Someone asked me last week why I didn't include growing garlic in last week's column. It's a readily available bulb that often sprouts green leaves while in the store. It is also normally planted in mid to late summer for harvesting the following season.
Still, it is possible to grow garlic indoors in containers. And, since we start lots of things in containers here in Alaska and then move them out onto the deck or out into a summer greenhouse, it makes sense to try your hand at container-grown garlic, even if you planted bulbs at the more traditional time.
First, you will need some garlic bulbs. By bulb, I don't mean a whole garlic, but rather one of the individual "cloves" or "pieces" to a garlic. There are two types, "hardneck" and "softneck," both available at local supermarkets and grocery stores. Hardneck varieties produce a stem known as a "scape," which is used by chefs in stir fry and other fancy dishes. The softneck bulbs don't produce this flower stem. The softneck also apparently store for longer periods.
If you happen to have a copy of Nichols Garden Nursery's or Territorial Seed's catalogs (or go on line), you can read up on the different kinds and order some. Or you can look around locally for different kinds. Don't forget some of the small Asian markets which usually have hard and soft neck varieties.
Garlic bulbs need a bit of space so you will need a large container, say 12 inches wide and at least 12 inches deep. Bigger would be even better. In any case, a 12 inch container is a big one and it will need to be placed under lights or where it will get your best sun. It needs at least 8 hours, which fortunately we now have! Consider whether you have the room. Make sure that the container drains well and that you have a catch basin under the container to prevent water damage.
Use good compost-filled potting soil. Make sure to dampen the soil before you plant and then simply press a bulb, flat end down, 1 inch into the soil. Space the bulbs in the containers so that each has 4 inches of diameter to grow into. Then put the container in light for at least 8 hours. Again, a good excuse for having artificial lighting.
That's about all there is to it. Make sure that the soil remains slightly damp, but don't over water. You just don't want the soil to dry out. In a week or two you will see sprouting leaves. You can clip some of these once they get large enough and use the clippings in your salads or to cook with.
When the leaves of the birch trees get to squirrels' ear size, you really should move your pots outdoors, harden them off and continue to grow them. Indoor grown bulbs are great for producing usable leaves, but they don't really produce the best garlic. Moving the plant outdoors also makes caring for it a bit easier.
If you start to see flowers forming, pick them off so that the bulb is the center of the plant's nutritional concentration. Most varieties will produce bulbs by the end of the summer, though you may decide yours need more time and bring them indoors for another month or two.
Jeff Lowenfels is author of "Teaming With Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to The Soil Food Web." Contact him at teamingwithmicrobes.com.