Growing Big Garlic! Our Secrets.
Updated: Feb 15, 2022
We would like to Share Our Secrets on how to Grow Big Garlic! Even after 30+years of growing garlic, at GroEat Farm, we too are still learning better methods and strategies on how to grow bigger and more flavorful garlic. Every year, the growing conditions are a little different due to weather, temperatures, microbes, and soil conditions. We present to you, Eleven (11) steps, from pre-planting preparation through harvest, to Help You Grow Big Garlic. We will focus specifically on Hardneck Garlic.
1. Select Ideal Garlic Plot Location. Begin by selecting a "Garlic Plot" that receives full sun, during the day, (throughout the spring and summer). Garlic thrives in full sun. Choose a location that receives (at least) 6-8 hours of sunlight per day during the spring and summer. Garlic planted in an area that is shaded may fail to sprout anything above ground or they may produce very small bulbs as compared to garlic that receives full sun.
Because the garlic plant's leaves are a fundamental unit for carbon uptake and water use, they automatically interface carbon, water, and energy balances governing physical, biochemical, and physiological processes involved in leaf gas exchange. The garlic leaf is the focus of photosynthesis, which in turn makes possible Big Bulb Size. Garlic varieties respond to the amount of daylight length leading into the summer solstice. Hardneck varieties are particularly suited to middle and northern climates.
2. Soil Conditions Are Critical. Soil is an important factor when trying to grow large, good-tasting bulbs of garlic. To produce large garlic bulbs, it is important that your soil is light and fluffy, has good drainage, has a pH around 7.0, and is filled with optimum nutrients and organic matter. Garlic prefers loose, "fluffy" soil with high organic matter content and good drainage. Clay or heavy wet soils can cause cloves to rot or develop poorly. If your soil is not suitable for garlic, consider growing it in a raised bed. Raised beds allow you to control the soil type and facilitate better drainage. The individual cloves are planted to the depth of about 2 ½ times their size in well-drained soil of good tilth. The growing tip (the sharp pointed end) is planted pointing upward. Cloves planted upside down will develop a curved shoot that results in misshapen bulbs. If your soil is sandy, or thin, add healthy additions of compost, plus aged manure.
If you have too much clay you may experience a devastating moisture problem. Garlic does not grow well in standing water and tends to rot if it sits in moist soil for too long. Clay soils may result in dirty garlic bulbs as clay tends to cling to the paper-like outer skins of garlic bulbs and can be difficult and time-consuming to remove. Clay soils can also hinder harvesting garlic, as dry clay ground may become hardened and difficult to dig.
Garlic bulbs need room to grow and expand in size! To obtain the "fluffy" loose soil texture that garlic bulbs love, amend the soil with organic matter or plant cover crops. Sometimes referred to as "green manure," cover crops help to add nutrients to your garden as well as help loosen the soil with their powerful root system. Cover crops may include red or white clover, winter rye, vetch, buckwheat, and sorghum.
Perform a Soil Test. Send a sample of your soil into a soil-testing lab. In agriculture, a soil test commonly refers to the analysis of soil, to determine nutrient content, composition, and other characteristics such as acidity or pH level. A soil test is important to aid in the diagnosis of plant culture problems, to improve the nutritional balance of the growing media, and to save money by knowing what your soil lacks (you won't waste your money on fertilizer your soil does not need). Based on the results of your soil test, make the necessary adjustments using fertilizer and soil amendments. Most soils are lacking in nitrogen. Garlic normally needs extra nitrogen (blood meal is a good organic source of nitrogen). Supplement with nitrogen after planting and several times during the growing season. Stop nitrogen supplementation before garlic scapes in late spring or early summer. Too much nitrogen can result in smaller bulbs. Organic matter helps make soil 'fluffier' and adds nutrients to soils. Garlic is a heavy feeder and it likes lots of nutrients including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Adding organic matter for your crop to enjoy will give you the biggest and best-tasting garlic. Pay close attention to the pH of your soil. A pH: between 6.0 and 7.5 is the ideal pH for growing garlic. Perform a soil test every few years as garlic can deplete your soil of important nutrients.
