Helen Chesnut's Garden Notes: Proper timing is critical when planting hardneck garlic

Dear Helen: In the past few years, some of my hardneck garlic has failed to divide into cloves. Instead, most plants have produced one round, solid bulb —- large and flavourful but not useful for saving and replanting. Can you suggest a reason for the lack of clove development?

G.O.

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Hardnecks naturally produce fewer, larger cloves than softnecks. The first bulb I dug this past summer had only four enormous cloves instead of the usual six. Bulbs harvested a bit later were more normal.

The actual division into cloves with papery skin between them does not happen until the last few weeks of the bulbs’ full development. That’s why it’s useful to dig a trial bulb or two before completing the harvest as you aim for the ideal timing. Left too long in the ground, a bulb’s cloves will begin separating, reducing their quality and storage time.

Large, undivided garlic bulbs are still at the “green” or “wet” stage. At this point they have a mild, delicious flavour and are wonderful for roasting. They don’t store well much past early December, though.

A spring planting will sometimes produce undivided garlic bulbs, because another prerequisite for proper clove development is a minimum of 30 nights with temperatures below 10 C. An early autumn planting ensures that requirement.

Dear Helen: I want to try growing geraniums from seed. When should I start the seeds? Is this a difficult project for a home gardener?

H.T.

I’ve grown zonal geraniums from seed since the first seed-grown variety became available. I remember being surprised and pleased with the sturdy little ‘Carefree’ seedlings, and since then my experience growing other varieties has remained the same. Zonal geraniums are among the most satisfying of annual flowers to grow from seed.

Many varieties are available now. Stokes Seeds and Lindenberg Seeds have good selections. When you seed depends on how early you want flowers and on the growing conditions you can provide. The seeds need reasonable warmth to germinate as rapidly as possible, and the seedlings need bright light to develop optimally.

The first available zonal geranium varieties needed to be sown indoors in January for summer blooms. With the newer varieties, I aim for an early February seeding, for early summer flowers, though I had a long season of bloom, beginning in July, in my ‘Maverick Red’ geranium plants from a March 18 indoor sowing. I’ve never found the Mavericks to be fussy, and they flower well into autumn.

Dear Helen: I’ve been concerned over last month’s reports of romaine lettuce being contaminated with E. coli. How does that happen, and is it a danger in home gardens?

R.L.

I suspect that many home food gardeners have been wondering the same thing. For that reason I was glad to see a Canadian Press article in the Nov. 24 Times Colonist. It explained the issue.

Apparently, romaine is one of the most susceptible green vegetables to contamination by E. coli, especially so since it is eaten raw in our culture. A friend who works in China tells me that lettuce is cooked before being eaten there. That could be for safety’s sake.

Lettuce imported into Canada is grown mainly in Arizona and California, usually in large, concentrated production areas where contamination spreads easily.

Cattle production often is carried out in the same areas. Bacteria from the animals can taint irrigation water, and in these hot climates, lettuce needs frequent watering.

As long as water used on a garden is not contaminated, and care is taken in the use of manures, lettuce and other leafy greens are safely grown in home gardens. Avoid any manures that have not been thoroughly composted. Processed, bagged manures should be all right, though my own preference is to use only my own compost in preparing plots for food crops.

Sometimes, early in the summer, I’ll top dress around food plants with fish compost, as both a soil booster and a moisture conservation measure. Chopped straw on top helps to deflect heat and further hold moisture in the soil.

GARDEN EVENTS 

Holiday table arrangements. Russell Nursery, 1370 Wain Rd. in North Saanich, is offering a workshop on making a holiday centrepiece at three different times: Sunday, Dec. 16, at 10 a.m. or 1 p.m. and Monday, Dec. 17, at 10 a.m. Create a long-lasting centrepiece for your holiday table. Cost of $50 includes materials. Bring pruners. To register, phone 250-656-0384 or email russellnursery@telus.net. Please provide your phone number when registering.

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