Damn. Disastrous Garlic Harvest This Year…

I had high hopes for this year’s garlic crop. Based on results over the past couple of years, where four seed-stock bulbs resulted in forty plants and a harvest of around 36 good-sized bulbs, I was confident of a repeat performance. Last Autumn I used the same seed stock supplier and same planting method again – maybe positioning the cloves a little deeper – and rotated the planting location out of raised bed #2 and into first section of the long veg bed.

All seemed to be going well – strong growth, plenty of leaf and stem, no bolting – until last weekend, when I grabbed my garden fork and lifted the first few bulbs…

A horrible sight greeted me: rot, and lots of it. Some stems just broke away from the mush that maybe used to be a garlic bulb. Some bulbs had barely formed and were mostly mush anyhow. Others could have been halfway-decent, if not for the white mould, black skin and odour of rot. From the 40 cloves I planted last Autumn, I think I can salvage maybe eight or nine bulbs, of which two might be the sort of thing you can pick up in Sainsburys for 30p each.

I think the culprit has to be the piss-poor Spring. The plants seemed to have over-wintered nicely, despite the particularly harsh conditions, but then when Spring was delayed they just weren’t able to get up to speed. Too much cold, too much moisture. Bad luck all round.

So it goes, I suppose. But garlic is such a favourite, and usually such a reliable cropper, that this is a particularly disappointing result. Fingers crossed for better luck next year.

Gardening for the Hungry Gap – How Do You Fill Yours?

Late February, early March. Winter crops are getting a bit past their best and – unless you’re geared for polytunnel production or have a huge, heated greenhouse – Spring crops aren’t anywhere near ready yet. Awkward time of year if you’re looking for fresh fruit and vegetables that haven’t been imported from South America or Africa.

It’s called the “Hungry Gap” and for good reason. Here’s an illustration based on my own thin-on-the-ground produce.

Available to me as of right now, I have:

  1. A few bulbs of last year’s garlic.
  2. Some straggly kale that isn’t particularly good because I didn’t get it started early enough last year.

…no, that’s my lot. Barely a couple of portions of a side-dish. Definitely not a Hungry Gap filler.

So, this year I’d like to do a bit more in the way of forward planning and crop management planning that will provide something fresh to eat this time next year.

Any suggestions? Recommendations? Tips on timing? All advice gratefully received, via the comments, or on Facebook, if you’re reading this there.

Plot Report: End of April 2012

Not much to report recently, hence the lack of reportage. After the March heat-wave, April set in and showered with a vengeance. Blew a couple of gales, too. As a result the ground has been cool and damp and even the greenhouse hasn’t gotten much above ambient temperature for the past few weeks. So not much of anything I’ve sown so far has germinated, and those few seedlings that did make a break for it haven’t really developed much further.

In the Greenhouse

From the reasonably long list of seeds I planted from mid-March through to mid-April, hardly anything has made much of an effort.

I do have a couple of straggly broad bean plants, a weedy courgette and a few miniscule tomato seedlings:

But that’s about all. Maybe one of a couple dozen chilli and another dozen or so pepper seeds has taken. The rest of the broad beans I sowed either rotted or scorched back in March. I’ve seen nothing from the gherkins and only two of the six tomato varieties I put in have shown so far.

Early days yet, I know, but at this rate I’m going to have a couple of very busy weekends re-sowing most of what I’ve done already in the hope of warmer weather to follow.

