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When out-of-town visitors see my garden for the first time, one question that almost always arises is, “Where’s the garlic?” After all, with the smell of the pungent bulb usually in the air around the South Valley, it should be a prerequisite that we grow our own garlic. And now, with the Gilroy Garlic Festival time next week, it’s the perfect time to think about getting started.

Actually, garlic can be started any time from now through December. The most important requirements happen to be a long growing season and plenty of sun, which, luckily, we have both of.

However, planting in late fall is the secret to growing large garlic bulbs. A late fall planting in our mild-winter locale helps roots get established before winter sets in and will be ready to support vigorous, leafy growth come early spring. Because of the long growing season needed, garlic planted in late fall won’t be ready to harvest until June or July.

The best thing about growing garlic is that it’s easy. In my experience, the biggest problem is poor winter drainage. For that reason, always amend your soil well before planting garlic. Add plenty of peat moss, organic compost or redwood soil conditioner to garden beds before planting garlic. Better yet, grow garlic in raised beds of mostly organic soil.

Another piece of good news is that garlic bulbs are easily propagated. You can buy garlic bulbs at area grocery stores, roadside stands or farmer’s markets.

The largest local variety is called “elephant” garlic. Then, simply divide the bulb into cloves and plant. Each of the cloves will grow into a full bulb. When you consider that an average garlic bulb consists of six cloves, you know why garlic can be harder to get rid of than zucchini once it gets going.

Garlic cloves should be planted about three to four inches deep and six inches apart. Place the pointed side up.

The larger, outer cloves produce the best bulbs, so plant those and save the smaller cloves for the kitchen. No fertilizer should be added at this time.

Water well after planting, but, after that, Mother Nature usually will keep things moist enough. If it’s another drought year, water once a week through winter, just enough to keep the stems from withering and flopping over.

In late winter or early spring, you should see leaves poking up from the ground. This is a good time to band a high nitrogen fertilizer, such as blood meal, alongside the rows – a good handful per every five feet of row. In April, you should fertilize again with a complete organic fertilizer, again using about a half cup per five feet, shallowly worked into the soil along the row.

As with all alliums, the idea is to get the biggest plant possible before the tops begin to dry down. As the summer solstice approaches, garlic plants stop producing new leaves and begin to form bulbs.

At this point, cut back on the water to prevent bulbs from rotting. When most of the leaves turn brown, it’s time to harvest. Gently spade up the bulbs and, leaving the foliage connected, lay them out to dry in the sun. Let them dry for two to three weeks.

After the foliage turns brown, cut it off and trim the roots. I always set aside the largest bulbs to replant later in the fall. This way I never have to buy garlic again. Become a true local gardener and grow some of Gilroy’s own garlic.

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