Hardneck Garlic grows best in soil that has a neutral-to acidic pH, specifically around 6.5 to 7.0. Garlic also needs several nutrients and natural elements to thrive. Nitrogen is critically important during garlic's initial growth phase at which time the plant's structure and leaves are formed. Potassium is also critical for leaf growth and healthy bulb formation. Phosphorus helps promote healthy root development. Sulfur is also a very important component of the soil. It is the sulfur compounds that help orchestrate garlic's taste, smell, and flavors. Some farmers and gardeners amend their soil with sulfur in the spring, after the plants have emerged and developed leaf structures. Sulfur can be mined from underground, naturally-occurring deposits, but this is costly and has largely been discontinued. Sulfur is a major by-product of oil refining and gas processing. Most crude oil grades contain some sulfur, most of which must be removed during the refining process to meet strict sulfur content limits in refined products.
Many garlic growers amend soils with organic compost, organic manure, and organic worm castings. Amending soils with organic compost and manure can increase the nitrogen levels in the resultant mixture. Worm castings add nutrients and help make the soil more "fluffy". There are many options for manure selection; Here are a few: Horse, Cow, Buffalo / Bison, Alpaca, Poultry (chicken, geese, ducks), and Goat. What is critically important is that the manure you select is well-aged and decomposed. "Hot" manure added to garlic can result in devastating consequences.
Horse Manure: Well-aged, composted horse manure can be a good source of nitrogen. Chat with the caregivers of the horses to determine, what, if any, drugs have been given to the horses. Be wary of weeds that come your way via manure. Horses, unlike cows, have one stomach. Some weeds such as sedge will produce an astronomical 90,000 seeds if not removed. while you can't always find perfectly composted manure free of weed seeds, keep your eyes open for obnoxious transient hitchhikers.
Cow Manure: Cow manure is a good option for amending soils. Plan to incorporate the well-aged, composted cow manure into your soil in late summer, after harvesting this year's garlic crop. Turn under the cow manure shortly after spreading so the nutrients don't blow away or dissipate. Cattle have three stomachs capable of digesting a large number of plant seeds. Though seeds with hard coats can pass right on through. By the time you are ready to plant bulbs in October, not only will the smell will have dissipated, some of the nutrients from the manure will have leached into the surrounding soil. Nitrogen settles into the soil and does not appear to shock the cloves when planted.
Buffalo Manure: Just like cows and elk, bison have four stomachs. This premium soil additive has much higher nutrient values than cow manure and greater bacterial populations than just about any organic fertilizer on the market. If you have access to Buffalo manure from a local ranch (Montana, Colorado, Dakotas, etc). A few decades ago, there were only about 30,000 bison left in the U.S. Today, there are closer to 500,000, and the country’s appetite for buffalo continues to grow. Buffalo Organic Potting Soil combines buffalo chips with premium coconut coir, sphagnum peat moss, and expanded shale which provides a balance of nutrition, water filtration, and moisture retention.
Alpaca Manure: Even with its lower organic content, alpaca manure is considered a very good rich soil conditioner. Alpaca fertilizer improves the soil quality and its ability to retain water. Alpacas are ruminant animals with three stomachs for efficient digestion. Because of this, alpaca manure is lower in organic matter than manure from cows or horses, so it's less likely to burn plants. Aged alpaca manure is light, dry, and odor-free. The small pellets are easy to spread. This dark-colored manure is also good for plants, providing a fair amount of nitrogen and potassium and about average levels of phosphorus. If you've got a neighbor with alpacas, you can probably get manure for free or at little cost. Keep in mind that commercially available Alpaca manure can be very expensive. We've used alpaca manure with great success.
Poultry Manure: Poultry manure, such as chicken manure, provides a dense, concentrated source of nitrogen. Chicken manure adds organic matter and increases the water holding capacity and beneficial biota in soil. A good fertilizer; chicken manure provides Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium to garlic plants (apparently more than a horse, cow or steer manure). In poultry, principally the organ where food is broken into smaller units has two parts: the proventriculus for storage and the gizzard. The drawback of non-organic chicken manure is that it may contain a cocktail of chemicals and many contain GMOs used in feed. Poultry manure doesn't evaporate like cow manure, so it doesn't need to be turned under as quickly as cow manure. When using poultry manure, bland and mix it into the soil before planting.