There are two success stories, though. Firstly, the Bingo (x3) and Mangetout Red Shiraz (x6) peas have established nicely in their pots:

The salads are doing fine as well, although the first batch of mixed leaves that I planted micro-herb style haven’t done so well after the first cropping and are bolting already. But it was old seed anyhow, so that doesn’t matter so much. The two varieties of oakleaf lettuce are doing well and the pea shoots in the background keep shooting up:

The Raised Beds

Raised Bed #1 is thriving, with the seemingly-indestructable strawberry plants putting on plenty of new leaf and even a few blossoms already, plus the raspberry canes sending out runners galore, many of which I’ll need to uproot at the end of the season before they take over completely:

In Raised Bed #2 the spring onions need to be harvested and the garlic is coming along nicely. Not much activity from the six different types of salad I planted as an interim crop before the runner beans (which I also need to sow) go in at the near end, although it looks like I might get one decent crop of rocket before I rake it over:

Nearby, the various herbs in the herb planters are starting to wake up and put out new leaf at varying rates:

The Fruit Trees

Reliable as ever, the Discovery Apple tree has put out masses of blossom and is promising a bumper harvest in due course:

There’s a few blossoms and a decent amount of leaf on the Crab Apple (which is still barely three feet high – I’m not really happy with the money I paid for it, I have to say) and the Damson is leafing well. But the Bloody Ploughman has failed to blossom again, for the third year running, unless it’s going to put on an extremely late show. I think this year I’ll leave it un-pruned and see if that makes a difference next year (and that, in essence is the worst thing about this gardening lark – I’m not sure I’m wired for the levels of patience required just to see if trying something differently is going to work out or not…)

The Veg Beds

Over in the original beds, I’ve stripped and eaten the last of the leaves from last year’s kale plants (which I’m definitely doing again this year, in raised bed #2, once the garlic is done) and dug them out, planting this year’s potato crop; a bag of seed Maris Piper’s that I picked up in Sainsbury’s on a ‘what the hell’ basis. Not much to look at now, but with any luck in a couple of months it’ll be a sea of foliage:

The half-dozen compost sacks of salad spuds that I planted up (supermarket Lady Balfour and Anya, two tubers to a sack this year instead of three) seem to have sprouted nicely and I’m covering them over with compost as I go.

The blueberries have blossomed well, so hopefully we can expect another decent crop this year:

And finally, our oldest rhubarb crown is growing very strongly indeed and I’ll be raiding it for the first stalks of the season in, ooh, about ten minutes or so:

So: not terrible so far, but if memory serves, not quite as promising as things were this time last year. Hopefully the next time I put together a Plot Report I’ll have more germinated seeds to show off and maybe even a couple of early strawberry fruits, if those blossoms are productive. Fingers crossed.

Garlic Supplies from The Garlic Farm

The order I placed a few weeks back with The Garlic Farm – the UK’s largest garlic grower, based in the Isle of Wight – turned up today (please note, the few weeks delay was only because I ordered seed garlic, which wasn’t ready to send out until now).

That’s four bulbs of seed garlic – one bulb each of Solent Wight, Iberian Wight, Early Purple Wight and Albigensian – along with some sausage-enhancing products that I couldn’t resist – garlic piccallili and mustard with horseradish and garlic – as well as a bottle of garlic beer.

Yes, that’s right. Garlic beer. As in beer brewed the regular way, only with added garlic.

No, I have no idea what it’s going to taste like. But I’ll be sampling it (probably with food) and writing about it on my other blog at some point, if you’re as curious as I am.

Autumn Planting: Garlic, Shallots & Onions

It’s now come to that time of year to decide what to plant again, and I’m committing the front garden (which is about a 5′ x 9′ patch of soil behind a waist-high wall) to onions, garlic and shallots.

A couple of days ago I showed the ‘Chesnok Red’ variety of garlic, which we planted last autumn. What I like most about growing my own veg is not the aim for total self-sufficiency (though one day that would be lovely), but to find more interesting varieties. As is widely documented, varieties grown for supermarkets are largely about shelf-life and transportation rather than flavour. So, with that in mind, I’ve been looking up some interesting varieties from Thompson & Morgan, and placed orders for the following:

Shallot ‘Eschalote Grise’ – “A khaki coloured shallot originating in Kazakhstan, and rarely seen in Britain. This gourmet Shallot ‘Eschalote Grise’ is prized in French cuisine for its intense and concentrated flavour.”

