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Garlic part of winter solstice tradition

To harvest garlic like this in late June, plant garlic now.
(Photo courtesy Penn State University Cooperative Extension)

Plant cloves on the shortest day for summer harvest

Plant on the shortest day; harvest on the longest. That’s the garlic mantra.

Is the winter solstice really the best day to plant garlic? And summer solstice the peak of harvest?

To develop mature bulbs, garlic needs about six months. In Sacramento and parts of California where hard frosts are rare, that solstice-to-solstice schedule is both easy to remember and effective. It’s a tradition for a reason: It works.

To celebrate today’s first day of winter, plant some cloves and watch them develop through the seasons.

We really love garlic. Americans now eat four times as much garlic per capita as we did in 1980, averaging about 2.5 pounds per person a year. Although garlic has been grown in the United States since the 1700s, it was primarily considered an Asian medicinal herb until the 1920s. That’s when Italian immigrants in California first popularized its culinary assets.

Thanks to Gilroy and other garlic centers, California is The Garlic State, leading the nation in production. Historically, the two most common commercial varieties are the aptly named California Early and California Late, according to UC Davis and state ag reports. Both of these California favorites are “softneck” or silver skin varieties. They rarely produce seed stalks. Instead, they concentrate their energy into making new bulbs.

Love of the stinking rose has brought interest to many other varieties. Creole, the purple-skinned garlic commonly grown in Mexico, is a “hardneck” garlic. Other popular hardnecks include Roja, German Red, Valencia and Continental. Also called top-setting garlic, it produces a strong stem or “scape” (itself an unusual vegetable) and little bulbils (like mini bulbs) on top. Those bulbils can be planted to produce new garlic plants.

Besides adding flavor to summer meals, garlic plants also act as a natural pest deterrent. But they can be finicky. Avoid planting garlic in the same spot where onions, garlic or other alliums have grown in the past two or three years; that cuts down on potential pest problems and other issues.

Here are more tips for garlic-growing success:

* Garlic needs good drainage. It can’t stand soggy feet. Plant in raised beds or containers for best results. Add a few scoops of well-aged compost before planting.

* Plant the individual cloves, not a whole bulb. Break apart a bulb within 24 hours of planting; that preserves the piece of “foot” at the base of the clove that will form new roots.

* Plant the cloves 2 inches deep with the pointy end up, spaced 6 to 8 inches apart. Water once, then let rest. They’ll need water once a week through January and early February; usually, rain will take care of that irrigation.

* After the cloves sprout, water once or twice a week. Avoid soggy soil (that prompts rot), but keep soil from completely drying out.

* Garlic doesn’t like competition; remove any weeds around the young plants.

* For late birds, garlic can be planted in spring for late summer or fall harvest.

For lots more on growing great garlic, visit the Vegetable Research and Information Center resource page from the UC Cooperative Extension:


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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