Shasta Daisy with green basal leaf growth and spent stem and flower heads.

The month of December can be dark and cold with its reduced light levels and drab, muted colors. Counteract the dreary outlook by getting outside on sunnier days to take stock of the many things still happening out there in the land beyond your backdoor. Some plants are still slightly active, as are a few hardy insects. Cut back brown parts of perennial plants, leaving any green if they are still showing. In the spring, these plants will have a head start on photosynthesizing.

Yellow globe turnip roots still in the ground.
Thanksgiving harvest of yellow globe turnip

My vegetable garden is hanging on with winter hardy kales, yellow globe turnips, and purple carrots. The root crops will store in the ground until needed. We ate turnips for Thanksgiving, and with a hearty layer of straw to be laid over the carrots for insulation, we will be able to harvest for Christmas dinner.

Purple carrots below soil, green tops above.
Kale is hardy enough to grow throughout the with colder weather.

Garlic shoots are a little taller than I’d like for cloves planted mid-October. This is a good sign the roots are taking hold and developing below ground. A thick layer of leaves will provide protection though the winter and weed control come spring.

Garlic shoots.

The empty vegetable beds were sown with a mixed cover crop to enhance the soil microbial life and retain the valuable topsoil. Come spring, the top-growth will be cut back to kill the plants, leaving it in place to act as a mulch. Vegetable plants will be planted right through it, into the soil.

Outside of the garden a pile of tree branches and damaged shrub trimmings are piled in the nearby woods to provide a good spot for wild animal burrows. We have populations of predators including fox and fisher cats that help to keep the rodent population down.

Brush pile provides a home for predators.

Another home is visible on the ground, showing a small night crawler worm hole and pile of excrement, called castings, left right beside the hole. Night crawlers are solitary worms, living alone in a deep tube-like hole in the soil. The worm comes out at night to find food and to mate, then retreats back down the hole with its bits of leaves and organic matter. The stretching actions and squeezing back into the hole causes the worm to leave its poop behind.

Worm hole with pile of castings(excrement) are signs of active life in the soil.

Warmth and sun even in early December will bring out some late insects. I found this lone earwig crawling on the black driveway. Not sure where he was headed, but he paused long enough for me to take its photo.

Earwig on a sunny day in December.

We have had quite a few reports and inquiries about tiny congregating insects outside in mass numbers. The insects are commonly called springtails. They too, are doing some sunbathing, soaking up the warmth, especially after a cold rain. Springtails are in the primitive order of Collembola, naturally living in the soil or high moisture, organically rich areas such as the forest floor or compost piles. They are important decomposers, breaking down organic matter. No need to worry if you find them, just observe in awe of a healthy ecosystem at work.

Globous springtail, photo from NC State University.

This fall was a good year for fungus to send up some funky fruiting structures. Puffballs showed up in an area of our yard where some trees were removed a few years ago. Fungus underground is actively feeding the decomposing roots. When the fungus is ready to reproduce, it sends up a mushroom or structure containing it spores. When ripe, these puffballs will shoot the spores up and out in the winds to hopefully drift to new fertile ground and spread the fungal colony. Sometimes humans, animals and even hard rain will dislodge the puffball enough to release the spores.

Puffballs with release holes to emit the spores.

Searching for signs of active life can be done in any season whether it be animal, vegetable or fungal. Even in colder weather finding signs and activity can be enjoyable and rejuvenating.

by Carol Quish

October is in its  second week, bringing the first hard frost to the middle of Connecticut. This seasonal mile stone is my cue to plant garlic. I know, planting anything in mid October seems like the wrong thing to do and a bit backward, but now is the correct time to plant the strong scented bulbs. There are about six weeks left before the ground freezes, giving the garlic ample time to develop a good root system without producing any top growth that will be killed with the freezing weather.

Pick the right spot.

Garlic needs a full sun spot with well drained soil rich in organic matter. Full sun is 6 to 8 hours of sun a day. Add a one inch layer of well rotted manure or compost and mix in with existing soil. Loosen soil to about a foot deep. Have a soil test done to determine pH and nutrient level after compost or manure has been added. Garlic grows best in a soil pH of 6.5 to 7.0. Add lime and any amendments as soil test results recommend.

Break the head of garlic into individual cloves. Leave the papery skins on the cloves. Plant with the root end down and the pointed tip up, three inches into the soil, with each clove spaced six inches apart. A fluffy mulch of straw covering the bed for the winter will provide protection from heaving during the freezing weather. The goal is the encourage root growth this fall, not top green growth until spring.  Once warm spring weather initiates green growth next spring, side dress with a little 5-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of 1/2 pound for 50 garlic plants.

Pick the right garlic.

There are three different types of garlic:   softneck,   hardneck   and elephant. Choosing the correct type to grow for your area will bring the most success.

Soft neck garlic is not well suited to grow through our cold New England winters. It has a soft neck, papery neck of a stem good for braiding. Soft neck garlic is most often the type seen for sale in the grocery stores, shipped in from California where it is grown. Do not plant this in Connecticut.

Hardneck garlic is best suited for New England gardens. It has a hard, almost woody center stem with six to 12 cloves surrounding the central stalk. This type will produce an edible scape that if left on the plant, will produce a flower. The flower will sap strength from the bulb making the cloves smaller. Cut off the scapes before they bloom in May or June. Common hard neck varieties include ‘German White’,  ‘Music’, and ‘Spanish Roja’. Hard neck garlic can be purchased through seed catalogs and most commonly available at farmers’ market during September and October. They are sold to eat, and these can be used as seed stock for planting.

Elephant garlic are very large heads the size of tennis balls with a mild taste.  It is not actually a garlic but closer to the leek family. I have not had much luck getting elephant garlic to live though the winter successfully. Stick with the hard neck varieties!

Harvest and Storage.

During the month of May, the each plant will put up a tall scape with a bud at the tip containing a future flower. As stated earlier, don’t let it flower. Cut the scapes off of the plant about two feet above the ground. The scapes are the first harvest provided from the plants. Garlic scapes are sharp in taste, considered a spring delicacy in stir fries or made into a pesto.

The real harvest of the bulbs comes when the greenery begins to turn yellow and papery. Each above ground leaf is a layer of papery sheath for the cloves below. Handle the plant carefully without damaging the protective paper covering of the head of cloves. When about half of the leaves have turned yellow to brown, harvest the bulbs. Gently dig the heads and lay them in the shade  to dry for two or three days. Protect from night dew to promote the drying. Good airflow is essential. Leave the roots, stalk and leaves on the plant for a month. Set out of the sun, in a covered airy location to cure the garlic. The curing develops the taste and keeping quality.   Do not wash with water. After curing and drying, cut the roots to half inch and bush off any dirt.Garlic can be stored in mesh bags or braided by the stems.

-Carol

photo by Carol Quish

photo by Carol Quish