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Try these tips for planting garlic and digging sweet potatoes

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By Jeneen Wiche

There are two categories of garlic to consider:  Allium sativum, or softneck garlic and Allium ophioscordon, or hardneck garlic.  Softneck garlic is the easiest and most widely cultivated because the bulbs are large and the cloves and skin are tight which prevent moisture loss and allows for longer storage. Through centuries of selection, softneck garlic has lost the ability to flower so it doesn’t expend energy on producing seed; instead the energy goes toward developing bigger bulbs underground.  The majority of garlic purchased in the grocery and grown in Kentuckiana gardens is the softneck variety. 

While softneck is the recommendation for our climate, I have to admit that I prefer hardneck varieties. Hardneck garlic has the most intense flavor and is easier to peel; but the real bonus is that hardneck varieties produce a flower scape in June. Once the scape begins to unfurl its flower head I harvest them so all of the bulbs energy goes to the bulb and the scape is sautéed, turned into pesto or roasted with every meal. They are delicious. 

It is most efficient to grow garlic from cloves if you are looking for size and yield. Don’t use garlic purchased from the store; instead purchase planting-varieties from a garden center or catalog. Dormant garlic should be stored at about 40 degrees for several months before planting; grocery store garlic has been stored at higher temperatures and may have been treated with an anti-sprouting agent. Consider, too, maintaining your own seed stock after you have grown garlic for the first time (save some of the largest cloves, refrigerate and replant in October or November.) Your own seed stock will develop an affinity to your garden and improve each year.

Most garlic growers prefer a fall planting over spring because conditions are drier. The most important cultural factor is a planting bed with well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Prepare your bed by adding manure or other composted material. Plant individual cloves 2-5 inches deep, depending on the size, and space them 6-8 inches apart. Once we have had several hard freezes, you can mulch the garlic bed with straw to provide insulation and to prevent heaving from alternating freezing and thawing during the winter, but this is not critical. In the spring, add more composted material and a little corn gluten to manage weeds. I rarely have insect problems, but on occasion experience onion maggot problems. The easy solution is to layer a little sand around the crown of the garlic to deter the adult fly from laying eggs there; and harvest as soon as the tops begin to die back.

The sweet potato, or Ipomoea batatas, is in the morning glory family and is native to South America (like most potatoes) and should be harvested before a killing frost, but not before a hoar frost. Let our first fall frost turn the foliage black before you dig sweet potatoes with a garden fork. Let them dry in the sun for a few hours and then transfer them to a warm, shaded, well-ventilated area and spread them out on screens or newspaper. Let them cure this way for about two weeks, dirt and all, before you put them in storage. Prior to storage, rub off dirt, but do not wash them.

You can harvest “baby bakers” as they grow but the sweetness of the potato is enhanced if you wait until after frost and several weeks of curing. Do not be surprised, or disappointed, if freshly dug sweet potatoes taste like winter squash. Give them more time to cure and sweeten to maximize their flavor. The curing process after a frost allows the starches to turn to sugar. 

Properly cured sweet potatoes can store for 6 months or more at about 50 degrees. Some old time sweet potato growers are emphatic about not disturbing sweet potatoes until you are ready to eat them. This is why, they say, homegrown are better than store-bought, too. Store-bought sweet potatoes see a lot of movement which causes the sugars to constantly move through the tuber hastening undetectable spoilage; the homegrown variety sits quietly which allows the sugars to settle to the bottom, keeping the tuber fresher and sweeter. I believe it. Homegrown sweet potatoes are far better than grocery sourced!