by Georgie Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s fall. Got your garlic planted yet?
Growing garlic is a fun and rewarding crop for most any home gardener. Follow a few basic rules and garlic is a pretty easy crop to grow. It does, however, take some patience, proper planning and a few key strategies to get the right start.
So, let’s get ‘into the weeds’ with the tried and true rules of growing garlic that will impress the neighbors, stink up your house and keep away the vampires!
Who Knew Growing Garlic Could Be So Complex?
There are 100s of different garlic cultivars! All with unique flavor profiles and suited to different growing regions.
Garlic, aka ‘Allium sativum,’ is a non-seed producing member of the onion family. At some point way back in history, garlic lost its evolutionary ability to reproduce via ‘seed’ as do most plants, including all other onion species. Through time and varietal selection, many different strains of garlic have developed and been identified.
Some varieties of garlic will produce ‘seed stalks’ similar to an onion. But what they produce isn’t actually seed, they are tiny little ‘bulbils’ that are miniature reproductions of the mother plant. When you grow garlic, you are essentially planting ‘clones’ of your original strain over and over again.
And for the record…elephant garlic is NOT garlic. It is a type of leek, much milder and not nearly as complex in flavor as true garlic. If you try and insist elephant garlic is garlic to any true garlic lover they will smile indulgently, then never, ever ask you to bring a garlic dish to the community potluck! Granted, it is huge, and lots of fun to grow. (Just not garlic!).
The Battle of the Titans – Hardneck Garlic versus Softneck Garlic
There are two ‘strains’ of garlic. Hardneck garlic, or Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon, which produces a bolting seed stalk which creates a hard ‘stem’ upon harvest. Or softneck garlic, Allium sativum var. sativum, that does not.
Within these two varieties of garlic, each produces multiple different types of garlic. And within each type of garlic, there are many ‘named’ cultivars. For example:
Hardneck Garlic Types and Cultivars
- Rocambole – Popular Strains: Spanish Roja, Kilarney Red, Wild Redneck
- Porcelain – Popular Strains: Music, Georgian Fire, Romanian Red
- Purple Stripe – Popular Strains: Chesnok Red, Italian Purple
- Marbled Purple Stripe – Popular Strains: Siberian, Brown Tempest
- Glazed Purple Stripe – Popular Strains: Purple Glazer
- Asiatic – Popular Strains: Korean Red, Japanese, Asian Tempest
Softneck Garlic Types and Cultivars
- Artichoke – Popular Strains: Inchelium Red, Red Toch
- Silverskin – Popular Strains: Nootka Rose, Italian White
- Turban (weakly bolting softneck) – Popular Strains: Xian, Red Janice
As a general rule, hardneck garlic varieties are more complex in flavor and have larger cloves that are easy to peel. They are typically ‘hot but complex’ raw and wonderful baked with a creamy texture.
Softneck varieties tend to be sharper and ‘one-note’ in flavor, with smaller cloves. They are good for general-purpose cooking and bulbs can get quite large. Softneck varieties are the type for making beautiful garlic braids – it’s hard to braid a stiff ‘hardneck’ garlic!
The First Step to Growing Garlic – Buy Locally Grown Garlic Seed!
Many catalog garlic seed suppliers, that stock their seed from growers all over the country, won’t tell you the most important key to garlic growing success – start with locally grown, regionally-adapted varieties!
As noted above, all garlic strains are ‘clones’ of themselves. But, that unique trait combined with a farmer who selects for and replants the best of the crop, means that overtime garlic adapts to regional conditions.
Bottom line – if you order garlic seed that was grown in Texas, don’t be surprised when it fails to do well in Washington! Instead, shop locally for garlic grown as close to your conditions as possible. Try local farmer’s markets and local farm stands and make sure to ask, did they grow this garlic locally?
Size Matters… When Growing Garlic!
It is important to only plant the biggest and the best with garlic, at least if you want to harvest a big crop.