Onion ‘Senshyu’ – “Onion ‘Senshyu’ is one of the original Japanese overwintering varieties, which has proven successful for many years. This reliable main crop produces good yields of semi-flat bulbs with straw yellow skins.”

Garlic ‘Lautrec Wight’ – “A classic ‘hardneck’ variety named for its place of origin in South West France. Garlic ‘Lautrec’ is widely regarded as France’s finest garlic producing very pretty bulbs with white outer skins and deep pink cloves.”

As you can see, I’ve gone for the more exotic options where possible (not to mention the fancy culinary types). I love the idea of rare things, unusual varieties; it’s what gives the whole process such an air of satisfaction.

Now, that patch of ‘land’ out front is also a top destination for cats when they require the lavatory, so I’ve had it with all the usual contraptions (chicken manure pellets weren’t too bad a deterrent) and will be trying to create some ridiculously over-the-top net system to keep the blithers off digging up the bulbs. Expect some interesting pictures if I commit to my madness.

‘Chesnok Red’ Garlic

I planted these Chesnok Reds last autumn, and they were doing rather well before that huge weather front slid down from the Arctic and covered the UK in snow for ages. Used to the climate of Shvelisi in Georgia, I’m not sure if they would have turned out any better or not with a warmer winter, but they did well to survive. However, they seemed a bit slow for the rest of this year, so I left these in until August, when they all finally seemed to be dying out and ready to be dug up.

They smell and taste incredible – as soon as they’re unearthed you get a blast of their heady aroma. This is far better than anything I’ve bought in the supermarket. I’m sure growing your own garlic is not a necessity for gardeners (you can easily get them in shops, after all, and very cheaply), but after sampling these, I consider it a must-grow veg for the plot: it takes up very little space (a 2′ x 3′ area) and the rewards are worthwhile.

Final note: my good lady made them a nice hessian bag to hang in (pictured above).

Successional Sowing – Autumn & Winter Salads

Back at the very end of July, I took a look at the state of garlic and potato crops in the second raised bed and realised that they’d probably both done as much growing as they were likely to. So I decided to whip them out of there and indulge in a spot of successional sowing.

One of the keys to getting the best from a backyard kitchen garden is to use your limited space for maximum production, without disturbing your crop-rotation system. Which is why I decided to plant a few autumn & winter salad leaf crops (pak choi) in the space where the garlic had been growing and some quick-growing leaves and mini-tubers (cress, rocket, beetroot and radish) alongside spring onions in the section where the spuds were and the garlic will be next year.

Here’s what the bed looked like before I started:

The first job was to lift the garlic bulbs (which weren’t quite as impressively proportioned as the last batch, but still made for a reasonable haul:

That lot was put into the greenhouse to dry. And then it was the turn of the spuds:

I wasn’t expecting a huge crop as these were all either supermarket-sprouters or leftover spudlets from last season that had popped up elsewhere and just been transplanted into the raised bed to fill a gap or two. But still, as I mentioned a while back, I got a reasonable mix of tubers of assorted sizes.

With the bed clear, it was time some essential soil improvement. I’m usually a big fan of the no-dig method – mulching over the Autumn and letting the worms, the rains and winter’s frosts do the work of incorporating the organic matter into the soil, or raking in a top-layer of compost in the Spring before planting – but when I dug up the spuds I discovered a bit of a problem.

It turned out that the tonne of ‘premium, organic-matter rich’ soil that I invested in when the beds were constructed last year actually contains quite a lot of heavy clay material, which has become incredibly dense and sticky over the past 12 months. There was a lot more clay in the potato end of the bed, but I think that’s mainly because the garlic end was partially in the rain-shadow of the sycamore tree that dominates that end of the garden, so hadn’t become as damp or water-logged through the year.