Goat Manure: Goat manure is virtually odorless and is beneficial for the soil. This manure contains adequate amounts of the nutrients that plants need for optimal growth. As urine collects in goat droppings, the manure retains more nitrogen, thus increasing its fertilizing potency. Goat manure, like sheep manure, is drier than cow manure or horse manure. It has less odor and is easier to work with and spread. It also composts more quickly. Goat manure is higher in nitrogen than horse and cow manures -- on average, it has 22 pounds of nitrogen in 1 ton. Cow manure has only 10 pounds of nitrogen in 1 ton (source: Ohio State University Extension).
Organic Compost: Organic Compost is organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow. You can make your own compost (which helps keep these materials out of landfills where they take up space and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas.). Or, check locally to see if someone in your community is making large batches of organic compost. Around the country, there are teams that collect food scraps from individual households and restaurants and make valuable compost from these collections.
Soil Fertility. Before planting, provide a loose soil bed for planting the cloves. Garlic grows best on fluffy, well-drained soils with added organic matter. Sandy loam or loam soils have a good texture for growing garlic. Well-composted manure incorporated into the soil is a beneficial soil amendment. Drought or excessively wet conditions will reduce bulb yields.
Soil Composition for Optimum Garlic Growth (General Guide):
pH: Between 6.0 and 7.5.
Nitrogen: is very important and is needed for garlic plant growth. Nitrogen is part of the chlorophyll molecule, which gives plants their green color and is involved in creating food for the plant through photosynthesis.
Phosphorus: Plays a role in photosynthesis, respiration, energy storage and transfer, cell division, and cell enlargement. Phosphorus is needed for garlic's optimal root development. Garlic must have phosphorus for normal growth and maturity.
Potassium: is associated with the movement of water, nutrients, and carbohydrates in plant tissue. Potassium is critical for leaf growth in the garlic plant and healthy bulb formation.
Sulfur: is essential for nitrogen-fixing and necessary in the formation of chlorophyll. Garlic plants use sulfur in the processes of producing proteins, amino acids, enzymes, and vitamins. Sulfur also helps garlic plants' resistance to disease, aids in bulb growth, and sulfur compounds are directly related to garlic's unique healing benefits and flavors.
Organic Matter: this will help garlic grow large as it improves virtually every soil type. Organic matter facilitates the "break up" of clay soils and allows better water penetration. It helps sandy soils retain moisture by increasing humus concentration, and it facilitates the retention of nutrients, by improving cation exchange capacity. It increases soil aggregate stability which holds soil particles together and helps soils retain their structure. It also increases mineralization which is how much nitrogen, potassium, sulfur, phosphorus, and other nutrients are released by soil bacteria.
Important Trace Minerals: add nutrition to your garlic. Garlic also uses trace mineral elements for growth and propagation. Some soils have naturally occurring mineral elements. Micronutrients help garlic in very diverse processes, including primary and secondary metabolism to the cell defense, and energy metabolism. Garlic use these micronutrients (or trace minerals): iron (Fe), boron (B), chlorine (Cl), manganese (Mn), zinc (Zn), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni). Some of these micronutrients stay beneath the soil as salts, and garlic plants consume these elements as ions. After you perform a soil test, you can supplement your soil with what your soil is lacking.
3. It takes Time and Cold Temperatures to achieve large bulbs. Acclimatization is defined as the climatic adaptation of an organism, especially a plant, that has been moved to a new environment (Conover and Poole 1984). In other words, if you obtain seed garlic from a location far from and different from your site, it can take garlic two or three years of gradual, long-term responses, to adapt to its new environment. Growing varieties that are not adapted to your climate can result in smaller heads for the first few years. Have patience.
Hardneck garlic needs exposure to cold temperatures for the biggest heads. This process is called vernalization. Garlic cloves require a minimum of 6 to 8 weeks of cold weather after planting (below 40 degrees F) to undergo vernalization. What is ideal? A long cold winter, a cool, and wet early spring, and dry condition beginning in July. These idea conditions facilitate a robust root system and prepare for bulb development. In late fall (before the soil freezes solid), the garlic cloves develop angle-hair-spaghetti-like roots that anchor the clove into the soil. In early spring, a pair of intertwined leaves will emerge from the terminal end of the bulb and will eventually break through the soil, depending on the weather and location. As the soil temperature warms, leaf development will accelerate with flat, dark green leaves on stems. (The University of Georgia, 2017). In early summer the plant adds more leaves and the heads grow larger and divide. Garlic is triggered to produce a bulb comprised of cloves when day-length increases to about 14 hours. With adequate moisture, the planted clove will swell considerably, forming a globular bulb with many fine roots.
