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Plant This Fall If You Want to Enjoy Garlic & Spring Bulbs NEXT Season

Q. Dear Mike: I grow garlic,and I love the way corn gluten meal keeps my flower beds weed free. CanI use the corn gluten meal in my garlic beds, or will it keep thegarlic fromsprouting?                      
               ---Steve in Bucks County PA

A. Thanks, Steve; your questionis a great excuse for me to discuss one of the easiest edibles you cangrow! In fact, the only thing remotely 'tricky' about garlic is thatyou MUST plant it in the Fall.  

Obtain some planting garlic from a mail-order source or fellowgardener—don't use regular supermarket garlic, which was probablytreated with a sprouting inhibitor (but store-bought ORGANIC garlic isfine; we organic folks aren't allowed to use such chemicals). Ingeneral, Northern gardeners will do best with 'hard-neck' varieties(these often-colorful garlics tend to have more flavor, but don't storequite as long); Southern and Western growers tend to have better luckwith 'soft-neck' types (like white 'supermarket' garlic—these types aregenerally not as flavorful, but can be stored a month or so longerwithout sprouting).

Carefully break the bulbs apart and plant the cloves individually, afew inches deep and six inches apart in your most fertile soil.Specific timing isn't crucial with this crop; just get it in the groundbetween now and Thanksgiving in the North, West, mid-South—anywhere youget enough of a winter chill to grow garlic successfully. (Sorry,Arizona!)

I planted my first run of cloves last week and will continue to plantmore over the next month or so as my summer crops get pulled out. Youmight see sprouts appear this year; don't worry if they do, it won'thurt the garlic one bit. If you're in a region where the ground freezesreally hard in winter, have a nice load of shredded leaves handy andmulch the garlic patch an inch or two deep AFTER that ground has frozen.

Your garlic-bulbs-to-be will develop nice strong roots this year, andthen the above-ground growth will really take off next Spring. Ifyou're growing hard-neck garlic, clip off the bud-like 'scapes' thatappear at the top of the stalks in mid-Spring (and eat them!);soft-necks don't produce these scapes. As Spring winds down, keep aclose eye on your plants. Pull up a sample bulb when the bottom leavesof your plants begin to turn brown—generally mid-June in myPennsylvania garden, earlier down South. If that test plant has a fullyformed bulb down there, harvest it all; the wrappers will split if youleave your garlic in the ground too long, and then it won't store well.

And Steve, you go right ahead and spread some corngluten over those beds when you plant—this amazing organic 'weedand feed' only prevents SEEDS from sprouting, not cloves, and it's theperfect fertilizer for garlic. A dusting now and again in the Springwill keep the patch weed-free AND provide the nitrogen those clovesneed to become big bulbs.

Q. Hi Mike: Love the show! Ilisten live whenever I get the chance, and when I don't, I listenon-line. My question for you: I planted some spring bulbs last fall,but now the area looks so bare. I want to plant a small shrub in themiddle of the area this fall and then have the bulbs come up around itnext year. So what should I do with the bulbs I dig up? Can I replantthem right away or do I have to wait until November? Thanks!
                ---Marsha Low; Cheltenham, PA

A. Thank YOU 'two', Marsha;your question gives me a great opportunity to point out some importantfacts about Spring bulbs—one of my OTHER favorite Fall plantings!

Like garlic, Spring bulbs must be planted in the Fall—and for the samereason; they need to develop roots and then go dormant to performproperly next year. But UNlike garlic, timing is critical with Springbulbs. Plant them too early and you could ruin next year's show,because—again, UNlike garlic—there's a flower right behind that sprout.

New bulbs (ones purchased this Fall) should not go into the groundbefore Halloween in the North; Thanksgiving or later in the South andWest. The ideal time for your specific region? After nighttime tempshave been consistently in the 40s and low 50s for a solid two weeks,but there's still a good six weeks left before your ground typicallyfreezes hard. That'll give the bulbs enough time to grow good rootsbefore the ground freezes, but not so much time they can sprout thisFall and destroy the flower inside.

So Marsha, you were right on the money when you asked if you shouldwait until November to replant. But if your bulbs have become'naturalized' in your garden and came back reliably this year, theywon't be as fussy. Still, its their first year, so be safe and wait torelandscape until early October, which is a great time to plant newshrubs in our zone.  

But your question also touches on one of the main reasons people'sSpring bulbs DON'T come back reliably—they plant things overtop of thebulbs (generally annual flowers, like marigolds, petuniasor impatiens)to cover the bare spots those tulips, daffs and crocus leave behind insummer. But in their native clime (really God-forsaken mountains inTurkey and Afghanistan), that ground DOES stay barren all summer.Spring bulbs aren't used to having flowers and such planted overtop,and the food and water those flowers receive often rots the bulbsbelow. But your plan—a big shrub in the middle—shouldn't cause the samekind of problems. Just be sure and choose plants that don't need a lotof food and that won't require any more water than what they get fromrain.

And for the bonus round, try and position your new plantings so thatthey hide the fading foliage of the bulbs. That's the other big reasonSpring bulbs fail to return; people don't like the look of the plantsafter the flowers are finished and cut them back to the ground rightaway. But if you don't leave those leaves in place until they turnbrown, they won't collect enough sunlight to grow new flowers for thefollowing year.

That's why I like to plant later-bloomingbulbs progressively towards the outside of Spring bulb displays, sothat the new, taller plants hide the leaves of the earlier-bloomingbulbs as they emerge. Then put some tall summer bloomers—like hostasor cannalilies—on the far outside of the final bulbs. You'll see all theflowers, none of the leaves and still insure that those leaves get allthe light they need for the bulbs to return after year.

NOTE: You'll find LOTS more Spring bulb timing tips and info at

You Bet Your Garden   ©2004 Mike McGrath

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