How to Grow Large Garlic Bulbs with Excellent Taste
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
We've been growing garlic for a long time, at GroEat Farm, and would like to share with you some of our secrets on how to achieve large garlic bulbs. Even after 30+years of growing garlic, we too are still learning about better methods and strategies on growing garlic. Every year is a little different due to weather, temperatures, microbes and soil conditions. We present to you, ten steps, from pre-planting preparation through harvest, to help you grow your biggest garlic heads yet. We will focus specifically on Hardneck Garlic.
1. 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 garlic seed 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 is triggered to produce a bulb comprised of cloves, when day length increases to about 14 hours.
Garlic cloves require a 6-8 week period of cool weather after planting (below 40 degrees F) to undergo vernalization (inducement to bulb and flower, by low winter temperatures).
With adequate moisture, the planted clove will swell considerably, forming a globular bulb with many fine roots. 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)
2. Soil Preparation is Very Important. Garlic plants mine nitrogen (N) and sulfur (S) from the soil (among many other minerals and natural elements). Sulphur compounds are responsible for the main flavors of garlic. Garlic plants tolerates a wide variety of soils, though to grow large garlic, it is important to prepare your garden with the optimum pH, nutrients, minerals and "fluffiness" before planting. Garlic prefers fluffy, loose soil with high organic matter content and good drainage. Heavy wet soils with clay can cause cloves to rot or develop poorly. Garlic does not grow well in standing water and does not do well with Wet Feet; It will tend to rot if it has wet feet for too long. If your soil is clay-like and not suitable for garlic, try growing it in a raised bed. Raised garden beds are great for growing large garlic as you can control the soil conditions in a defined space. These beds also prevent soil compaction and provide good drainage. Purchase a variety of soil and organic matter and fill up your bed!
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 the 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.
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 a 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's resistance to disease, aids in bulb growth, and sulfur compounds are directly related to garlic's unique healing benefits and flavors.
Organic Matter: 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 help 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 occuring 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 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. 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). 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.
4. Soak the Coves.
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. Its 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, and 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 metres. 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 do 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 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.
5. 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.
6. 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 develope.
7. 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 proper development of garlic plants. Weeds compete with this crop for space, water and nutrients. Mulching with straw can help reduce the amount 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.)
8. 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.
9. 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 it's energy in to increasing the bulb size, rather than in putting energy toward flowers and seed. If our goal is to grow large garlic bulbs, remove the scape.
10. 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 garlic has matured, it will not grow any more. 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.
Aaron, C. 1997. The Great Garlic Book: A Guide with Recipes. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press.
Behnke, Charles T. 1992. Growing Garlic in the Home Garden. Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet HYG-1627-92
Brewster, J.L. and H.D. Rabinowitch. 1990. Onions and Allied Crops, Volume 3, Biochemistry, Food Science and Minor Crops. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.
Conover CA, Poole RT (1984) Acclimatization of indoor foliage plants. Hortic Rev 6: 120 - 154 Brainerd KE, Fuchigami LH (1981) Acclimatization of aseptically cultured apple plants to low relative humidity. J Am Soc Hortic Sci 106(4):515-518
Engeland, R.L. 1991. Growing Great Garlic: the definitive guide for organic gardeners and small gardeners. Okanogan, Washington: Filaree Productions.
Gough, Robert E. 1999. Growing Garlic in Montana. Montana State University Extension Service C-7 (Vegetables)
Mahadeen AY (2011). Influence of Clove Weight on Vegetative Growth and Yield of Garlic (Allium sativum L.) Grown under Drip Irrigation. Jordan Journal of Agricultural Sciences.
Rosen, Carl, Roger Becker, Vince Fritz, Cindy Tong, Bill Hutchison, Jim Percich, Jerry Wright. 1999. Growing Garlic in Minnesota. University of Minnesota Cooperative Extension Service publication 7317. http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/cropsystems/DC7317.html
Stephens, James M. 1994. Garlic Fact Sheet HS-597, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/MV064
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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