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  • Jere Folgert

How to Grow Garlic

There's no reason not to plant this indispensable ingredient.



Garlic Harvest


Dried or fresh, raw or cooked, garlic is a foundational part of a variety of soups, salads, breads, and casseroles. Garlic is easier to grow than you might think, and they're a great plant for tucking into spare corners and along the edges of garden beds. Here's how to grow 'em:


Types of Garlic

Garlic (Allium sativum) come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Most types can be pulled young as green garlic, but most gardiner grow garlic for the cloves. Garlic is commonly divided into two main varieties or subspecies, the hardneck (ophioscorodon) and softneck (sativum).  These are based on the fact that the former develop a stiff stalk from the cloves in the ground, topped by mini aerial cloves called "bulbils".  This process is often called "bolting".  Since garlic varieties are actually sterile clones, they develop these bulbs instead of flowers.  Softneck types generally don't produce this "flower" stalk.  Sometimes these designations don't hold in reality, the stalks developing or not with different seasons, climates, and cultivars (cultivated varieties).



True Garlic Seed


There are 11 general groupings, or "types", among the hardneck and softneck, which in turn have their own specific selections or "cultivars".  For the hardneck types you may see Asiatic, Creole, Glazed Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe, Middle Eastern, Porcelain, Purple Stripe, Rocambole, and Turban.   The Asiatic, Creole, and Turban are weakly bolting.  For the Softneck types you may see Artichoke and Silverskin cultivars.

  • Artichoke softneck cultivars such as 'California Early' and 'Red Toch' are the main ones seen in grocery stores.  They are ready to harvest earlier in the season, and adapt to many growing conditions and soil types.  Cloves tend to be large with a flattened appearance. This garlic is imported from China as well and found in grocery stores.

  • Asiatic hardneck cultivars such as 'Asian Tempest' and 'Pyongyang' (this and some other cultivars originally came from Korea) have good flavor and store well.  They may be recognized by their "flower" that resembles a long, dark and wrinkled bean pod.  The aerial cloves within it actually can grow new plants when planted.  This hardneck doesn't need the stalk removed in order to produce new cloves.

  • Creole hardneck cultivars such as 'Creole Red' and 'Burgundy' are, as their name might suggest, are better suited to warm climates. Cloves are a moderate size, have good flavor, store well.

  • Glazed Purple Stripe hardneck cultivars such as 'Vekak' and 'Red Rezan' mostly came to us from Eastern Europe and Russia.  The few, squat cloves are well-named having a metallic appearance, purple streaked silver.  Flavors may not be as strong as in other types.

  • Marbled Purple Stripe hardneck cultivars such as 'Metechi' and 'Siberian' too came originally mostly from Eastern Europe and Russia. They tend to adapt both to northern and southern conditions, the few and larger cloves being marbled with purple.  They store well, cloves peel easily, and they have a strong flavor.



Metechi Hardneck (Marbled Purple Stripe)


  • Middle Eastern hardneck cultivars such as 'Jomah' and 'Syrian' come from the Middle Eastern countries, and are not commonly found as they are best suited to these climates rather than North America. 

  • Porcelain hardneck cultivars such as 'German White' and 'Polish Hardneck', on the other hand, are commonly seen across the northern latitudes.  Cloves tend to be hot and pungent when eaten raw, starchy after baking.  The skins are thick and tightly cover the few, large cloves.  Outer skin layers are white, with some purple stripes on inner layers of the papery skins.  They store well.

  • Rocambole hardneck cultivars such as 'Russian Red' and 'Spanish Roja' are some of the most popular and flavorful garlics for home growing.  Cloves have rich, sweet, and complex flavors and tend to be brownish.  The stalks or scapes are unique in forming a double loop on top.  Unfortunately, this type of garlic stores well for only a short time.

  • Purple Stripe hardneck cultivars such as 'Shatili' and 'Shvelisi' or 'Chesnok Red' come, as the names indicate, from the Caucasus area and the Republic of Georgia.  They can be vividly purple striped, or more silvery, depending on the weather.  Cloves often have a rich, not too strong, flavor and they store relatively well.  They were the ancestors of other garlic types.

  • Silverskin softneck cultivars such as 'Idaho Silver' and 'Silver White' are the ones you usually see braided, having a pliable stem. They are the longest storing cultivars usually, and often fairly strong.  Cloves tend to be white, small, teardrop shaped, and often are late to sprout.

  • Turban hardneck cultivars such as 'Chinese Purple' and 'Shandong' come from a variety of areas, from Eastern Europe to the Far East to Mexico.  They are not as common as some other types, have brownish to purplish cloves, and often sprout early and store poorly.  The capsule on the top of the stalk is shaped like a turban, hence the name.  Cloves tend to taste hot when raw, mild when cooked, and some call them the "summer apple" of the garlic world.