4. Plant the largest cloves. The largest garlic heads typically are grown from the largest cloves. Large cloves have more energy stored within, and, as a result, can produce a larger garlic plant and bulb. Before planting, we separate cloves from bulbs and select the largest cloves for planting (and sometimes use medium-size cloves as well). If you only have access to small cloves, you can plant them, though, keep in mind it may take two-three years of successive plantings to achieve a large bulb size. The larger the clove, the larger the garlic bulbs it produces (Madadeen 2011). Plant the cloves two inches into the soil, pointy side up. Each garlic plant needs room to grow; Room for the roots to explore and gather nutrients and water. Spacing them at 6 to 8 inches apart when planting is a good rule. Plant garlic in the Fall (September and October are the best months to plant). Plant cloves at least 2 weeks before the first frost of the season. This affords your garlic to grow roots and anchor themselves before the winter conditions set in.
5. Soak the Coves (This is Optional)
Before putting the cloves into the ground, we soak them in two "stinky" solutions - that provide two important benefits. If you’ve never done this before and have grown beautiful garlic, that is great news! I offer this suggestion to you, and ask that you be open-minded to this garden tip, as it can prevent a tragedy in your garlic patch, and, it has the potential to help you grow even more exceptional garlic.
Garlic Soaking 101. As I mentioned, soaking garlic provides two important benefits. First, soaking garlic in a solution of water, organic fish fertilizer and/or liquid seaweed fertilizer, and baking soda, for 24 hours, infuses the garlic with a boost of essential nutrients. It's like a fertilizer marinade, for the benefit of the garlic. The garlic will store this added energy and nutrients until spring. The baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) acts as an inhibitor. Baking soda is considered a "significant killer" of bacterial suspensions and has been shown to significantly decrease the numbers of viable bacterial cells. This mixture is effective at killing bacteria and mold that might be hidden on the garlic cloves. Second, we follow up with another short bath of vodka, rubbing alcohol, or hydrogen peroxide, which will sterilize the cloves and destroy any mold, bacteria or other bad things that could survive the long, cold winter, and play mischief and create chaos in your garlic patch, next spring. This short, second soak, acts as an antiseptic, capable of destroying tiny mites hiding in the cloves, fungal diseases and microbes (or at least prevent or inhibit their growth). It doesn't get the garlic drunk.
First Soaking : 8-24 Hours.
This first soak is pretty simple. Our ingredient list is baking soda, water, fish emulsion and/or liquid seaweed fertilizer. Fish emulsion fertilizer is made from whole fish and carcass products, including heads, eyes, bones, scales, and skin. This product is processed to remove oils, and the liquid that remains after processing is fish emulsion. After straining out solids, sulfuric acid is added to lower the pH, preventing microbes from growing. A common fish emulsion is Alaska Fish Fertilizer 5-1-1 . Liquid seaweed fertilizer is an alternative to fish emulsion. Liquid seaweed fertilizer is a concentrated formula containing nitrogen and nutrients. Most seaweed-based fertilizers are made from kelp, a variety of seaweed that can grow to lengths of over 40 meters,. Trace elements found in organic seaweed fertilizers include magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron and nitrogen—all of which are beneficial to garlic. Nitrogen, for instance, is essential to the production of nitrate, a key component needed by plants during photosynthesis.
Let's Begin by mixing the ingredients into a large stainless steel bowl or container.
1 gallon of lukewarm water.
1 Tablespoon of organic fish fertilizer and/or 1 additional Tablespoon of liquid seaweed.
1 Tablespoon of baking soda.
We then gently place the cloves into the container, keeping all the garlic labels near each variety for easy identification. We let the cloves soak for 8 to 24 hours. You'll notice at the end of this stinky bath, some of the cloves may have increased in size due to the infusion and added fluid volume in the garlic's interstitial and intravascular space. Some of the garlic may be floating at the surface, others may be on the bottom of the container. Drain the fluid using a colander.
