Garlic 101 - All you Need to Know About
Garlic to Ensure a Great Crop
Most of us love garlic and nothing compares to locally grown. Depending on where you are located, late September to November are the best months to plant garlic for a great harvest in July. For example, most garlic growers in the Okanagan start planting their garlic Oct through November. In mid-July, seek cured garlic strains for planting. Understand the differences between various garlic types and strains and how they grow so you get the best bang for your buck. Learn how to grow, harvest, cure and use your garlic all the while being aware of some of the disease and pests that can impact your crop. Becoming a successful garlic grower is an experiment that changes every year. You may be a farmer or back yard gardener or even a market gardener; whatever your lean, this article can help you on your way.
Garlic is a member of the Allium or onion family which includes chives, green onions, leeks and shallots. Despite the name, elephant garlic, a large-bulbed, mild, garlic-onion-tasting plant, is NOT actually garlic. Instead, it belongs to the Allium ampeloprasum genus-species, the same species as leeks. In fact, elephant garlic is a type of leek! Elephant garlic is usually only used for its bulbs while garlic is harvested both when it is young and when it is mature. Garlic is also harvested for its bulbs and scapes (the tall, curled, woody flowering stem of a hardneck garlic plant). Did you know you can eat nearly all parts of garlic at any time of the year? You can eat young garlic sprouts, green or uncured garlic bulbs as well as the scape. Did you know that the layers or wrappers around the bulb are really just extensions of every leaf. If your garlic plant has 8 leaves means there should be 8 wrappers around the bulb! The fewer leaves your garlic plant has, the fewer wrappers around the bulb. The fewer the wrappers, the less likely your garlic will handle storage and the more vulnerable it will be to desiccation and disease.
Garlic has a long history. It originally came from Central Asia and has been cultivated in the Mediterranean for more than 5,000 years. In fact, Gladiators ate garlic before going to battle and Egyptian slaves relied on garlic to give them strength to build the pyramids. Many scientific studies have shown that garlic has incredible, potent effects in the human body and is believed to act in numerous ways to protect people from illness. Interestingly, 99% of the garlic sold in stores is just one or two cultivars among hundreds! If you haven't tried garden-fresh garlic, you are truly missing out as it is miles more tasty, and arguably more healthy than varieties from big box stores.
Garlic is just one of 700 species in the Allium family and is divided into two groups - softnecks (A. sativum) and hardnecks (A. ophioscorodon). Each group and each variety within each group boasts a signature taste, look and quality. The most common group of hardneck garlic is a 'Rocambole'. Rocamboles have large cloves, are easy to peel, have a more intense flavour than softnecks and do not store as well as softneck varieties do.
Hardneck Garlic Characteristics
- Complex flavour
- Short storage life
- Larger but fewer cloves
- Produces a scape therefore cannot be braided
- Requires a cold period, "vernalization" to create a bulb
- Includes the groups: Creole, Purple Stripe, Porcelain, Rocambole, and Turban
- Popular varieties: Chesnok Red, Persian Star, Russian Red
Softneck Garlic Characteristics
- Arose from hardneck garlic
- Most widely grown
- Long storage life
- Heavy yields
- Mild to hot flavors
- Many layers of smaller but more numerous cloves
- Rarely forms a scape
- Grow faster than hardnecks
- Like warmer climates
- Can braid
- Includes the groups: Artichoke and Silverskin
If you want to grow your own garlic, the first thing to do is to try some varieties from both the hardneck and softneck groups. You might like a hotter, more spicy variety or you might want a milder flavor. Garlic is like wine, every variety has a signature. Next, you find out what kinds of garlic grow best in your climate and location. Ask local farmers or do some online research. Once you know which varieties you want, start sourcing them. You can find garlic varieties at farmers markets, local farms, organic stores, online or from friends and neighbors. Avoid purchasing garlic varieties shipped to Canada from afar. Many of these varieties have been bleached and treated with other chemicals and certainly have less of a taste and are not as healthy as locally grown, organic varieties.
Once you know which varieties you want, you need to figure out how many bulbs you'll need to plant for the growing space you have. Remember that each garlic bulb contains a number of cloves that once planted, become a new bulb. Information is available that provides you an average number of cloves per bulb for each garlic variety. You can do the math in your head or consult with numerous online resources that calculate how many cloves you'll need for your planting area. Your garlic garden should be properly prepared to allow for ideal growth. Ensure your soil is deep and fluffy, full of well rotted manures and compost. Garlic is a heavy feeder so ensure your soil is rife with nutrients. Your soil should also be well drained so be sure it also contains a loamy mixture of sand, silt and clay.
Before planting, make sure you are using the biggest cloves; larger cloves equals larger bulbs unless growing conditions dictate otherwise. Carefully open each bulb to reveal the cloves. Ensure the cloves are hard and solid, not cracked or diseased. Pick out your biggest cloves and save the smaller ones for eating later. Make sure you know which way to plant the clove - the basal plate end goes down into the soil - the pointy tip should be facing upwards. Gently push each clove down about 2-3 inches into the soil. Ideally, plant all the cloves first so you can see where they are and then cover them all with your soil mixture and mulch.
Depending on the variety and clove size, space your garlic cloves about 4-6 inches apart and your rows, about 1 ft apart. If you are planting in raised ground beds or in a field ensure you have about a 1 ft walking path between planting areas.
Plant your garlic anywhere between late September to just before heavy frost is expected. Ideally plant your garlic 3-4 weeks before the ground freezes. This will allow garlic roots to establish themselves before winter hits. Alternatively, you can plant garlic in early spring as well but only if the ground isn't too wet. If you care about keeping your garlic varieties separate, ensure your bulbs and cloves are organized accordingly and use labelled wooden stacks for every area your varieties are clumped. Always make a map of where each variety is planted.
