May. It’s tempting, after so many months of carefully managing a garlic crop through the travails of winter, to sit back and enjoy the fine weather. We’re almost done, right? Well, kind of. If we walk away and leave it be, we’ll still reap some benefit of a full year’s hard work. But if we just stay the course a bit longer…
In early May most varieties haven’t begun to divide into cloves yet, so snatching the random double for a green garlic treat will give its companion room to make a nice bulb. And the farmer has the makings of a fine meal; just add some asparagus, and morels if you’re lucky enough.
Next the hard-stem varieties will start to send up scapes. Snap them soon, for yet another culinary treat; chop and add to any dish, blend into pesto, or even make a batch of fermented garlic scape paste. Early removal of the scapes will let the plant direct its energy to the bulb, and bigger bulbs are what we’re after.
While all the new spring plantings call for our attention, it’s critical to not neglect the garlic. There’s no need for further fertilizing as the garlic has already made all its layers by now, but weeds need to be kept under control, and regular scheduled watering must be maintained if the weather is dry, especially if the crop isn’t mulched. This is the time garlic swells into bulbs, and adequate water will make great bulbs. If the crop dries out at this point it may decide the end is near and start drying down early, preparing to go dormant until the next growing season. We want our garlic to feel like life’s abundant, and to keep getting fatter until the day length says to stop. So keep the water coming and watch those bulbs size up. When there’s just two or three sets of green leaves left, that’s when it’s time to dry down, but not before.
If the skies over your farm or garden give too much rain, the challenge will be to keep weeds away and make sure the water can drain so the crop can air out and soak up the sunshine a bit between soaks. Wet mulch and dense weeds will hold in moisture and keep bulbs soggy, not a good thing. Hopefully you’ve planted in raised beds if your field is subject to wet spring weather, and you can bide your time without the chore of watering.
As the garlic is shining in all its May glory, or not… this is also a good time to compare varieties. Which looks best, which is big and healthy. Each farm, each climate, each soil will favor certain types of garlic over other. Take notes on how each looks, when they set scapes, when they start to dry down, which is most resistant to pests or diseases. Now’s the time to plan for next season, so observe, and prepare for the next step – harvest! More on that topic in June.