Into the fourth week of April, buds are swelling on only two woody plants in Marjorie’s Garden, Lonicera canadensis (American fly honeysuckle) and Viburnum acerifolium (maple-leaf viburnum). Both are native woodland understory shrubs that will gamble against a late freeze for several days of unobstructed sunlight before the canopies of tall trees close over them. We brought the viburnums into the garden many years ago for their long-lasting clusters of creamy white spring flowers, blue summer berries, and fall foliage of salmon pink brushed with spots of purple. The honeysuckles came a few years later to grace a shady spot with lovely light yellow spring flowers that are quickly followed by bright red fruits. Both flowers and fruits are borne in fused pairs, a characteristic of the genus.
In the perennial garden where sunlight has warmed the bare soil to several degrees above air temperature, we are greeted by the fresh green leaves of lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), ornamental onion (Allium cernuum), and Sedum x ‘Autumn Joy’, along with the ferny gray-green new foliage of Achillea millifolium. Other plants, such as the peach-leaved campanula (Campanula percisifolia) and Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’, emerge from winter’s snow cover with last years foliage looking as fresh as new growth. All of this foliage hugs the warm soil, waiting for May.
Out in the vegetable and small fruits garden, alliums take center stage at the moment. The soil in raised beds is now thawed completely, allowing for planting of leeks and onions. The onion variety is “Copra”, as always, a rock-hard onion that stores well through the winter and beyond. This year, for the first time, we planted a leek called “Lancelot”, a variety that matures in autumn rather than in summer. Of course, we will harvest a few immature leeks in summer, leaving more space for the rest to mature.
On the opposite side of the vegetable garden, fall-planted garlic and French shallots are just emerging, the signal to remove the deep winter mulch of straw laid down over the beds in late November. Despite frigid winter temperatures, every clove of garlic now sends up a shoot while the earliest shallots, those that emerged beneath the straw, display a tuft of etiolated shoots soon to turn green.
Other perennial crops remain dormant. It will be May before we see the tips of asparagus spears, the emerging leaves of rhubarb, or the leaves of raspberry canes and highbush blueberry stems.
The new garden season has finally arrived in Marjorie’s Garden, and none too soon. Winter was too long, too cold. For the first time in my history with Marjorie’s Garden, a chain saw is the chosen tool for much of the work to be done; stacks of firewood, mostly from fallen birches and one large black cherry, punctuate the landscape, along with piles of brush waiting to be burned.
Cultivating Fall-planted Garlic
There are two types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. Chances are, if you planted garlic last fall you planted hardneck garlic, for it is well known to be better suited to the cold New England climate. If you’re not sure, it will be easy to tell this summer as hardneck varieties produce the stiff flowering stalks called “scapes”. Softneck varieties do not produce scapes.
When you harvest your fall-planted garlic crop in late July or early August, each small clove planted the previous early November will have become a bulb of several cloves. Between now and then, there are a few cultural requirements that must be met in order to maximize the harvest.
The winter straw mulch that was removed when the garlic sprouts first broke ground should remain close at hand until the threat of a late freeze has passed. Then, after the soil warms a bit, some of the straw can be tucked between the rows to suppress weeds and retain soil moisture.
Like onions, garlic is shallow rooted and does not compete well with weeds. Not a day in the garden should pass without a check of the beds where both of these crops grow, pulling any weed seedlings that have managed to pop up through the mulch. Also check the soil moisture level on a daily basis and water as often as needed to keep the soil moist.
In mid-May and again in mid-June, fertilize your garlic with an organic fertilizer high in nitrogen, such as fish emulsion. This will ensure maximum leaf development which in turn will ensure large bulbs at harvest time.
Hardneck garlic will produce scapes starting in June. While there is some debate about the benefit of removing these scapes, most research indicates that cutting them off soon after they appear will result in larger bulbs. Don’t throw them away! Instead, toss the diced scapes into salads and stir fries. If you wait to cut them until they start to curl they may be a little tough, but they can still be used to make a hearty garlic broth.
Garlic should be harvested when about a third of the leaves have turned brown. Keeping them in the ground longer may result in separation of the cloves within the bulb, a condition that reduces storage life. We dig our garlic with a garden fork rather than pulling them up.
Garlic bulbs should be cured after lifting. This can be done by spreading them on screens in a dry, airy, warm place for two to four weeks. Alternatively, they can be hung in small bunches from the rafters of the porch or garden shed, away from blowing rain. Once cured, you should trim the roots and cut off two-thirds of the tops, leaving enough dried leaves to braid with jute string into bundles of ten or so bulbs. These bundles can then be hung in a cool, relatively dry location for winter storage. We store our garlic in the basement, having invested in a small dehumidifier that runs through the winter directly beneath the hanging bunches of garlic and onions, keeping the air around them at between 60 and 65 percent humidity.
Remember to save the largest bulbs of each variety for replanting in the fall. We keep our “planting stock” in small paper bags, each labeled by variety and stored in a cool, dry location.
If you are looking ahead to late fall to start growing garlic, hardneck varieties that have performed well for us include “Russian Red”, “German Extra Hardy”, and “Georgian Fire”. We are also growing “Music” this year, a variety that comes highly recommended by our good friend and garlic guru, Ron Kujawski, who gardens in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.
The emergence of garlic shoots from the just-thawed ground is truly a harbinger of spring, an event that heralds the start of a new garden year. Seeing those tiny pointed shoots reaching for sunlight will soften all memories of the long, hard winter.
Author’s Note: I will be speaking at the Newport Cultural Center in Newport, Maine, this coming Saturday, April 26, at 11:00 am. My talk will be all about “Gardening with Insects, the Little Things that Run the World”, a major theme in our book, THE NEW ENGLAND GARDENER’S YEAR. Following the talk there will be a book signing event. This program is sponsored by the Sebasticook Garden Club. Come join us!