These are the last weeks of October, it’s been cold and raining the last couple of days and we’re heading for the first frost soon. About all that’s left in the gardens locally are a few sad tomato plants with tomatoes that won’t have time to ripen. Time to pack things up and set gardening aside until Spring.
If that’s how you’re thinking, you’re just wrong. In my little garden I’m about to get the biggest crop of vegetables I’ve had this year. Not only that, the earliest of next year’s crops put up its first leaves a couple of weeks ago. I’m planting, harvesting and eating fresh produce and possibly will be doing that all winter. This garden isn’t anywhere near done for the year.
Up until this year, gardening has been a hobby of mine that I didn’t depend upon for food. This Spring the economy made me look at the garden differently, and since then it has made the difference between eating good food and eating ramen noodles. I believe that this is the first year I ever planted a garden and actually made a profit on it. Most of the time, gardens cost more than buying food in the grocery. Of course, many people have better luck than that, but it’s all about location. Good soil makes good farmers. If you’re in a more challenged location, like the little swamp I live in, things don’t happen automatically. I’ve spent all summer digging drainage channels and building mounds. My ancestors may be proud of me for paying attention to the old farming system. It was the last thing I could think of to try here, and planting on mounds three feet above the winter water level does appear to work. It’s a lot more work than I would do if I had that good soil I mentioned, but here it seems essential.
This month I’ve been planting next year’s garlic and some of next year’s onions. I like perennial garden plants when I have the choice, and both garlic and onions grow forever if you get the right varieties. I used to grow a perennial onion called Egyptian Walking Onion, in the Ozarks, but I’ve not found a reasonably priced source of sets as yet. Instead of those I’m planting shallots, a perennial dividing onion that grows edible leaves in the winter and clusters of bulbs in the summer. I’ve not been buying the expensive planting stock for anything this past year, ignoring the advice of the seed companies on that to save money. I’m getting my planting shallots from the shallot bin at the Kroger here, picking out the smallest sets for planting stock. They look healthy enough to me and I’ll gamble that they are the same onions I’d be getting if I bought certified seed bulbs.
Most of my garlic is a local variety that Alice and I found growing at the edge of a neighbor’s field a couple of years ago, and transplanted to the garden. It’s not exactly wild garlic, except that it has gone wild and seems to thrive here. People do consider it a weed, but garlic didn’t come from North America and this particular hard-stemmed garlic undoubtedly wandered from Siberia to Indiana as part of some settler’s garden. After two years of growing it and doubling it and sampling a few cloves, I did get a decent crop of bulbs this summer, plus enough topsets to plant a large bed for next year. If I didn’t like it as a green vegetable, harvested like green onions but more pungent, I’d consider it an invasive weed. Once you plant it, you’ll probably have a hard time getting rid of it, but I wouldn’t want to. Nice to find something delicious that actually does want to grow here. I eat it fast enough to keep it from taking over.
I’m trying to expand the garlic selection a bit by planting soft stem garlic I bought at the store. In spite of the warnings I read about how store garlic might be treated with chemicals that delay sprouting, it’s sprouting happily, and I don’t think I’ve ever bought garlic that didn’t. I looked for solid cloves with no blemishes and I expect to not have any problems with it.
Garlic and shallots both grow best if you plant them in the fall, when the bulbs are at the end of their natural late summer dormancy. When the tops of these plants wither in August, the bulbs harden off and the rootlets die. The bulbs sleep through the hottest and driest part of the year but revive in early fall when the weather cools off and the rains start. Garlic and shallots put up new leaves in fall and grow new roots that last through the winter even when a hard freeze kills the tops. After this head start, the plants grow faster and stronger in the Spring, and produce larger bulbs than plants grown from sets planted in Spring.
How early can you get a crop? Eating garlic greens used to be a common habit, and if you take it up you can harvest your first crop of green garlic right about now, late October. Every bulb I missed when I dug the crop earlier has come up as a six-inch high cluster of tasty greens, attached to equally tasty white-stemmed cloves. They’ll be available until severe cold settles in, and emerge again in late winter, the first vegetable of the year. Shallots also serve that dual purpose, providing greens in winter and bulbs in summer that you can dig and store for winter use. I’m new to shallots and I’m not sure how well they’ll do this far north, but I’ve planted two varieties and took special care with the Onion Mound. I expect good things from it. Must add more mulch so the shallots don’t freeze out — it’s on my to-do list.
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