Getting the Garlic In (And Other Pre-Freeze Garden Tasks)

Editor’s Note: This column last appeared on 2 October 2019.

What to do this week

With that nip in the air at night, it is time to think about planting bulbs. Especially those of the good Stinking Rose, otherwise known as garlic. You can plant garlic and other bulbs any time from now to the end of October. Sometimes you can get away with planting it later, but you take a chance on getting hit by a freeze before the bulbs put out a few roots and settle in for the winter. Last year, we got nailed with snow early in November, leaving a number of growers in our area scrambling to get a decent crop out of spring-sown garlic. It can be done, but the bulbs will be much smaller and ripen later no matter what you do.

Photo: Donovan Govan. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Garlic should be planted in well-drained soil, with good rotted compost dug in. A little sprinkle of bonemeal helps to develop healthy roots. Since it will be in its final location until next August, you should try and make sure the soil is as weed-free as possible. Like other alliums, it doesn’t like competition. Plant it 2-3 inches deep, depending on how reliable your snow cover is, and cover it with a deep straw mulch to protect it against freeze-thaw cycles. You can get seed garlic from any gardening centre, but be warned that they often sell out fast. You can plant any garlic you buy at a local farmer’s market, but garlic from China in the grocery store may not be hardy in our climate. Separate the bulbs into individual cloves. Plant only the large outer cloves – the skinny little ones from the center will only give you skinny little bulbs. Plant them the way you would plant any bulb, pointy end up. If you reverse the clove, the garlic will try to grow around in a circle under ground but it is hard work for the poor thing.

Another good task this time of year is to spread lime, if your garden needs it. The soil is not sopping wet just yet (although that may not be too far off) so you reduce the likelihood of compaction. You can use pelleted lime, spread in a plastic seeder or broadcast. It costs about three times what plain powdered garden lime costs, but it is easier to handle. I am a cheapskate so I use the powdered lime and toss it around with a bucket and small yogourt container. I do it on a calm day so the lime goes on my soil and not that of the next county over. I also use dolomitic limestone, which has calcium and magnesium. It is a little more expensive than regular garden lime and I have to order it in specially, but plants need both calcium and magnesium in proportion to metabolize either properly.

Be careful not to overlime your soil. Most vegetables and fruits thrive in soil that is slightly acidic at 6.5. It is better not to shock your soil by dumping a lot of lime on it all at once. Do it gradually over two to three years. You should also lime a couple of weeks before you spread fertilizers or manure, to make sure the compost stays as bioactive as possible. It takes roughly six months for the pH change in the soil to take full effect, so wait to test it again before you panic and spread more.

Oak seed/leaf. Photo: Supportstorm – Own work, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

For the experimenters, it is also a good time to try planting trees and shrubs from seed. Many trees do not propagate easily from hardwood cuttings, so seed is the way to go. Oaks, butternuts and walnuts are a long-term project but very satisfying to grow – and you can help bring back the Acadian forest. Whatever seed you sow should be fresh, gathered this year. They should be planted in a nursery bed that you will remember to pay attention to throughout the growing season, with good, rich soil, amended with lime if need be. Plant the seed to two times its depth. Conifer seeds, being smaller than nuts, need to be planted more shallowly. After the first hard frost, cover with a thick bed of mulch so the seed does not get thrown up by frost heaves. Be patient! I have had walnuts take several years to germinate and grow to a height safe for transplanting. It seems to be the rule that they germinate just before I get hasty and dig them up to see what is going on. Resist the urge, lest you snap off the delicate root and waste all that effort. You can also plant the seeds in pots and leave them outside until the ground freezes hard, to expose them to warm and cold cycles. Then take them indoors for the winter and keep them in your fridge or cold room for three to five months to give them a taste of winter. Your dinner guests may be startled while looking for the salad dressing, but they should be used to you by now.

It is still a bit early to collect twigs for propagation by hardwood cuttings, but the time is close. Next week I’ll give you some tips so you can get ready.




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.