Finally Answered. Your Garlic Questions!
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
A Garlic Farmer Digs Deep and Answers Questions.
My grandmother would nibble on cloves of garlic. Her Polish or Slovak roots, I guess. Grandma "Maggy" immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1921. She arrived on Ellis Island, after travelling across the Atlantic Ocean on a ship with her sister. Rumor has it, she brought many heads of garlic with her on that voyage. Eventually she moved to Phillips, Wisconsin where she planted garlic cloves that fall, to keep her connection with Poland. Something got passed on to me, because hardly a meal goes by where I don’t add two or three chopped cloves into whatever I’m cooking. I use a lot of garlic and have realized that no garlic cultivars are the same. Some have more flavor than others. For example, Georgian Fire has a hot, rich, garlic flavor. And its cloves grow large and average about 4 to 6+ per bulb, which means less peeling. And less peeling means easy access to more garlic.
The American West including Oregon, Washington, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Montana and the Dakotas are excellent places to grow hardneck garlic. The altitude where we live in Montana gives us cold winters, allowing our hardneck garlic the opportunity to go through vernalization**. The freezing temperatures also help reduce pressure from insects and diseases, sometimes found in warmer climates. A friend of mine who still lives in Georgia (we were in the Army together back in the early 1980's) grows garlic. From what I've been told, they grow a lot of Onions in Georgia too. Garlic is susceptible to most onion diseases, including botrytis, pink root, powdery mildew and purple blotch. Bulb rot can also be a problem in poorly drained soils. Good sanitation and long-term crop rotation is important to overcome these problems.
**Hardneck garlic requires a period of cold winter temperatures to encourage the seed to divide and grow into separate cloves that form the head of garlic. This process is called, vernalization.
The first question I get is. "When to Plant Garlic?" My advice? During autumn when the rest of the garden is being put to bed, garlic is ready for planting. So, plant in the fall— October, November, or even early December — before the ground freezes. Garlic has been cultivated vegetatively because of its sexual sterility. Vegetative propagation of garlic is achieved through division of the cloves ; therefore, the multiplication rate is fairly low. Purchase your planting stock from a respected grower such as GroEat Garlic Farm, Garlic Supply or Allium Seed Company. Break each bulb into cloves and plant the cloves about eight inches apart, two inches or so deep, in soil enriched with compost, organic matter and manure. Organic matter added to garden soil improves the structure of all types of soils, from gritty sand to heavy clay. It makes sandy soil better able to retain moisture so that it is there long enough for the plants to take advantage of. It also improves water drainage in heavy, clay soil. The Zing and unique flavors of garlic comes from sulfur compounds. There needs to be enough sulphur in the soil so the delicate, white garlic roots can find it, and draw it into the plant. Garlic is also a heavy feeder and needs nitrogen during the growing season. But not too much. Don’t let the soil dry out during the growing season but don't let the plants sit in water either or the roots may begin to rot. Weeds can drain a lot of nutrients from the soil, so do your best to remove weeds that compete with the garlic plants.
Another Question I Hear is : "My Garlic Never Gets as Tall as Corn. Why ?" Garlic is a cool season plant. It makes all of its leaf growth while the temperatures are cool and the days short. As the temperatures warm and the days lengthen, the plant stops making leaves and begins to form bulbs about mid-June. A significant amount of leaf growth can support large bulbs. Spring-set plants often have too little time to manufacture enough top before they begin to bulb, hence the disappointing yield. Additionally, exposure of the cloves or young plants to temperatures of between 32° and 50°F for one to two months hastens subsequent bulbing under long days. So exposure to moderate-to cold winter conditions is beneficial, producing good yields, while bulbs stored or plants grown in temperatures above 76°F may not bulb at all. In a nutshell, cool weather and short days make garlic leaves; heat and long days make the bulbs. If the plants have poor leaf development, the bulbs will be tiny.
