One of the easiest crops I have every tried to grow is garlic. Why? Well, first of all, the critters (rabbits, deer, groundhogs, and squirrels) avoid it. Even insects generally ignore it. Plus, garlic has few disease and pest problems. Aside from a little weeding, garlic requires very little maintenance. And if your passion is organic gardening, it doesn’t get any easier than growing organic garlic.
One of the joys of growing garlic is that it is out-of-sync with most other vegetable crops; instead of contributing to the spring planting workload, garlic is planted in the fall. The taste of fresh homegrown garlic reminds me of the difference between a homegrown tomato and a tomato from the supermarket. And just like those supermarket tomatoes, the garlic you find in the supermarket is grown for shelf life, not taste. Without a doubt, garlic works miracles in the kitchen when added to soups, stews, tomato sauces, salsas, pickles, salads, salad dressings, marinades, mashed potatoes, seafood — hey, clams with butter and garlic! WOW! One has to search hard for a modern recipe that has onion but does not include garlic. A roasted bulb with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt turns into butter when you spread it over a slice of warm bread. Most cooks find it indispensable in the kitchen, and these days it is rare to find a recipe that does not call for garlic. In fact, a diligent researcher can even find a dessert recipe featuring garlic: “Roasted Garlic Chocolate Chip Cookies”. YUMMMMM!!!!
A Brief History of Garlic
Garlic is believed to have originated in the mountains of Central Asia, in the present-day counties of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Today garlic is found wild in Siberia and the slopes of the Ural Mountains. Garlic has been cultivated for thousands of years. Egyptian and Indian cultures refer to garlic use dating back 5000 years. Detailed models of garlic bulbs were unearthed in the tomb of El Mahasna, in Egypt, dating back 3750 BC. The Bible suggests the Israelites may have developed a fondness for garlic around 1500 BC — “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt, the cucumbers, and the melons and the leeks and the onions and the garlick.” Numbers 11:5.
Today garlic ranks second only behind the onion as the second-most important Allium crop in the world. A plant, rich in history, that can fight disease, thin blood, reduce cholesterol, season a variety of foods, repel insects and vampires and is celebrated annually by thousands of devotees at numerous garlic festivals thoughtout the country deserves a spot in the vegetable garden.
Types of Garlic
There are hundreds of varieties of garlic, but generally, they are categorized into two different subspecies or groups: hard-necked (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) and soft-necked (Allium sativum var. sativum). Each group has several distinct varieties and cultivars.
Hardneck garlic produces a false flower stalk in the spring called a scape and is also known as “Top Setting Garlic” because it produces clusters of small bulbs (“bulbils”) at the end of the scape after the mostly sterile flowers bloom. Some garlic experts believe that hardneck garlic has move flavor than the more domesticated softneck garlic, and it is often referred to as gourmet garlic. Hardneck garlic does not store as well as softneck garlic.
There are 3 subcategories of hardneck garlic:
- Rocambole: the most widely-grown of the hardnecks, producing large cloves that are easy to peel. This is the only garlic that sends up a double scape loop. Killarney Red, Spanish Roja, German Gaint and German Red are examples of Rocambole varieties.
- Purple Stripe: named for the bright streaks and blotches on both bulb and clove skins. Purple Stripe garlic is milder and stores longer than the Rocambole types. Varieties include Chesnok Red, Persian Star, Siberian and Celeste.
- Porcelain: This type displays satiny white wrappers and has large cloves, but typically only four cloves. Has the longest shelflife of the hardnecks. After storing, they can be hotter than Rocambole. Porcelain varieties include China Dawn, Georgian Crystal, German White and Music.
Softneck is probably the kind of garlic that people think of when garlic is mentioned. It’s found on the grocery store shelves and in garlic powder and salt. The skin on softneck garlic is tight on the clove, making it hard to peel, but protecting it and keeping it fresher longer. Softneck garlic is productive in a wide range of climates and soils, out-performs hardnecks in warmer climates, and is usually easier to grow. Commercially grown because of its long storage attribute, softneck garlic is the kind usually found in supermarkets.
There are two major subcategories of softneck garlic:
- Artichoke: named for the fact that the cloves overlap, similar to the artichoke. They have a long shelflife but the taste can be hot. Artichoke varieties are easiest to grow and seem to be less fussy about growing conditions than other varieties and do very well in warm winter locations. Artichoke varieties include: Italian White, Inchelium Red, Polish White and Susanville.
Silverskin: These are the longest lasting of the garlics and usually the last harvested. They can be very, very hot. This is considered the best variety for braiding. Silverskin varieties generally grow in most areas of the United States and if harvested and cured properly, can be stored for up to 10 months. Silverskin varieties include Chet’s Italian Red, Nootka Rose, and Sicilian Silver.
Central Virginia is in a transition zone and both hard neck and softneck garlic do reasonably well in our area. The hardneck varieties that have performed well for me are China Dawn and Red Killarney. Softneck varieties that have performed well in my garden are: Susanville, Polish White, Sicilan and Sicilian.
Elephant Garlic is not true garlic; it belongs to the leek (Allium ampeloprasum) family. In recent years elephant garlic has become popular due to the huge size of its bulbs and its milder flavor.
When to Plant Garlic
Garlic is planted in the fall. In our area mid-October is the recommended time for planting. Garlic requires a cold treatment period (vernalization) of 32-50° F. for about two months to induce bulbing. Garlic can be planted in the spring, but it should be refrigerated first for several weeks. However, smaller bulbs can be expected if spring-planted, because of the limited growing period.
Do NOT plant garlic that you purchased from the grocery store, as they may be diseased and are often unreliable because they may have been treated with an anti-sprouting chemical. There are numerous online retailers that sell organic garlic for planting.
Site and Cultural Requirements:
Select a sunny or partially shady location to plant your garlic. Good soil drainage is essential for a good garlic crop. One way to improve the drainage is by creating a raised bed before planting. The soil pH should be between 6.5 and 7.0. A light, well-drained soil also reduces the number of irregularly-shaped bulbs. Adding compost or well-rotted manure and mixing it thoroughly can improve heavy clay. Soil should be loosened to a depth of 6-12 inches. A field trial conducted by Virginia Tech resulted in a 35 percent bulb failure in a no-till field. Compare that to a minimal 5 percent loss in a conventional tilled field.
Garlic is a heavy nitrogen feeder; the recommended rate of application is 30 to 60 pounds per acre. Downsizing that number to a manageable garden space of 100 square feet equates to 0.07 to 0.14 pounds of nitrogen per 100 square feet. Doing the math for the standard 10-10-10 fertilizer, that would require approximately 0.68 -1.37 pounds of standard fertilizer. An alternative organic fertilizer of cottonseed meal (6-2-2) would require approximately 1.15 -2.3 pounds of cottonseed meal. Because nitrogen is “unstable” and tends to leach, one of the recommendations when using standard fertilizer is to apply a top dressing in the late winter (February) and again in March. Cottonseed meal is a slow-release fertilizer, so it may be applied when the garlic is planted and followed up with a top dressing again in February.
Garlic is also a heavy user of phosphate and potassium, and these elements should be added, as with other crops, only in accordance with a soil test. A free Soil Test Kit is available at your local Virginia Cooperative Extension Office.
In general, garlic, like potatoes, multiplies by vegetative reproduction rather than by sexual reproduction (seeds). Individual garlic cloves are planted and each clove them produces a cloned bulb, having the same genetic make-up as the original parent.
The planting process begins by carefully separating the cloves, just before planting, by removing the outer layer of papery skin, and then removing the cloves from the basil plate (the flat base where the roots originated). The papery skin on the individual cloves can be left intact. Select only healthy, firm, unblemished cloves for planting, and aim to use the largest cloves available. In general, the larger cloves yield the largest garlic bulbs. Don’t disregard the small cloves — they can be used in the kitchen, or frozen for future culinary uses.
Plant the cloves 1-2 inches deep with the pointed end up. Space the cloves 6-8 inches apart. Over-crowding the garlic may result in smaller bulbs. Each garlic clove will yield one bulb. When the planting is complete add about 1-2 inches of compost or leaf mold over the planting area to prevent moisture loss.
Garlic is a poor competitor, so good weed-control is essential. In general, fall and winter weed problems are minimum, though spring and summer will bring more weeds. Applying a couple of inches of mulch such as leaf mold or clean straw can help control the weeds. If weeding is required, use caution to avoid damaging the bulbs and roots.
If you are growing hardneck garlic, you may want to consider removing the scape when it begins to uncoil and straighten out. Removing the scape allows the plant to direct its energy toward bulb development rather than bulbils development. Depending on the cultivar, removing the scape can produce 25-30 percent or more in bulb weight.
Garlic requires about an inch of water a week (similar to other garden vegetables), during the spring growing season. Stop watering the plants about a month before harvest (when the leaves begin to yellow) to keep the papery skin dry and prevent the bulbs from rotting or splitting.
During late spring and early summer garlic can be susceptible to the same insects and diseases as onions and leeks — thrips and various bulb rots. However, garlic is relatively carefree when grown in a well-drained organic soil (5-10 percent organic matter), with good air circulation and if you stick to a 2-3 year rotation cycle with other vegetables.
Fall-planted garlic grows roots soon after planting, but top growth does not occur until the following spring, and the garlic bulbs are usually mature by early to mid-summer. Knowing when to harvest garlic is like knowing when to sell a stock in the stock market. At the end of the growing season — early summer — the bulbs are growing at their fastest rate. If the crop is harvested too early, the bulbs may be undersized, but if harvested too late, the thin wrapper that holds the bulb begins to deteriorate and the bulb itself begins to fall apart. Naturally, most gardeners are greedy, myself included, and want the biggest garlic bulbs possible, leading to that temptation to wait too long.
Garlic can be harvested in three forms: scapes, green or bulbs. In the spring, hardneck garlic produces a scape. Most gardeners prefer to remove the scape to allow the plant to focus its energy on the bulb. The scapes can be cut off shortly after the flower stalk curls. Harvested scapes can be used in cooking or salad, providing garlic-tasting greens similar to scallions.
When garlic is harvested before full maturity, it is referred to as green garlic. Green garlic can be used like green onions in salads or cooking. Bulbs are ready to harvest when the leaves begin to yellow or brown and fall over, but there are still 50% green leaves on the plant. Green leaves indicate that the bulbs are still intact and have not begun to break apart. If you wait until all the leaves have turned brown and fallen over, you have waited too long.
I usually dig up a few “test bulbs” before I harvest to check the wrappers. If they are in good shape, I wait a few more days and dig a few more.
When you pull the trigger and begin to harvest, carefully loosen the soil around the bulb to minimize damage. The preference is to dig up the garlic bulb rather than pulling it out. I am often amazed at the depth of the garlic bulb and the number of roots that have developed. Shake off the excess soil, keeping the wrapper intact. With more of the wrapper in place, the garlic will store longer. Do not wash the bulbs as that may encourage the growth of fungus and reduce the shelf life of the bulb.
Curing and Storing
Curing the harvested garlic will extend the shelf life of the bulb and strengthen its flavor. To cure the garlic, tie into bunches and hang in a shady, cool dry and well-ventilated location for 4 to 6 weeks. I often use a fan to increase the ventilation.
Once the bulbs have been cured, I sort the garlic, I save the largest bulbs to be planted the following fall, and the remainder I store in a dark well-ventilated area. I use a homemade screen that hangs in the basement and it works well.
Garlic is a seed savers’ delight. There’s no need to worry about cross-pollination because what you save and plant is a clone of the parent plant. In addition, garlic adapts to its environment, so the more seasons you plant your saved garlic in the same microclimate, the better it performs. I have noticed that after about the fourth year, the garlic appears to become happy with its new home and I am rewarded with larger bulbs.
What’s not to like about growing your own garlic? It will be fresher and tastier than those found in the supermarket, you’ll have hundreds of varieties to choose from — way more than what is available in the supermarket, pests mostly leave it alone, and other than a little weeding and occasional watering, it’s maintenance-free. On top of all that, because garlic adapts to local conditions, you’ll have the reward of being able to save your own garlic and plant it year after year knowing each year your crop will get a little better.
Thanks for joining us in The Garden Shed this month. We hope you will visit again next month.
“Roasted Garlic Chocolate Chip Cookies Recipe,” Mother Earth Living (July-August, 2004) http://www.motherearthliving.com/food-and-recipes/summer-recipes/roasted-garlic-chocolate-chip-cookies-recipe-zmoz04jazmel.aspx
“Glorious Garlic, Herb of the Year 2004,” Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 2906-1360, pubs.ext.vt.edu/2906/2906-1360
“The origins and distribution of garlic: How many garlics are there?” United States Department of Agriculture, http://www.ars.usda.gov/Research/docs.htm?docid=5232
“Garlic Production,” North Carolina State University, ncsu.edu/garlicproduction
“Soil Sampling for the Home Gardner,” Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 452-129, http://pubs.ext.vt.edu/452/452-129/452-129.html
“Garlic Productivity and Profitability as Affected by Seed Clove Size, Planting Density and Planting Method” HortScience, vol. 39 no. 6, pp. 1272-1277 (Oct. 2004) hortsci.ashspublications.org
“No-till Organic Culture of Garlic Utilizing Different Cover Crop Residues and Straw Mulch for Over-wintering Protection Under Two Seasonal Levels of Organic Nitrogen,” Virginia Cooperative Extension, Publication 2906-1389 https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/2906/2906-1389
“Growing Garlic,” University of Vermont Extension’s Vermont Vegetable and Berry Program, http://www.uvm.edu/vtvegandberry/factsheets/Garlic.html
“Time to Plant Garlic” Virginia Cooperative Extension (Bratsch Tony), https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/2906/2906-1347
Garlic – An Herb Society of America Guide (The Herb Society of America, 2004) (pp. 16-18) https://pubs.ext.vt.edu/2906/2906-1347/2906-1347.html