Soaking Garlic

You can generally expect a disease-and insect-free crop. Soaking the garlic cloves before planting can help prevent infestation by worms, or the onion maggots: 1/3-inch-long white, legless larvae that travel in line from one bulb to the next and burrow upwards to feed on the stems. To reduce the chances of extensive damage, soak garlic cloves in a solution of baking soda, water and liquid kelp. Learn more by clicking here.


Planting Garlic

You can grow garlic from "true" garlic seed or from seed garlic. It sounds a little confusing but conceptually is easy to understand. There’s a big difference between ‘garlic seed’ and ‘seed garlic.’  Most people plant seed garlic, and if you’re dealing with a reputable supplier, that means planting large well-formed garlic cloves from healthy disease-free stock.  More often than not, it actually means planting the garlic from a garlic farm such as the GroEat Farm in Montana. Garlic seed, on the other hand, is made in abundance after homegrown garlic plants flower in the late spring or early summer.



Planting Garlic Cloves


Virtually all garlic cultivars require full sun during the day. Softneck garlic typically does better in warmer climates and hardnecks seem to grow best in more northern latitudes. Garlic likes cool weather in the early part of their growth. Generally speaking, garlic grows tops in cool weather, and form bulbs when the weather warms.


Plant garlic cloves four to six weeks before the last average frost. This gives the cloves a chance to set roots and anchor themselves into the soil for the winter. Plant the cloves 2 - 3 inches deep and 6 to 8 inches apart. Use the closer spacing if you plan to harvest some young plants as garlic greens. Cover in 4" of mulch (decaying leaves, straw, but not hay).


Growing Garlic

The practices you use will depend on the specific crop you're growing. In general, garlic grow best if you keep them well weeded. Use a shovel or hoe to cut off intruders; sometimes, pulling or digging weeds up can damage the garlic's shallow roots. Once the soil has warmed, put down additional mulch around and between the plants to discourage weeds and to hold moisture in the soil.


Extreme dry conditions cause bulbs to split. Extreme wet conditions can cause bulbs to rot. So water when necessary to provide at least 1 inch of water each week. Garlic can't compete well with weeds, so it's important to direct water right to the garlic roots.


If you've prepared your soil well, it should be fluffy and loose. Add organic matter, such as aged manure, to help break up clay soils. Garlic plants are heavy feeders and fertilizing is necessary. Always go easy on nitrogen, which can produce lush tops at the expense of bulbs. New growth from the center will stop when the bulbs start forming. Perform a soil test to determine what your soil is lacking in nutrients.


Watering Garlic

Try not to overwater your garlic. Garlic does surprisingly well with moderate water from rainfall. If you are living in a very dry region, or if it has not rained for weeks, water garlic plants efficiently with soaker hoses along the row close to the plants. Or open a small trench between rows and fill it with water. This keeps the roots supplied, while leaving most of the soil surface dry, inhibiting weed seed germination.


Troubleshooting

You can generally expect a disease-and insect-free garlic crop. One possible pest is onion maggots: 1/3-inch-long white, legless larvae that travel in line from one bulb to the next and burrow upwards to feed on the stems. Barely visible thrips tend to attack during hot, dry weather in July or August. They produce deformed plants with silvery blotches on the leaves. Thrips overwinter in weeds, so reduce pest populations by keeping the garden clean. Try spreading a reflective mulch, such as aluminum foil, between rows to confuse the thrips. If you catch the problem early, you can spray plants with Beauveria bassiana or spinosad to combat thrips. As a last resort, apply neem oil, to control a serious infestation. Downy mildew, a purplish mold, shows up in midsummer during warm, humid weather. Garlic is also subject to wet root, which causes roots to rot. Some of these problems are caused by fungi in the soil and can be avoided by rotating crops and by working humus into the garlic bed to provide good drainage.


Harvesting Garlic

Once the bottom three leaves of garlic plants turn yellow, use the spade or pitch fork to loosen the soil around the bulb. Attempting to pull the bulb out of the ground without loosening the soil may damage the bulb and cloves. Dig the bulbs on a dry day when the soil is dry to the touch. Do not leave them to dry in the sun. Instead, move the entire plant (roots, bulb, plant and leaves) into a well ventilated covered area such as a garage or porch, and hang to dry. Keeping the plants in the shade will help prevent sunscald.


When the outer skins are thoroughly dry, wipe off any soil and remove the tops and cut off the roots. Store in a cool, dry place; Such dried bulbs will keep for about 4 months to 1 year.




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