So, anyway, I decided to dig over and break up the entire bed before sowing the new crops and by doing so, hopefully improve drainage in the longer-term. Nothing for it but to set to with fork and rake and hack into all that clay-rich soil:

It took the best part of an hour, probably a bit longer than it might have as I was also doing my best to retain the 50-50 partition between the two halves of the bed to maintain my 4-bed rotation system without mixing the soils up too much. Here’s some of that heavy clay I mentioned:

Had to take the spade to that, slice and dice before breaking it down further with the rake.

I also took the opportunity to mix in some once-used compost; from a couple of this year’s potato sacks (for the potato end of the bed) and from a couple of long trays of beetroot that failed to germinate properly back in April, when everything was so damn hot.

I ended up with a reasonably tilth that wasn’t too coarse; fine enough to chance sowing a selection of those aforementioned salad crops: two varieties of spring onion and four varieties of pak choi, plus American land cress, rocket, beetroot and radish.

When we got back from our Devon and Cornwall holiday a fortnight later, I was pleased to see that everything had germinated, and with some alternating warm / wet weather since then, all that tasty salad stuff seems to be coming along nicely:

I think I’ll thin out the beetroot and radish before too long, before they get too crowded. And then the longer-term plan is to harvest the rocket and land cress when it’s ready in order to make way for next year’s garlic crop (I’ve already ordered the seed stock in from to go in and then overwinter alongside the spring onions.

The four pak choi rows at the far end of the bed can remain in place a little longer; that section won’t be needed again until I’m ready to plant out next year’s runner beans in May or June. And if I end up harvesting the pak choi earlier than that I can always plant some spring lettuce.

If anyone has any suggestions as to other good, quick growing, productive interim crops, please do leave a comment below and let me know.

Plaiting Garlic, a (far-from-)Masterclass

Having harvested a reasonable amount of garlic this year, I’d obviously like to keep it for as long as possible without it re-sprouting or going off. Luckily, the August 2011 issue of Grow Your Own magazine included an article on plaiting garlic for storage, by none other than Colin Boswell, owner of The Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight, the UK’s largest garlic producer.

Mr Boswell explains in the intro to the article that drying the garlic well and leaving a long stem on the bulb, as opposed to trimming the stem and leaves off at the top of the bulb right away, inhibits the bulb’s inclination to germinate and produce shoots, by about three months. So your garlic stays storable and usable for longer. And to keep everything neat and tidy, plaiting the stems helps creates those classic French-style garlic-chains that look so nifty hanging up in the kitchen.

That doesn’t look too bad, I thought. I’ll have a go at that. Here’s what happened…

Step One

For this exercise, you will need: garlic, scissors, flat surface, instructions. Check.

Step Two

Select the bulbs you want to plait and trim the roots back to the plate (the hard bit where they join the bulb). I gave them all a close trim and also removed some of the excess dry leaves (collecting the off-cuts for the compost bin, naturally). As I didn’t want to be too ambitious on my first attempt, I decided to split the following group into two batches with half a dozen bulbs of varying sizes in each, as the article suggested:

Step three

Plaiting (and I’m paraphrasing here, the instructions in the article should probably be followed if you’re trying this at home). Take two bulbs, roots down. place them so they cross over at the neck. Right, no problem. Bring the stem of the right-hand bulb round the stem of the left-hand bulb, then over and down between the two, so they cross over. Okay, so far so good. What’s Next? Then add a third bulb in, tight against the first two. Bring the stem from that one around and over, between the other two. Um, okay… Repeat the process for bulbs four, five, six and onwards, ensuring the weave is kept tight and the stems are wrapped around each other in an orderly manner…