A common Garlic Question is: "When and how do you harvest garlic?" The when depends on the where the garlic is growing, so there is no definitive rule. It also depends on the type of garlic you are growing. In simple terms, there are two types: hardneck, which I also call stiff neck; and softneck. Hardneck garlic sends up a stiff seed stalk, where a "pig tail" garlic scape gradually curls. Garlic scapes can be used in just about any recipe suitable for regular garlic. Stews, salads, soups, stir-fries, skillet dinners and casseroles are all great candidates. They can be thinly sliced or chopped and added to pasta or mashed potato or eggs. Sure, leaving garlic scapes on is aesthetically pleasing. And if allowed to mature, the scape will eventually develop into a casing that looks like a plumbob, about an inch in diameter and three inches long, housing countless teardrop-shaped bulblets (or bulbils) with pale purple to brown skin. These are true garlic seed, that almost look like tiny garlic cloves ranging from the size of a grain of rice to a kernel of sweet corn. Many years ago, we realized these small garlic seeds are delicious. When we needed only a small amount of garlic (which is not very often) and don’t want to go through peeling a whole clove, these small bulblets—unpeeled, can be sprinkled onto salads, or used in dishes that call for raw garlic such as dips and guacamole. Lately, we rarely get to see these tiny garlic seeds, as we remove the scapes. Conventional wisdom instructs that removing the scapes redirects the plant’s energy to the bulbs and cloves, thereby resulting in larger bulbs and a greater yield.
Back to When and How to harvest garlic? We only grow hardneck garlic because we've found it to be more flavorful, robust and easier to work with in the kitchen. Most hardneck types will be ready to harvest (northern latitude above 40 degrees latitude) in mid-to Late July. Just like tarot, and reading cards, harvesting garlic at the right time is reading the leaves. By observing garlic daily or weekly, you will notice the leaves near the base of the plant beginning to reflect a faint yellowing hue. The yellowing begins at the base of the plant and eventually the leaves dry and droop to the ground. When three or four have turned brown and shriveled up, it’s time to dig up the plant. Unsure if your timing is right? Dig it up earlier and see if the cloves are tightly covered in skins, and clove divisions are well marked. If so, it’s ready to harvest. Ideally, harvest when the soil is dry. Conventional wisdom suggests you should keep the garlic in the soil as long as possible as the bulbs will grow even larger? Sorry. If you wait too long to harvest the garlic, the heads may begin to split and the cloves may have started to rot. The best way to "time" the harvest correctly is by the appearance of the foliage. However, soil moisture levels can drastically affect the timing of the harvest.
Another Good Question is: "What's next after harvest?" Curing. Curing is the process of letting your garlic dry down in preparation for long-term storage. To extend its usefulness, garlic is to be dried for a few weeks - bulb, roots, stem, leaves and all. No need to clean off all that dirt for now — you’ll tidy them up after curing. Be sure not to wash your garlic either. In Montana, at the GroEat Garlic Farm, most August days are bright and sunny and the relative humidity is low. Fortunately, these conditions are perfect for curing - except for the sunshine. After harvest, keep the garlic out of direct sunlight. A shaded garage or outbuilding with good ventilation will be just fine. Tie the top of the stalks with string in bundles of six, seven or eight and hang them bulb down away from direct sunlight, and in a well-ventilated place for about three weeks. The bulb continues to draw energy from the leaves and roots until all that moisture evaporates. Retaining the roots and leaves helps to prevent fungi, mold or other soil contaminants from spoiling the garlic before it’s fully cured. Don’t stack plants in a big pile without some spacing between the plants. After three weeks or so, it is now time to clean the garlic. This process involves removing any compounded dirt flakes or soil, clipping the roots and cutting the stem about an inch or so from the top of the bulb. Be sure not to wash the garlic. Braiding typically only works with nimble softneck garlics, but give it a try with your hardnecks if you wish.
The last question typically is: "How is Garlic to be Stored and How Long Will it Last?" In my experience, hardneck garlic will last about 6 months, assuming it was handled gently, not bruised and is stored in a proper cold-storage facility. Many commercial growers sold their harvest by fall and don't have to worry about long-term storage, but we tend to keep enough garlic in storage for ourselves, family, neighbours and friends for cooking, eating and celebrations. After curing and cleaning, garlic can be stored in good condition for 3 to 4 months at ambient temperatures of 55 to 65 °F under low relative humidity, However, under these conditions, bulbs will eventually become soft, spongy and shriveled due to water loss. We store our garlic harvest in an insulated garage that is not heated; It stays just above freezing throughout the winter and our garlic lasts 6 months or longer.
Jere Folgert Lives in Bozeman Montana, Gallatin County, and Has Been Growing Garlic for over Thirty Years.
Jere Folgert is the owner of GroEat Garlic Farm in Bozeman, Montana. GroEat Farm is a small, sustainable family farm located in the beautiful Hyalite Foothills, in the shadows of the Gallatin Mountain Range. The hardneck varieties that they grow on their farm flourish, due to the combination of the cold winters, temperate summers, moist spring, and the dynamic alluvial soils, washed down from the Gallatin Range.