Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Winter Planting in Wisconsin

Though we haven’t yet seen snow (or much frost!) yet this month, the falling leaves tell us that winter is around the corner, which means it’s time to feed the soil, spend time in the kitchen and plant garlic!  Garlic is a member of the Allium family, related to onions, leeks, and shallots.  Allium is actually the Latin word for garlic.

Garlic enjoys the “struggle” of being planted in early winter and staying dormant until early spring when it breaks ground.  However, because it is surviving winter it’s important to “feed” garlic well - planting it in fertile soil and adding compost throughout the growing cycle.  We planted garlic in our Mitchell Park garden last year (harvesting it this June), and we found small (2 inch) heads due to poor fertilizing throughout it’s growing season - especially in early spring it is important to add another inch (or more) on top of the soil.

A friend who owns a farm in Hartford, WI has also offered tips on preparing the garlic for planting - he followed the below process with half of his garlic crop last year and found much better results with those that he “cleaned” versus those that he didn’t.  Here are his tips to help kill mold and other bad things that could potentially stunt or stop the growth of the garlic:

  • Soak each clove in a mixture of baking soda and water for about 18 hours (1 TB soda to gallon of water). Include a bit of seaweed fertilizer in the water.
  • Dunk each clove in high proof (greater than 85%) vodka just prior to planting

Garlic should be planted about 3 inches deep, 6-9 inches apart.  Be sure to mark your plantings so you remember what not to pull in the spring!  Be sure to mulch the garlic heavily just after the ground begins to freeze.  Then in the spring, when the garlic begins to come up, it is recommended to leave some mulch on the garlic to keep it warm, but thin the mulch slightly around the upcoming shoots, so they don’t have to work as hard to push through.  Again, this is a good time to add 1-1.5 inches of compost to the soil.

For other areas of your garden that won’t be full of garlic, consider planting a cover crop such as winter rye, clove, or buckwheat.  At this time of the year in Wisconsin, winter rye is your best bet as it will survive the first few frosts if needed.  Cover crops are quick-growing grasses that keep down weeds, protect the soil and even add nutrients.  We planted Winter Rye in Mitchell Park last year and I found the soil beautifully soft and dark this spring.  Plant the cover crop by “scattering” seeds over the soil and lightly raking them in.  Be sure to water them consistently until they germinate - for winter rye this is as quick as four days.  Once they’ve sprouted you don’t have to think about them until the following spring.  Kill the plants in early spring by turning them back into the soil as a “green manure” (or fresh compost).  Wait two weeks before planting your spring crops to be sure the cover crop has fully broken down in the soil. This is a great way to maintain the health of your soil - even through the winter!

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