mostly just the sound of my steps and my breathing. In covering 4 miles, I encountered only two trucks. The highlight was watching a crow (or a raven; I still can’t tell the difference) fly from tree top to tree top and listening to the sound of its wings. There were some chickadees too, and a few screams from my neighbors’ kids playing in the woods back behind their house. But other than that, it was very quiet. Just me and the woods and my thoughts.
While I ran, I listed off some of the things I’m grateful for: the health of my friends and family; that I have such wonderful friends and family; that I can run 4 easy miles without much effort; that my feet weren’t sopping wet. I thought a little about what I want to do better next year, too. But mostly I just ran and didn’t think too hard.
In the morning, I found myself grateful that the sun always rises. Every day, cloudy or clear, the sun still spins on its axis, spinning circles among the sun and stars.
Before dawn, the sky was partly clear. Enough to make out the Big Dipper and North Star hovering above the woods. The North Star is high in the sky this time of year since the Northern Hemisphere leans toward it. Orion was visible to the south, providing the early morning greeting that I’ve gotten used to as I walk from my house to my car in the darkness.
The sky was brighter when I arrived at work, both because of city lights and because of the rising sun. Only two stars were visible, one dimly to the west and another bright in the eastern sky. The eastern morning star is probably a planet, probably Jupiter now that I have the time to look it up. In the morning, I stared at one faraway space rock while standing on another that was right under my feet.
Then, the sun rose. And it stayed up for about nine and a half hours. This might have been the best part of my day, even though I was indoors almost that entire time.
I’ve been a bit ornery the past few days. This time of year is always rough. I hate the time change in the fall because the abrupt shift to an earlier sunset makes me starved for daylight. Two hours of sunlight after work becomes one, and suddenly I don’t know what to do with myself with it getting dark by 6 pm. When can I find time to garden, run, or do any of the other things I want to do?
I’m not sure. That’s a struggle every year. But until I figure that out. I can watch the sky and be grateful that the world still spins and the sun still rises, every day and no matter what else happens.
I went home to visit my family in south central Wisconsin last week, but this time it was a bit different because I was coming from Minneapolis. Despite growing up just four hours from the city, and it being one of the closest cities to my current home in the U.P., I’d only been to Downtown Minneapolis once before: for a National Honor Society field trip in high school.
When my work in the city was done, I started to head home. The original plan was to go home directly via the freeways and arrive in about 4 hours. But I thought that it would be a good idea to find a spring and load up on artesian water before heading to the sandy farmlands of central Wisconsin. Instead of staying on the freeway, I headed south along the Mississippi River.
In the small town of Prescott, Wisconsin, I stopped at a park that overlooked the merging of the substantial St. Croix River into the even bigger Mississippi. A train traveled north on the tracks located at the bottom of the bluff, and I talked with two nice old men who were out watching birds at a small nature center.
I continued my trip along the river. The spring didn’t pan out; it was on heavily-signed private property and inaccessible. But by that point I was captivated by the oak bluffs and river views along the road. I continued south along the Mississippi on the Minnesota side until I was close to the crossing in La Crosse, Wisconsin, adding at least one hour onto my trip by taking slow roads and making a few stops.
When it was about time to turn east into Wisconsin and leave the Mississippi River, I turned west and drove a few extra miles to Great River Bluffs State Park. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time left to reach my parents’ house before dark and so I couldn’t linger as much as I wanted to.
I wished that I’d planned my day better so that I’d been able to spend more time along the Mississippi, and in Wisconsin too. I finally headed east to Wisconsin, driving down from the river bluff forests into rolling farmlands. I also wished that I’d read the appropriate sections of Wisconsin’s Ecological Landscapes so that I’d had a better sense of what I was driving through and could appreciate it more. Regardless, I enjoyed seeing new places and extending my mental map of the landscape a little farther westward.
