Growing garlic at home

We at the MHM household run through tons of garlic. Between heavy habits of Italian, Mexican, and Asian foods, and our semi-regular practice of roasting a whole chicken stuffed with lemon and garlic, I could probably grow an acre of it and still wish I had a bit more. But we must start somewhere.

‘Somewhere’ means half a pound, two weeks late. I meant to order my garlic several weeks ago, when I spent a rainy day picking out attractive starter packs from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalogue. I forgot that I was not the only one interested in starting some garlic. When I placed my order first thing this morning, I had to settle for my fourth choice, as my top three had sold out.

Garlic planting season begins October 15 for me, and runs through the first of December. Garlic likes fertile, well drained soil rich in organic matter (who doesn’t?). Individual cloves planted two inches deep in the fall develop substantial root systems before winter–all three weeks of it–sets in. Increasing warmth and light in the spring cue the plants to fatten their bulbs. At this time the gardener should ensure a steady supply of moisture, or suffer puny bulbs come harvest time. I promise that it is worth the trouble of watering regularly. Little is more disappointing than to seize a handful of garlic greens, intent upon unearthing one’s own weight in pungent, papery glory, and come up with little more than what was planted six months prior.

I ordered a half pound of Red Toch softneck garlic, an heirloom variety originating from the Republic of Georgia that performs well in the Southeast. The catalogue promises “spicy fragrance and consummate flavor.” I am considering interplanting some of it in my perennial beds, partly because I don’t have adequate space to dedicate to vegetables, and partly because I am intrigued by the lore of companion planting and want to discover if any benefits can be observed. We shall find out next spring.

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Breaking bud*

I am in charge of a small community garden whose proceeds benefit our local food bank. It’s time to start seeds for fall food crops, but the weather outside is a bit harsh for seed-starting for those plants that don’t require direct-seeding. Although the summer, I must admit, has been cooler than normal, it’s still in the low 90s and the humidity is unbelievable. We expect thunderstorms every night this week.

So I decided it was time to fire up the grow lights.

You can purchase light stands for seed starting from fancy gardening catalogues for well over $200 apiece, but I always find the cheap hack much more satisfying. Here, I have commandeered a shelf in a closet in our kids’ playroom. The closet was supposed to be dedicated to my husband’s drums, but I hate to see a closet shelf go to waste.

the MHM grow light operation

I had the shop light from my days in Chicago, when I had a similar apparatus in my apartment (yes, I’m cheap enough to haul a $20 shop light halfway across the country. There was room in the truck). A few eye screws and a home light timer later, and we are in business. A not-for-profit, vegetable-growing business, officer.

I love this seed-starting tray. It works as well or better than many of those styrofoam cell packs on the market, and they’re much easier to clean. The base holds about 2 quarts of water, meaning I don’t have to refill often. The individual trays rest on a capillary mat whose ends lie in the base, and the trays wick up water from the capillary mat to provide moisture to the growing plants. Each dome has a circular dial on the top, like you might find on a container of salt from the supermarket, that allows you to adjust the humidity by varying the amount the aperture is open.

separate seed-starting trays allow seven different plants to be started at once.

These trays allow me to start small quantities of seven different kinds of plants at a time,  each progressing at its own rate. I can pot one tray up while the other six continue to grow, and then I can start more plants in the first one again. Here I’ve got Brussels sprouts, short-season bush cucumbers, and kale. Since I took the photo I’ve added broccoli and, what the heck, campanulas (I can plant perennials all year round). My kids have claimed the kale seedlings for kale chips, their favorite wintertime snack (that isn’t chocolate or otherwise sugar-laden, that is).

The timer, for now, brings the lights on at 6 a.m. and turns them off at 11 p.m. I check the plants maybe every other day until I see some action.

Happy fall vegetable gardening!

*No, not that kind of bud.

Shock and Augh!: When garden labor goes unappreciated

Gardeners will go to extraordinary lengths, sometimes, to prevail over Mother Nature.

Exhibit A: The Blueberry Fortress

blueberry fortress

I wish I could take credit for inventing this contraption, but I cannot. I saw it in a recent issue of Fine Gardening.

I like blueberries, but I live with someone who LOVES blueberries. I can’t grow many food crops because of the deep shade that covers most of my garden, but in this 15′ square little plot off the edge of our deck, I manage to grow three little blueberry bushes. The rest of the space is a large nursery bed for everything else I’ve acquired but don’t know where to put.

Blueberries are a painless plant to grow, but saving the fruit from our woodland neighbors is not so easy. In the past I have put up tall tomato stakes and attached netting to them, but my technique with this equipment is insufficiently refined. Tired of entangling myself in bird netting every time I wanted to harvest, I knew when I saw this article in a recent issue of Fine Gardening, I had to act.

The walk-in cage (that doesn’t sound dodgy at all, does it?) is made of 8 lengths of 8 1/2′ long, 1/2-inch PVC pipe, joined at the top by a 90-degree elbow. The uprights are anchored in 1-foot lengths of 1-inch PVC, hammered into the ground. The bird netting is anchored onto the frame with twist-ties. The whole edifice cost less than $20 at the local hardware store, and the only tools I needed were a hammer and a small saw.

When I presented The Fortress to the blueberry aficionado-in-residence, all he said was, “Wow.”  It didn’t sound like the awe-stricken “Wow” I was hoping for. It sounded similar, actually, to the “wow” I got when, eleven years ago, the same Aficionado came home from a late-evening grad school class to find a 9-week-old sitting happily in his swing, having not napped for 17 hours, and I, lying on the floor, laughing ridiculously to a Baby Einstein foreign language video, greeted him with a hearty “Konichiwa!”

If it’s going to be like that, we’ll see who gets the blueberries on her cereal.