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Garlic: Can it Have Companions in a Container?

Q. I grow a variety of veggies in large pots ('townhouse farming'). I am reading up on garlic as I'd like to add it to my gardening adventures. Since my growing space is limited to large pots, is there something the garlic should NOT be planted with? Or perhaps something that would make a good bunkmate? I grow lots of tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, hot peppers, herbs, more herbs, and spring peas. I appreciate your time! Cheers,

    ---Nina in Hillsborough, NJ

A. I'll answer with a little riddle: Why is garlic more like Superman than Batman?

Because garlic works alone.

Sorry for the bit of fan boy fun, but the basic point is correct; garlic needs its own dedicated area where it can grow unmolested and claim as much underground space as possible to develop the biggest possible bulbs for you. It's almost like below-ground sweet corn, which is always (or should always be) grown in its own big patch.

Now I did kind of discuss growing garlic in containers last season, but that was in response to a question from a 100% indoor gardener—AND my feelings on this topic have been modified since I 'accidentally' planted about 100 cloves in four rectangular containers last year.

OK—it wasn't a 100% accident (like the time I used a lime-rich compost on my blueberry plants; now THAT was an accident!). What happened was that I still had a lot of medium-sized heads of garlic left over after planting three big beds with my biggest cloves last September, went to start processing these 'leftovers' into garlic powder and discovered that they were all starting to sprout. Once those little green thingies appear at the tips of your cloves, the flavor is ruined and the garlic's use as a seasoning is pretty much over. But garlic that's starting to sprout is fine to plant.

Only problem was that I was already using too many of my beds for garlic—and beds filled with garlic aren't available for other uses until early July. One more bed of garlic and I'd be growing some of my tomatoes in the car next Spring. AND I had just bought a bunch of cute rectangular plastic containers on impulse as I wandered through a discount store.

So I filled the containers with three-quarters soil-free mix and a quarter compost, planted the garlic cloves in them and then had to decide where they were going to go. Like fruit trees and spring bulbs, garlic requires a certain number of chilling hours over winter, which meant the containers had to stay outside. But where I live (slightly Northern PA) the garlic would freeze solid and be ruined if I left the containers out in the open above ground. So I pushed them flush up against a side of the house that has a lot of big plants in the yard creating a sheltered area— peach trees, rhododendrons, a white pine—and planned to cover them with shredded leaves once the trees had given them up their yearly bounty.

Then we had a Biblical—as in the Story of Job—twelve inches of heavy wet snow a few days before Halloween. The trees were still full of leaves and the weight just tore them up; downed trees, broken trees, trees that until recently were still growing sideways—and five long days without power.

The containers blended in with our siding and I never gave the garlic another thought. Then the following April, I was out still picking up fallen Trick or Treat branches and saw them. Some of the containers had been exposed all winter (which luckily was warm), and some had been mulched by tree trash, but all had big green shoots coming up. When I picked the first one up to move it into better sun, I had to tug hard—the garlic roots were already out the bottom of the container and starting to grow into the soil. I eventually harvested a nice medium-size head for every clove I had planted. Heads that would have been much bigger if I had planted fewer cloves per container.

So that's the deal—your containers should be at least a foot deep; the bigger the container, the better you'll do, especially if winter is harsh. The containers can't be made of terra cotta, ceramic or anything else that's going to break when the soil inside freezes hard. Rectangular containers are easier to protect, and easier to space the cloves in. Give each clove a full six inches of space all around; that's six inches away from any other clove and especially from the sides of the container, where the risk of freezing too hard is the greatest.

Then push the containers up against the side of the house. If your house lies North of the Mason-Dixon line, it would be a good idea to cover the pots with well-shredded leaves—after the first hard freeze. (Always wait until after the soil freezes hard to apply winter mulch.) Uncover the containers in early Spring, move them into full sun and follow the directions for regular garlic.

Just be aware that these containers will be devoted to garlic and garlic alone from September through the end of June. You can use them for other things after that (like fast growing bush beans and/or zucchini), but you can't double up during the growing period. Garlic works alone…

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