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Q & A: 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. Can I use the corn gluten meal in my garlic beds, or will it keep the garlic from sprouting?                      
               ---Steve in Bucks County PA

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

Obtain some planting garlic from a mail-order source or fellow gardener—don't use regular supermarket garlic, which was probably treated with a sprouting inhibitor (but store-bought ORGANIC garlic is fine; we organic folks aren't allowed to use such chemicals). In general, Northern gardeners will do best with 'hard-neck' varieties (these often-colorful garlics tend to have more flavor, but don't store quite as long); Southern and Western growers tend to have better luck with 'soft-neck' types (like white 'supermarket' garlic—these types are generally not as flavorful, but can be stored a month or so longer without sprouting).

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

I planted my first run of cloves last week and will continue to plant more over the next month or so as my summer crops get pulled out. You might see sprouts appear this year; don't worry if they do, it won't hurt the garlic one bit. If you're in a region where the ground freezes really hard in winter, have a nice load of shredded leaves handy and mulch 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, and then the above-ground growth will really take off next Spring. If you're growing hard-neck garlic, clip off the bud-like 'scapes' that appear at the top of the stalks in mid-Spring (and eat them!); soft-necks don't produce these scapes. As Spring winds down, keep a close eye on your plants. Pull up a sample bulb when the bottom leaves of your plants begin to turn brown—generally mid-June in my Pennsylvania garden, earlier down South. If that test plant has a fully formed bulb down there, harvest it all; the wrappers will split if you leave your garlic in the ground too long, and then it won't store well.

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

Q. Hi Mike: Love the show! I listen live whenever I get the chance, and when I don't, I listen on-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 the middle of the area this fall and then have the bulbs come up around it next year. So what should I do with the bulbs I dig up? Can I replant them 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 important facts about Spring bulbs—one of my OTHER favorite Fall plantings!

Like garlic, Spring bulbs must be planted in the Fall—and for the same reason; they need to develop roots and then go dormant to perform properly next year. But Unlike garlic, timing is critical with Spring bulbs. 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 ground before Halloween in the North; Thanksgiving or later in the South and West. The ideal time for your specific region? After nighttime temps have 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 typically freezes hard. That'll give the bulbs enough time to grow good roots before the ground freezes, but not so much time they can sprout this Fall and destroy the flower inside.

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

But your question also touches on one of the main reasons people's Spring bulbs DON'T come back reliably—they plant things overtop of the bulbs (generally annual flowers, like marigolds, petuniasor impatiens) to cover the bare spots those tulips, daffs and crocus leave behind in summer. But in their native clime (really God-forsaken mountains in Turkey 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 bulbs below. But your plan—a big shrub in the middle—shouldn't cause the same kind of problems. Just be sure and choose plants that don't need a lot of food and that won't require any more water than what they get from rain.

And for the bonus round, try and position your new plantings so that they hide the fading foliage of the bulbs. That's the other big reason Spring bulbs fail to return; people don't like the look of the plants after the flowers are finished and cut them back to the ground right away. But if you don't leave those leaves in place until they turn brown, they won't collect enough sunlight to grow new flowers for the following year.

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

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

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