Helen Chesnut’s Garden Notes: For larger garlic, plant as early as possible

Dear Helen: I’ve been growing garlic for more than a decade. Each year, the bulbs I produce become a bit smaller. How can I boost the soil and manage the planting for a more rewarding crop in 2020?

G.L.

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Planting as early as possible improves the chances of growing large bulbs. I’ve grown much larger bulbs since I began planting earlier, ideally in the third week of September. Mid-September to mid-October is probably the best window for planting.

When pulling a bulb apart into individual cloves, I plant only the large, outer ones and bring the smaller ones to the kitchen for use.

Spacing can be another issue. Plant with the clove tips resting about five centimetres beneath the soil surface and space the cloves 10 centimetres apart to give them room to develop in the spring and early summer.

Plant in full sun. If the soil is acidic, mix in lime. Though garlic is not hugely fussy about soil type, ideally use a fertile, sandy loam that is rich in humus and quick to drain of excess moisture.

Once I’ve defined the garlic planting area, I prepare the soil by mixing in lime along with a balanced, slow-release, natural-source fertilizer and a generous (minimum five-centimetre) layer of a nourishing homemade or purchased compost.

Early planting gives the cloves plenty of time to develop large root systems as the soil cools over the fall and early winter. As green growth emerges and starts to elongate in the spring, I weed carefully around the plants and add a top dressing of compost.

Keep the plot weeded through the spring and early summer, as the bulbs are developing. That eliminates competition from weeds for moisture and nutrients.

In June, be sure to cut off and use the curly flower stems (scapes). You want the plants’ energies going to bulb growth, not flower and seed production.

Dear Helen: Once again this year my garden has delivered the same message: I cannot grow tomatoes. Any suggestions?

J.K.

You don’t specify what goes wrong with your tomato plants, but when tomatoes either fail to grow well or don’t produce a satisfactory crop, three key issues need to be looked at: site, soil, and variety choices.

Tomato plants need warmth and sunlight, in locations well away from trees and shrubs whose roots would rob the soil of nutrients and moisture needed by the tomatoes.

A little experimentation with varieties is usually needed to find ones that thrive and produce well in an individual garden’s conditions. It’s useful also to ask friends and neighbours about their most reliable varieties. My consistently most robust and productive plants are Big Beef. Transplants of this variety are often available at local garden centres in the spring. Chose only sturdy, stocky plants with plentiful foliage.

Tomatoes are fairly demanding of a fertile soil that is well plumped with moisture-retaining organic matter. The plants also need lime in the soil to supply needed calcium. It really pays to prepare a tomato plot well by mixing deeply into the soil lime and a slow-release fertilizer, and a generous layer of a rich compost.

With dry weather, keep the soil deeply, adequately and consistently watered. Check moisture levels regularly, by plunging a trowel or narrow shovel into the ground and levering the blade forward to feel for moisture. In July, or when the first tiny fruits form, mulch with a nourishing compost after a deep watering.

GARDEN EVENTS

Fall show and sale. The View Royal Garden Club will host its annual Fall Garden Show and Plant Sale on Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m. in Wheeley Hall, 500 Admirals Rd. (behind Esquimalt United Church). Judged exhibits will include in-season flowers, fruits and vegetables as well as indoor plants and design categories. Admission of $5 includes refreshments and door prize tickets. Admission is free to the sale of plants and garden items.

HCP plant sale. The Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, 505 Quayle Rd. in Saanich, is holding its annual Fall Plant Sale on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Choose from many unique plants propagated from the gardens by HCP volunteers. All prices are reduced by at least 20 per cent. Admission to the gardens is free on sale day and master gardeners will be available to answer questions. All proceeds support the development of the HCP teaching gardens. For a list of plants, visit hcp.ca/event/fall-plant-sale-4 and click on the “plant availability list” link.

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