Some people lay down and semi-bury black plastic, make small holes in the plastic and plant into that. Others plant directly into the soil and then cover with a good, organic mulch like shredded leaves or straw. Avoid laying down materials too deeply, especially when spring arrives as heavy mulch can suffocate seedlings or create a toxic environment low in oxygen that caters to fungal or disease growth. Garlic will start pushing up new growth at 4 degrees C so it is not uncommon to see fall-planted garlic sprouts arise before winter hits. It really is a kind of dance when planting garlic. You don't want to plant when it is too warm or seedlings may get killed back by frost. You can mitigate this to some extent by covering your crop with garden quilts, bed sheets, burlap, frost cloth or tarps but these will prevent frost only so far.
Garlic farmers harvest their garlic depending on the variety - some varieties mature earlier than others. In northern climates, most garlic is harvested in July. The scapes are ready for harvesting in late June when the scape itself has curled about one or two turns. At this point you simply cut the scape where it emerges from the stem. If you leave the scape on the plant it will eventually unfurl and grow straight up. The flower head at the top will eventually open. Snip off the flower head and eat the scape raw, boiled, sauted, baked or, dry out to make into scape salt. Note that most growers remove the scape to allow the plant's energy to go into feeding and enlarging the bulb, not into creating a flower head full of bulbils. Bulbils are tiny bulbs that develop in the flower head. The bulbils, essentially mini-bulbs, are clones of the mother plant. You can actually separate out and plant bulbils in spring to refresh the genetics of the variety. It will take several years of harvesting and replanting bulbils before they reach an average size for that variety. Bulbils are NOT true garlic seed. True garlic seed looks like little, black onion seeds and they are hard to come by because over many years of cultivation, growers have directionally selected out garlic with seed. Seed garlic, a totally different thing, is really just the biggest and best garlic bulbs set aside for selling or growing.
Knowing when to harvest your garlic bulbs can be a bit tricky depending on the growing year but a common rule of thumb is to look for browning or die back of the lower 2-3 leaves of each plant. When harvesting, use a pitchfork to carefully lift up the plants and brush off the dirt. Ensure the bulbs are protected from sunlight by laying a tarp or blanket over them or placing them in the shade. Garlic bulbs are easily damaged if not removed correctly. If they are pulled up too quickly or heavily, the stem can separate from the bulb or the bulb can break apart leaving it vulnerable. A damaged bulb will not cure as well. Once you have harvested your garlic, you can eat it fresh or sell it as green garlic. You can also cure it.
Curing & Storing Garlic
Drying is an essential part of curing garlic bulbs so do not wash them with water. With stalks and leaves attached, tie each variety into bundles of 4-5 (depending on bulb size). Hang in a dry, shaded area for curing or move them to a room wherein you can control the humidity, aeration and light. You can also cure garlic on screens or drying racks. Some growers use dehumidifiers and fans to dry their garlic but these tools are not a must-have. Allot about 2 weeks to dry the garlic after which you can can clean off the remaining dirt and worst of the peeling bulb. Avoid over drying or the bulb wrappers will shrink leaving the cloves vulnerable and each clove requires a certain amount of moisture to grow well. Cut off the root beard to about 1/4 inch from the base plate and store all bulbs in individual, aerated containers for holding until you sell them off or eat them. Black plastic produce containers from Growers Supply work well! Store in a cool, dry and well ventilated area with a stable temperature of around 15 degrees C. Save the biggest bulbs for planting in the coming fall.
Pest and diseases
Like any other plant, garlic can succumb to a number of diseases and pests:
- Pre- and post-emergence damping-off causes seed and seedling rot
- White rot attacks leaves, stems and bulbs
- Black mould (Aspergillus spp.) attacks the bulb, blackening it
- Bacterial soft rot affects mature bulbs
- Fusarium basal rot attacks the leaves and roots which causes rot
- Leaf blight attacks the leaves which affects photosynthesis
- Purple blotch causes small, sunken, purple-flecked, whitish lesions to form on leaves and flower stalks
- Botyritis affects the neck of the bulb leaving it to rot
- Rodent damage
It is hard to predict what kind of attack garlic will succumb to but when it happens, it often affects large swaths of the crop. During wet periods, when the ground becomes saturated makes for perfect conditions for many fungal attacks. Avoid watering during wetter periods. Check your crops often - take a random sample of your garlic to see how healthy it is. Certain attacks won't show until the curing process. For example, Botyritis starts in the field and doesn't appear until later. Garlic affected with this pathogen starts to show itself via black spots on the bulb or little holes in the bulb wrappers. You might see one or two cloves literally turn into mush inside a bulb while the other cloves seem fine. If your garlic is contaminated with disease, avoid replanting it - eat the best cloves instead. Ensure your garden soil is as healthy as possible before planting and watch your watering. You may need to plant garlic in another garden to let contaminated areas run fallow for a couple of years or, plant a totally different crop in contaminated areas - the crop will not be affected.
Hopefully, this article has whetted your appetite for growing your own garlic. Garlic is a pretty bomb-proof crop to grow and an excellent cash crop to boot. One bulb can provide you with anywhere from 2 to 12+ cloves which each become a new plant so the crop consistently gives you more garlic every year. Garlic can fetch a price between $8 and $28 per pound depending on your location. Certified organic seed garlic can be sold at an even higher price. In addition, there are umpteen ways to use garlic. You can powder it, make it into salt mixtures, use it in honey, make tinctures and salves, create incredible recipes etc... the sky is the limit. So get out there and start experimenting!
If you are interested in growing garlic or other vegetable crops and would like to be part of the vegetable program at KHS, let us know. We are happy to put together a tailored vegetable program that meets your garden conditions and needs.