There’s a way to grow garlic without replanting each year. A Washington gardener explains how.
Joe Capriotti doesn’t plant garlic, but every year he harvests hundreds of pounds from his backyard in Montesano, Wash. His technique goes against the common practice of planting and harvesting garlic each year as if it were an annual plant. Most people don’t realize that garlic can be grown as a perennial.
Capriotti, who once worked as a chef and as a logger in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, developed his technique over many years of experimenting on his 1-acre homestead. Now, at 80, he proudly displays the fruits of his research. When I visited his place in western Washington, I found Capriotti to be an active man with a sharp wit and a delightful sense of humor. His other experiments have ranged from testing apple, peach, plum and pear varieties to new techniques for growing strawberries and potatoes. But his real love is garlic.
“This patch of elephant garlic hasn’t been planted or plowed for more than 20 years,” Capriotti says, leading me to a 25-by-40-foot area where healthy garlic tops of various sizes grow without apparent order. “When the plants are about 2 feet tall, seed buds will form. Be sure to pinch off the buds or you won’t get any garlic. The large plants will form cloves. The other, smaller plants will die back, but will come up again the following year. Did you ever dig clams? Well, the small holes the young garlic tops leave after they die back look like little clam holes all over the soil.”
In August Capriotti pulls up the largest plants that have been pinched. “I just pull ‘em out of the ground by hand or use a garden trowel if they won’t come,” he says. “I have never weighed how many pounds have come out of this bed, but it’s 200 pounds or more.” Capriotti also inter-plants garlic with berries and young fruit trees. Volunteers may be found almost anywhere in the garden.
After harvesting, Capriotti uses a hand-push cultivator to lightly till the surface and uproot weeds that are already growing. He waters the bed to cause the weed seeds to germinate, then cultivates the surface to eliminate those young weeds. In September the area looks bare and abandoned. “My neighbors used to look at it and ask, ‘Hey Joe, aren’t you going to plant garlic this year?’ “ he says. “ ‘No,’ I’d answer, ‘I never plant garlic. It’s already in there.’ “
In October, Capriotti spreads a 3- to 4-inch mulch of cherry and apple leaves. The mulch keeps any more weeds from sprouting and would prevent the garlic from coming up, too, if it weren’t for the timely arrival of the wood thrush, or winter robin, from the local forest. These birds, which move to the open lowlands with the first cold weather, eat insects that live under the leaves. They turn the mulch, disturbing it enough for the garlic to sprout through. Last year, for some reason, not many thrushes came, but robins took over and did the job nearly as well. Capriotti has built bird boxes all around his house and watering ponds nearby to attract birds of all kinds. Besides turning the garlic mulch, the thrushes, robins and warblers effectively control insects throughout the garden.
By spring most of the mulch is gone. Night crawlers and microorganisms have turned it into rich compost. “Don’t dig manure into the soil when you start the bed, Capriotti suggests. “I tried that one year when I was trying to get huge cloves just for show. The plants grew big enough, but they were only the leaves—no cloves. If you want to fertilize, spread 1 inch of well-rotted manure on top of the ground. After a patch has had no fertilizer for many years, it is necessary to do this. By not plowing, and by spreading a little manure once in a while and a mulch of leaves every fall, I get elephant garlic bulbs of all sizes — some weigh over 1 pound. The shopkeepers I sell to don’t like it when they get that big. It’s too weird — the customers have never seen anything like it.”
Garlic likes full sun and grows well in most soil conditions, but the soil should not be too heavy and it must have good drainage. “Garlic hates to have its feet wet and will rot in boggy areas,” Capriotti says. “Don’t water in the summer, especially with an overhead sprinkler. I don’t even sprinkle my strawberries or raspberries nearby because I’m afraid some of the water might get on the garlic. If it rains heavily after the Fourth of July, it rots some of the plants and you get a lot of culls. I replant the culls later in areas that look kind of sparse.”
This way of growing garlic has emerged from a lifetime of living and working close to nature. It requires no machinery or chemicals — only a hand cultivator and a garden trowel. “You have to have the right soil conditions,” Capriotti says, “and you have to be aware of everything going on in the garden.” The technique is simple yet sophisticated, and closely follows the natural cycle of garlic, a perennial plant. Capriotti is proud of his way with garlic and loves to remind his many visitors, “I don’t plant garlic — I only harvest it.”