That wasn’t my only meandering trip. After spending a few days in my hometown, I had to drive south to Madison. Again, my original plan to take the most efficient highways and freeways was tossed aside when I realized that I could wander through some new places. I took the county roads south, winding through the Amish country that I had visited the previous day with my brother.
I stopped at a bridge that crossed the Fox River. I grew up on the Fox River, but much father downstream where the river is 100 yards wide and an eerie opaque green color from flowing through miles of farmland. Here near the head waters it was just a small creek, flowing through mostly woods and marsh. I had not thought much about the Fox River upstream of where I lived, only it’s northeasterly path downstream to the paper mills and factories stretching from Appleton to Green Bay.
Not far down the road, I was given another reminder of the Fox River, as I passed the location where Marquette, the Jesuit priest, portaged the short distance from the Fox to the Wisconsin River, before continuing on to the Mississippi. I’d been to this spot and to the nearby historical buildings during a field trip in fourth grade, but I don’t remember much from that. If we were taught the river’s looping upstream course in school, I remember none of it. From this point, I passed into the Wisconsin River watershed and into a different landscape of large, flat farm fields on soils more suited to agricultural production. And then into Madison.
I’m always struck by how much I love the landscape where I grew up. I don’t think I could live there ever again; I feel too crowded by people and roads and private land when I visit. But I love to visit, and see the place where I grew up with fresh eyes. I love the small, rolling hills and the marshes and the oak forests (although not the buckthorn that has taken over the understory). I picked a part of the U.P. that has some of these characteristics to be my home now; I just hope that I can learn the characteristics of this place without having to move away.
When I was thinking about the past garden year, I was mainly thinking about my vegetable garden. Who knew that I would have so much to say about perennials? But I did have a lot to say, enough to make have an entire post on my perennial gardens. Now, I’ll focus on my vegetable garden.
This year I took the the Master Gardener class and went to a season extension workshop at the North Farm, both of which really motivated me to spend more time gardening this year. It also motivated me to spend more time planning, which I didn’t anticipate but I do appreciate because it allowed me to use my garden space much better than I ever have before. I’ve always been one to push the boundaries of our short growing season by planting lettuce as soon as the snow melts, but I now have a better foundation for understanding how to really get more out of my garden.
My new view on gardening is this: there is not a single garden season. Rather, being a gardener is perhaps like being a professional athlete. Really!—hear me out on this. There is not a single garden season that lasts from May to September, with the rest of the year being dormant for both garden and gardener. Nope, the gardener’s season is like that of the professional athlete. There is a pre-season intended for getting ready; it involves new gear, sore muscles, and even a few pre-season games in the form of early-season greens. The regular season is what always comes to mind: the weekly routine of planting, weeding, and watering where the big stars like tomatoes and peppers get all the press. During the post-season, you reap what you sowed earlier the year; if you didn’t perform well in the earlier seasons, its too late now. And while people don’t talk about the off-season, it’s a critical time for taking some time to relax and recover while also building the foundation for the next year. Continue reading “2016 Gardens in Review, Part 2”→
Last week I was feeling pretty unmotivated in the evenings and watched a lot more TV than normal. The weather was generally okay, in that cool, damp, mid-fall kind of way. Part of me wanted to go outside, but a bigger part of me was lazy and couldn’t think of anything to do outside, so I stayed in.
Upon reflection, I realized what the problem was: the gardening season is practically over. I didn’t know what to do with myself since cool weather, short nights, and dying plants were making it difficult to garden in the evenings. And that was bumming me out.
The garden season isn’t quite over yet. Amazingly enough, we still haven’t had our real first frost—last year it came late around October 18 and this year it will be even later. Plus, there are still a handful of chores that I can focus on before the snow flies: weeding grasses, fixing the garden door, amending soils, and maybe experimenting with planting seeds in winter. I still have a friend’s tiller that I borrowed earlier this year (in April!) and haven’t returned, so there’s also the opportunity to create more garden spaces too.