Putting it to Bed: How to Plant Garlic, Grow Cover Crops & Plan for Next Year

A couple weeks ago, we posted about the Fall Closing Day Checklist. Did you see it? You can follow the five basic steps here to ensure your plot is winterized properly by Saturday, October 21st. However, now is also a great time to put in a little extra work for a reward next year. Read below to learn how to build soil and plant garlic while you put your garden to bed and why it should be done this time of year.

1. To begin, remove or turn in all non-perennial and non-producing plants, weeds, roots, and debris in your plot as you would following the Closing Day Checklist. Separate weeds and stalky materials. All other plant material (including leaves torn off stalks) can be placed in the house compost pile or chopped up and turned into your soil with a spade.

2. Remove all miscellaneous items from your plot including: any trash, debris, trellising materials, plastic containers, etc.  

3. Trim and tidy up any perennials and late season crops in your plot.

4. Add organic matter to your soil! You can incorporate non-weedy or stalky plant materials into your soil as mentioned above with a spade. You may also bring materials from outside the garden and add them to your soil. Things like leaves and grass clippings (as long as they have not been treated with herbicides) are great to incorporate.You can also bring in compost. (Keep in mind, Garden City Harvest will provide you with some in the spring, so there is no need to break your budget on organic compost).

Why add organic matter? Adding organic matter improves soil life and structure. It rejuvenates the soil by bringing in more minerals and nutrients for the beneficial soil organisms and plants in your garden. Soil with more organic matter also holds water better and won't dry out as quickly than a soil with less organic matter. 

When we add organic matter to the soil in the Fall, it has all winter and spring to break down into usable minerals and nutrients for your plants next year. It's just like composting in your garden plot! (Note: for best results, make sure all plant matter is chopped or broken up into small pieces, so it will decompose properly over the winter).

5. Plant Garlic! Choose the garlic you want to plant based on the cloves that have the most desirable size and shape to you. Also avoid planting any garlic that has mold, rot or pests because those susceptible traits will also be passed on to next year's crop.

How to Plant Garlic

Break apart the individual cloves from a head of garlic and let sit and cure for one to two days. Plant individual cloves in rows 2 inches deep and 4 inches apart. Plant the wide root side facing down and pointed end facing up. Mulch heavily (about 3 inches deep) after planting with straw, leaves or both to reduce temperature fluctuations over winter. Once the garlic sprouts and the weather warms, pull back the mulch in the spring. You can keep your garlic mulched throughout the growing season to knock back weeds, but watch out for rot if the soil stays too moist.

6. Once you plant your garlic and mulch it, cover the rest of your plot with mulch as well. You are welcome to use a half bale of straw that Garden City Harvest provides to cover your plot, as well as any straw, leaves, or grass clipping from outside sources that have not been treated with herbicides. Mulch helps retain moisture and nutrients in the soil over the winter and keeps it looking clean for garden neighbors and passersby. Tip: Water down the straw after you cover your plot so it doesn't blow away. 

Where to Buy Garlic Seed?

A lot of people wonder where they can buy garlic seed. The good news is that you can plant any garlic clove you would normally eat. However, it's best to find cloves that have been grown locally, so you know it grows well in this climate and conditions. You can find local garlic at the farmers' market, your garden neighbor or other local nurseries and farmers. 

Choose the garlic you want to plant based on the cloves that have the most desirable size and shape to you.

Choose the garlic you want to plant based on the cloves that have the most desirable size and shape to you.

Planning for Next Year

Once you have closed down your garden bed for the season, this time of year is a great time to reflect and plan for next year. Make sure to write down notes about what worked, what didn't work, new or different vegetable varieties, and any other ideas you have for next year. Two main improvements gardeners can make in their garden next season are incorporating crop rotation and cover crops.

Cover Crops

Cover crops (also known as green manure) is a crop that is not necessarily a food crop, but planted instead to add nutrients, fix nitrogen, fight erosion, suppress weeds, prevent soil compaction and add soil structure. Plant cover crops to give a portion of your garden a rest. Cover crops are easy to plant and require only basic care to thrive.

Timeline: Cover crops can be short term or long term. In Missoula, our short growing season calls for short term cover crops that are cold tolerant and grow quickly. Plant cover crops mid-late summer after harvesting an early season crop for an end of the season soil boost. Choose a frost tolerant and quick growing crop, and watch it grow until closing day. Then, cut it back and incorporate the plant matter into the soil. Warning: Don’t let cover crops go to seed or else it will become a weed. Also, when following a cover crop, make sure it has had enough time to break down before planting into that area.

Here at Garden City Harvest, we like to grow a mix of oats and peas for cover crop.

Here at Garden City Harvest, we like to grow a mix of oats and peas for cover crop.

Types of Cover Crops

Legumes:  Legumes include clover, field peas, fava beans and hairy vetch. Benefits: fixes the most nitrogen. Weakness: not as cold hardy. Legumes are good to pair with a grass cover crop (see below). Clover varieties include: crimson, berseem and dutch. Benefits: fix nitrogen, good at preventing weed growth because it covers the soil well, attracts beneficial pollinators and insects. Weakness: not very cold tolerant, except for Dutch White Clover, which can handle extreme cold temperatures.

Grasses/ Grain: Provide organic matter that is good for gardens. Varieties included: winter rye, buckwheat, wheat, and spelt. Benefits: hearty and can handle cold, mat forming and great for stabilizing soil. Weakness: mat forming and can be invasive, doesn't fix nitrogen. For Missoula, oats are the best grass.

Crop Rotation

Another way to manage organic matter in your soil is through crop rotation, or cycling different plants and plant families in different areas of your garden. This helps support diverse forms of microbial soil life and increases general crop production and success! By switching up plant varieties in a given area of your garden, threats of pests and weeds will be reduced and soil health will improve. Example: Grow broccoli where your tomatoes were last year; where broccoli was, grow carrots.

Intercropping and Succession Planting

Intercropping involves planting a short season crop at the same time as a long season crop, and harvesting the short season crop first before the long season crop matures. For example: Alternate rows of radishes with lettuce, or a slower growing brassica variety, or sow beets or lettuce under the shade created by corn or tomatoes.

Succession planting is a practice of replacing short-season crops such as lettuce with new crops in the same location. It is similar to crop rotation but occurs during the same growing season. For example: when salad mix is done, sow radishes and beets in that spot. You can also stagger sowing seeds of the same crop (usually by 2-3 weeks), so that the crop will be ready to harvest at different times. This is a great way to space out the amount of lettuce you or your family can eat over a longer period of time. This also can throw off pests. 

Above: succession planting of arugula. Rows planted 2- 3 weeks apart will be ready to harvest at different times. Photo by Portland Edible Gardens

Above: succession planting of arugula. Rows planted 2- 3 weeks apart will be ready to harvest at different times. Photo by Portland Edible Gardens