Planting big bulbs — typically never plant anything under two inches in diameter, and ideally closer to three inches — will result in a big harvest. If you plant small cloves from small bulbs, they just don’t have the ‘juice’ to produce a large crop. Over several years, you can eventually select for the biggest to ‘size up’ your selection (this is how specific cultivars are developed). But for a big harvest right from the bat, make sure to choose locally grown and LARGE bulbs graded as seed stock.
Timing Your Planting and Field Prep
The best garlic takes time and should be planted in the fall. Ideally sometime between about mid-September and the first of November.
Plant into rich, well-worked and well-draining soil. Garlic can handle extremely cold temperatures, but it does NOT like sitting in ‘wet feet’ through the winter. If you have a clay-based soil, consider planting into raised beds that will let the excess water drain.
Garlic is slow-growing through the winter and a heavy feeder, so make sure to put a slow-release, balanced organic fertilizer in at the time of planting. Garlic does best in full sun though partial shade is tolerable.
Breaking up Cloves, Spacing and Mulching your Garlic Rows!
Your available space will likely determine your final bed set-up but generally speaking give your garlic four to six inches between plants in a row, at eight to 12 inches between rows.
You plant each clove separately, not the entire bulb. So, the first thing you do is break open your bulb and separate the cloves. If there are any damaged, moldy or very small cloves discard those.
When you have your rows marked and cloves separated, make sure you plant your garlic with the basal end down (the flat end of the clove) and the pointed tip up! If you plant your clove upside down, the emerging shoot will grow down, and then have to twist back up to come out of the ground.
Plant your garlic about two to four inches down, then cover your garlic with several inches of mulch for the winter! A nice compost or aged manure works wonderfully. Some garlic growers use straw but be aware this could plant grain into your garlic bed and then you have a weedy mess!
Harvest the Scapes and Spring Fertilizing for Growing Garlic!
As spring comes around, you’ll see your garlic emerge from its toasty, mulched, winter-bed. The young green sprouts will grow quite rapidly and by the time you have two to three sets of leaves, consider adding a boost of fertilizer.
Garlic responds very well to a foliar spray. A fish emulsion sprayed in a fine mist onto its leaves works great. Or give it a nice drink of fish fertilizer or mix a dry organic fertilizer with a high nitrogen content like blood meal or chicken meal right at the base of the plant. The key is to add an organic, quick-releasing source of nitrogen to the plants right at the time they are growing rapidly.
About mid-May, your hardneck garlic cultivars will throw seed stalks or ‘scapes.’ Snap off those scapes, or the plant will put energy into producing a scape and not into producing a large bulb.
The scapes themselves are delicious! They can be eaten raw, pickled, roasted or grilled. Wait until the seed talk grows up, then makes a bit of a curl down, then snap it off as close to where it emerges from the leaf base as possible.
Timing the Harvest when Growing Garlic
Harvest typically starts around mid-June to early July though that can range depending on region and your garlic variety. The best way to figure out when to harvest is to closely watch your garlic!
You want to harvest when the bulbs are about big as they will get, but before they have lost too many ‘wrappers.’ Each plant leaf represents a ‘wrapper’ around the bulb. When the leaves die, they will start from the bottom and work up. Generally speaking, you want to harvest when you have about five green leaves or ‘wrappers’ left and the rest have shriveled up and died.
If you are unsure, the best bet is to pull up a head and check it out. You can still eat that one, so it is certainly not a waste and a good gauge for timing your harvest.
The Final Step for Growing Garlic – Drying and Curing!
The final step in growing garlic is proper drying. If you don’t dry your garlic well it can mold and turn to mush. No fun!
You want to get your garlic out of the hot sun and either lay it out in a well-ventilated area or hang it to dry. It will take a few weeks, but the leaves will turn all brown and dry off and when your bulbs feel nice and solid and dry to the touch, they’re ready.
Clip off the stem, store and enjoy!
For more information on growing garlic, really the ‘bible for garlic growers’ is this classic publication Growing Great Garlic By Ron England.
Looking for some great, Pacific Northwest seed garlic? Garden Treasures Nursery and Organic Farm is offering a selection of organic-certified, Snohomish Valley grown seed garlic. Check out our website for info on our Seattle area farm stand and farmer’s market locations!