Second Soaking - Quick! Our second soak goes quickly. We place the garlic cloves into a glass (or stainless steel container) and cover them with either Vodka, Isopropyl Alcohol 50-70%, or Hydrogen Peroxide. Soak for 10 minutes and drain.
Special Note: isopropyl alcohol is stinky and inhaling moderate amounts of isopropyl alcohol can cause irritation of the nose and mucous membranes, throat irritations, nausea, vomiting, and even difficulty with breathing. Perform this second soak in a well-ventilated area!
Just prior to planting, we let the cloves drain for a few minutes - this process ensures all the liquid is removed. We also wash our hands with soap before handling the garlic cloves as an added measure. Plant within 1 hour of the second soak.
6. Provide adequate water, but not too much! Unlike many other garden vegetable plants, Garlic requires relatively small amounts of water. Typically, no watering is necessary if your garlic is covered with mulch and your region receives adequate spring rainfall. If your region experiences little rainfall in the spring, water your garlic crop every few weeks. The GroEat Farlic Farm is located in Bozeman, Montana which receives 17 inches of rain, on average, per year. The US average is 38 inches of rain per year. Our garlic grows exceptionally well in Bozeman.
7. Plant Survey and Scouting. On my farm, I survey the garlic plants every few days. Why? I have found that the condition of the plants can change quickly. Surveying, observing, and scouting often provides me with important Empirical data. Experimentation and observation is essential to growing garlic. Observing an issue right away gives me critical time to mitigate the situation. Reducing the severity, or seriousness, of the plants can result in better growing conditions for the plants. An important part of the plant survey is identifying plants that are not growing well, or where two cloves are growing together, like siamese twins. Scouting also provides valuable insight as to when the scapes develop.
8. Remove Weeds. Garlic has a very shallow root system. Like onions, it does not compete with weeds very well. Weed your garden regularly! Weed control is essential for the proper development of garlic plants. Weeds compete with this crop for space, water and nutrients. Mulching with straw can help reduce the number of weeds. Weeding can also help loosen the soil. On my farm, I weed after a storm or rain shower. The weeds can be easily extracted - roots and all - when the soil is moist. “Don't let the tall weeds cast a shadow on the beautiful garlic plants.” One of the most common garden weeds is also known as Wild Spinach, lambs quarters, aka pigweed. it is edible and delicious. We blanch it in boiling water and serve it with soy sauce and parmesan cheese. It has a deeper and more robust flavor than spinach (be sure to wash off the silica from the leaves.)
9. Mulch. Some garlic growers do not mulch their garlic patch and have grown fantastic garlic year after year. In a damp climate, mulch might create an environment for disease if it contacts the stem and is kept too damp. At my farm, I use 2-3" of barley or wheat straw to cover the entire planted area. I believe mulch has three important purposes. First, mulch is a viable weed-control option, as mulch inhibits weed growth by depriving weed seeds of the light needed to germinate. Second, proper mulching Insulates the soil, provides a buffer from heat and cold and helps the soil retain water to help the roots stay moist. Third, mulch contains important minerals and nutrients, and when it decomposes, it helps make the soil more "fluffy" and prevents soil compaction.
Keep in mind that mulches tend to consume a great deal of nitrogen when they decompose. However, if they consume an excessive amount of nitrogen from the soil, it could stunt the growth of the plants.
10. Remove scapes. Scapes are the flower stalks that the garlic plant produces in the spring and early summer. By removing the scape, the plant sends its energy into increasing the bulb size, rather than putting energy toward flowers and seeds. If our goal is to grow large garlic bulbs, remove the scape.
11. Harvest at the right time. If our goal is to harvest large healthy bulbs, timing is important. If you keep the garlic bulbs (heads) in the ground too long, the cloves will begin to separate from the clove; this is not good. If we harvest too early, the bulbs may not reach their full potential. Once the garlic has matured, it will not grow anymore. When the bottom three leaves of the garlic plant turn brown and begin to droop downward, dig one bulb from the soil. Inspect it. How does the head look? Are the cloves covered in a nice array of paper? Most importantly, don’t wait too long, or the papery covering will start to break down. Each of the remaining green leaves corresponds with a paper covering on the bulb, with more layers of papers corresponding with longer storage life. If you wait too long in which leaves have deteriorated, fewer papers will be left to protect the cloves. Read: When To Harvest Garlic
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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.
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