Which all sounds simple enough. no? Sounds it, but what actually occurred was something a little more like this: Add bulb four, stare in a puzzled manner at the stem, trying to work out which of the previous stems to wrap it around. Have a go, get in a mess, whole thing collapses, return to start. Second attempt, bulbs one, two and three a wee bit tighter than before. Going well. Bulb four. Still no idea where to stick the stem. Try something at random. Wrap a couple of the other stems around the new one. That seems to be working. Okay, bulb five. Um, there will do. Right, that stem round there, this one over and round, that other one round and under, then that one, will that fit through there? Hey, look at that, it hasn’t fallen apart yet. Bulb six… oh, wait, bulb three is loose. I’ll just tug it tighter like so, wrap a couple of stems around it, where did I put bulb six. Oh yes, here it is, round the back. Right, bring that one over, that one under, that one over and under, repeat until you’ve got something vaguely resembling some sort of plait…

Step Four

Trim the excess leaves, tie off with string and finish. Voila! Something that looks nothing much like the nice, neat example pictured in the magazine article, but is perfectly serviceable in a slightly hit-and-miss but good-enough (dammit) kinda way:

Step Five

Repeat for plait #2, then hang ‘em both off the cupboard door handles in the kicthen, where the missus can’t fail to spot ‘em and be suitably impressed with your artistic endeavours.

Job’s a good ‘un.

The Garlic Harvest Is In

Jo and I love garlic, and we’ve grown it for the past three or four years. The first couple of years provided mixed success rates (plants bolting very quickly, very small, dry bulbs the result), so when I started thinking about planting this year’s crop back in December, I decided to up my game. Firstly, I ordered a couple of sets (Iberian Wight and Sicilian Red) online from Thompson & Morgan (rather than just picking up random junk at B&Q) and secondly I planted them much earlier than I previously had, to give them the full benefit of what of course turned out to be a very cold winter indeed.

The results were pretty darn impressive, in comparison to previous years. From a third of a raised bed’s worth of planted cloves we’ve ended up with a good couple of dozen fat, sweet bulbs with more still in the ground (although I’ll probably lift those later today as there’s rain forecast for Monday onwards).

Here’s a shot of this year’s harvest drying in the greenhouse a couple of weeks ago:

Those ‘drying racks’ are actually old filing tray baskets that Jo brought home from work following an office moved that saw the old filing system made redundant (we have about a dozen assorted baskets stacked up in the shed by now).

Next up a few handy hints on garlic storage, the slightly hit-and-miss but good-enough (dammit) way.

Plot Summary – May 2011

Well, as you’d expect, things have moved on quite dramatically since my January Plot Summary piece. We’ve had the warmest April since records began (it was also the 11th driest), followed by a recent burst of much wetter weather. It’s as if the weather Gods suddenly realised they’d forgotten to do April, dammit, so decided to cram it into the first two weeks of May to catch up.

Still, the garden’s loving it (occasional thunderstorms aside), although the last couple of weeks have been a little too cold and wet to plant out the pots and pots of young plants currently growing on at a great rate of knots in the greenhouse. I might have to just chuck them in the ground this weekend and hope for the best; I need to get the toms into their grow-bags before too long, so the plastic shelving has to be packed away, which means I need some of the space on the staging back… it’s a delicate choreography, keeping everything running smoothly when you’ve only got 6′x6′ to play with.

Anyhow, here’s what my backyard kitchen garden plot is looking like at the moment:

The strawberries in the first bed put out dozens of flowers during Stupidly Hot April and the bees were busy, but they don’t seem to have done much since. Certainly there’s not much in the way of ripening going on. The garlic in the second bed is reaching jungle-like proportions, and the few spud plants in there as well seem to be doing just fine.

Meanwhile, the runner beans in the back bed are making an effort to get acquainted with the framework I built for them:

Round the corner in the decking area, we have a few old compost sacks planted up with salad spuds (mainly Anya):

Although there’s not much happening on the sweet pea climbing-frame just yet, but it’s still early days. Another burst of warm weather should encourage a growth-spurt, all being well:

I’ll post a few shots of the greenhouse plants and the herb tubs in another post or two; that seems to be where most of the action is at the moment.

Darren Turpin

Gardener at Backyard Kitchen Garden
A passionate gardener with a speciality in growing fruit and vegetables on a budget!

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