The Turning of the Seasons; The Turning of the Garden Bed

How to prepare your garden for restoration this winter
by Emily Petersen, Community Garden & Education Manager


September has finally drawn its curtains and let the beautiful October shine through with the reds and oranges of the majestic sugar maples. Yet with all its glory comes the early whisper of the coming cold season, a time of dormancy and rest for many life forms. The tall sunflowers that stood guard over the Earle Street garden have now served their final role as feed for birds and squirrels. The blossoming dahlias and zinnias that lifted the aisles of the West End garden have begun their heavy-headed descent and the graceful corn stalks over on Affleck Street have turned brown and barren. It’s that time of year that most gardeners are starting to cut back the slowed stalks and prepare the soil for rejuvenation until spring’s first planting.

Putting your garden to rest for the winter is mostly a matter of cleaning up and giving your soil a little spa treatment. It’s a good time to do this now because the weather is still warm enough to get all the pesky remaining roots out of the soil, and there’s still time before the frost to plant cover crops if you choose to. Why should you be sure to prepare your garden bed for winter? Well, if you leave the old stalks of your vegetables in the ground, they can become homes for insect eggs and disease pathogens during the winter. This can cause a whole new set of problems for your garden in the spring. Here are a few tips for turning your vegetable garden bed:

  • If you’ve planted things like carrots, leeks, parsnips, radishes, and turnips in your garden, you may still be able to harvest these well into November. Be sure to mark where they are planted with a stake so you don’t accidentally pull them up as you’re cleaning.
  • Remove other annuals such as your tomato, squash, pea, and bean plants and either compost them or put them in your yard waste.
  • Clear out as many weed as you can and gently till the soil to eliminate any remaining weed roots and harmful insects who may have been trying to build a home in your garden for the winter.
  • To cover your plot for winter you have two options:
    • Add a generous layer of leaves, compost, or manure and mix these in with the soil. This is the favored covering method for raised bed gardens. In addition to providing carbon-based nutrients for the soil, this layer also serves to block out possible air-borne pests and stifle winter-growing weeds. If you choose to use leaves, you might consider covering the layer with a simple netting so the leaves don’t blow away.
    • Sow a cover crop such as winter rye, crimson clover, oats, annual ryegrass, or legumes. Cover crops absorb vital nutrients in the soil that would otherwise be lost due to winter erosion. This is especially relevant for in-ground plots as opposed to raised beds which don’t suffer from too much erosion. The roots continue to massage and break up the soil throughout the winter, increasing its health and aeration. You will till these cover crops into the ground late winter/early spring when you begin to prepare your bed for spring planting.

Many gardeners develop their own special tricks to prepare their gardens for the winter months, experimenting from year to year with what makes their soil healthiest for the next season.


Keepin’ It “Hartford Grown”

How to plant, harvest, and cure your own garlic!
by Emily Petersen, Community Garden & Education Manager

Garlic Planting 10-25-14 022

Garlic is a staple in countless cuisines around the world, adding a rich earthly flavor that gives heart and soul to any dish. Because we use it in so many meals (I know I don’t go a single day without crushing open at least one clove) we often don’t think about where it comes from when we throw a couple heads in our shopping cart at the grocery store. Unlike vegetables and meat which have recently been receiving a whole lot of attention for their sourcing and quality, garlic, for whatever reason, falls beneath this radar for many. Maybe it’s because it is difficult to find garlic in the grocery store that isn’t from China or Mexico. Maybe it’s the lack of awareness that garlic can be grown locally. Either way, KNOX is on a mission to change this habit!

This summer, we harvested 212 heads of garlic planted by our gardeners and volunteers in the fall of 2013. This past Saturday, we planted a little over 20 pounds of garlic at the Mt. Moriah Community Garden at Earle Street. For those who were unable to attend the workshop, here’s what you need to know to try your hand at planting your own garlic at home. Now is the best time to plant in Connecticut, a good 3-6 weeks before the soil freezes. It’s a simple job that will provide you with much satisfaction when it comes time to harvest!

The first thing to do is acquire the garlic to plant. Because we were planting such large amount, we bought ours from The Garlic Farm in West Granby, but if you are doing a personal crop, you can use a few heads that you buy at the store or a farmers market. Just remember to pay attention to the source and quality of the garlic you choose—as they say, you are what you eat!

There are many different types of garlic to choose from, but all fall into two main categories: hard-necked garlic or soft-necked garlic. Hard-necked garlic is the original species from which soft-necked garlics were selectively cultivated by farmers over time through artificial selection. Hard-necked varieties are better for Northern climates since they are hardier. They are also the variety that produce scapes, and generally yield larger cloves. Soft-necked varieties are better for milder climates, do not produce scapes, and grow to maturity more quickly. The variety we chose this year is the German White Hard-Necked Garlic.

When you’ve picked your garlic and you’re ready to plant, just follow a few simple steps:

  1. Prepare the soil where you are going to plant. Remove weeds and stalks of old plants. Add compost or new soil as needed to ensure health and good drainage.
  2. Remove individual cloves from each head of garlic. You do not need to peel the outer layer of skin off of each clove.
  3. With the rounded handle of a hand trowel or hand shovel (just turn the tool upside down) make a hole about 3-4 inches deep.
  4. Place a single clove in the hole, root side down, pointy side up. You can check this by looking at the whole head of garlic. The side that has the roots extending down is the side you want to put in first. If you plant the clove with the top, pointy end facing down your garlic will still grow, the plant will just have to work that much harder to loop the shoot (which comes out from the pointy end) down and around to extend up out of the soil.
  5. Cover the planted cloves. You want them to be about 2 inches deep. Continue planting your rows, at least 6 inches apart on all sides (depending on your space and how much garlic you are growing.)
  6. Top-dress the cloves with compost, mulch, or straw. This will help keep the cloves protected once the ground freezes.

Now, it’s all a waiting game! When spring comes around, you’ll start to see small green shoots emerging from your bed. As the soil starts to warm and these shoots emerge, water the bulbs with about an inch of water per week. Be careful not to overwater. Scapes, or the flowering stalks of the garlic plant, will be ready to harvest beginning to mid-June. Cut these long, winding stems as far down to the base of the plant as you can without cutting any leaves off and use in stir-fries, pesto, or salads. But cutting off the scapes, you are encouraging the plant to solely focus its energy and nutrients on making a bulb as opposed to creating a flower and a bulb. This results in a larger bulb with more cloves!

When the leaves on the garlic stalk begin to look dry and yellowed (usually toward the end of July/beginning of August in Connecticut) you know that the garlic is ready to be harvested. Tug at the base of the plant to uproot the heads, and voila! The garlic is ready to be used immediately. If you plan on storing some of the garlic to use throughout the year, you must first cure. Lay the bulbs out (with all their layers and skin and stalks still attached) on a long table or rack, or hang them in bundles. After 3-4 weeks, trim the stalks to about 12 inches above the bulb, clean off any excess dirt with an old toothbrush, and store in a well-ventilated, dry, and dark place. If you plan on planting garlic again the following year, set aside the largest bulbs for this use.

Happy planting!