What a difference a month makes. Our garlic is well on the way with our largest plants growing to over 16 inches at this time. We continue to focus on producing the best product we can. We had our soil tested last month, and typical of many west coast soils that loose nitrogen due to the heavy rain fall, we found that our soil had all the necessary nutrients but it was low in nitrogen. We used an organic fish fertilizer to help rectify the nitrogen shortage and we have had good results since the first application.
April has been a busy month between weeding and tending this year's crop. We pay a lot of attention to any weak looking plants and carefully remove them as a preventative measure against any possible disease that might have the potential of spreading. We have also taken the view that a small or deformed plant will likely produce a bulb of inferior size, and we might as well cull this during the growth season.
An important part of garlic farming is to prepare your fields for next years planting in advance. It is important not to plant garlic in the same fields for at least 4 years to minimize the spread of any diseases such as white mold. We rototilled a field planted with grasses and clover this month as the first stage of preparation for planting this fall, and applied well composted manure to improve the organic quality of the soil.
The exciting thing about growing garlic is that its an early starter and you will see the new shoots from last fall's planting long before the last frost has passed.
Our new garlic plants are already 2-4 inches high and growing daily. We were concerned that one end of our field is much wetter than the other sections and that this would cause a problem for the new plants. What we are finding though, is that the young plants in the wet areas are actually larger and earlier starters than the drier area!
Its also interesting that the Russian Red Porcelain garlic, which typically produces the largest bulb of all of our varieties, was not the first out of the ground, but has rapidly overtaken the others and the young shoots are now about twice as high as our other varieties. But we don't eat the shoots...so it will be interesting to see how the different varieties fare.
Another advantage to the early start is that we've been weeding now for about 4 weeks, and have our beds well under control. This can be an advantage if you are growing a number of different types of crops, as the garlic can be started and managed well into its growth cycle long before you even think about seeding other varieties.
We had a very different winter this year on the west coast with a huge snow fall in late December and virtually no precipitation in January and February. It was quite cold and our fields were frozen hard and covered with snow for six weeks.
But garlic is a feisty plant and after a couple of exceptionally mild weeks at the end of February, our garlic has sprouted and is already about 2 inches high. It is truly remarkable in this regard, as some of the new garlic shoots were actually pushing their way through the snow.
Our Russian Reds - Darcy's Russian Red and our Gabriola varieties seemed to be the earliest, followed by Persian Red, Chesnok and Leningrad.
We started our planting on October 15th this year and completed about 12,000 plantings by the 22nd. We continue to explore different ways to improve our productivity, as garlic on a small scale is largely a manual operation. We created a section of our website - "Growing Garlic" to share the approaches that we have taken to improve yield while growing in a sustainable way that meets the organic farm standards.
I modified our Maschio tractor driven rototiller with collecting "wings" to help create raised beds which we feel are necessary in the wetter northwest to ensure good drainage. While this modification worked fairly good we still needed to dig out the trenches between the rows to complete the raised bed height to about 8-10 inches. This year we elected to decrease the space between rows to a walking path for weeding and managing the crop, whereas last year we had approximately 50/50 rows and working space based on 6 foot rows. We found that this created a 6 foot weed patch between the rows, and have felt that a higher ratio of planted area to pathway will save us work.
We planted several hardneck cultivars including Chesnok Red and Persian Star purple stripe, some Leningrad and Russian Red Porcelain, a small test plot of Music and two types of softnecks - Russian Early and Saltspring. We are still evaluating the market: the porcelains tend to be bigger and sell well, but the purple stripes have more "gusto"!
To plant we made a simple stamping tool for creating uniform spaces between the plants and planted on a 6 inch by 8 inch grid, planting about 1-2 inches below the surface depending on clove size - the big ones a little deeper than the small ones.
For those starting out, I suggest meticulous labeling of your different plots, as it is very easy to forget which plots contain specific types of garlic. This year we planted some test plots - for the bulk of our crop we used medium to large size bulbs for our seed, but also ended up with a smaller number of small cloves and we have wondered if they will produce reasonable size plants. Next summer will tell, as we planted some test plants to help unravel this and we will be sharing the information at that time.
The big change over the last week is that we have been debating applying for organic certification and have been busy talking to other farms, and reading the standards. For those not familiar with ISO and simiilar other "quality" standards the process can feel over whelming and very bureaucratic. For example there is a provincial standard and a federal standard each about 45 pages in length. This is accompanied by a consultant report of 196 pages that spells out the differences. You have to smile at that!
But what we have found is that the understanding of organic farming is widespread and very few understand the certification standard and what it really means. Here is our interpretation before and now. Originally we thought that it was entirely about banned substances, ie pesticides etc. But as we became familiar with the standard we realized it is all encompassing about stewardship of the land, good farming practices and the non-use of banned substances. For example the standard covers issues related to water tables, fertilizers, packaging of final product and many more. Genetically modified seeds are also prohibited by the standard.
It is interesting that many of the chemical fertilizers that we use pollute our water systems. They also create nitrogen oxide which is a greenhouse gas over ten times denser than carbon dioxide or methane, and one of the leading contributors to the greenhouse effect.
In a nutshell we are converts and are applying for organic certification. We feel that we have been largely compliant and that this process should go quite smoothly. We have provided our own definition of "organic farming": "sustainable farming methods that promote bio-diversity, overall stewardship of the farm property and delivery of product to the market that are free of contaminants." If the world moved towards organic farming methods on the whole, we would be making a major step towards reduction of the greenhouse effects as well as a decrease in the costs of health care related to diseases such as cancer which are known to be triggered by many of the banned substances.
We are producing our own page - Organic Farming, which provides and shares the knowledge that we are accumulating so that others can understand the process and contribute to the movement whether in production or support of the farmers who are making the efforts to sustainable farming. Got to go - its mushroom season and we're off to find some tasty chanterelles!
We've taken a big step from our previous year's planting of 2500 garlic plants. This year we've expanded to 12,000 based on the acceptance of our product in the market and our success in our first year of production.
Our preparation for planting included re-fencing our fields and cultivating pasture land that had not been fertilized or cared for, for the last 15 years. We began by roto-tilling our plot with our tractor and roto-tiller. Here is what we learned from our first year: