How To Grow Garlic
Growing garlic is not difficult. Even if you are not a seasoned gardener, you can grow great garlic if you start with quality, organic seed garlic and follow a few simple steps.
Garlic will grow under a wide variety of soil conditions. It is said to prefer free draining loam with lots of organic matter. Building up your soil with green manure cover crops as part of your normal crop rotation is good practice. We like to get all our amendments into the soil before planting. We use composted chicken manure from our free range chickens. You could also send a soil sample out to your local university to be tested.
Selecting Your Seed:
We select our own seed first so that each year our average production is improving. We choose bulbs with a nice shape and plump cloves. In general, clove size is more important than bulb size as a determinant of future bulb size.
When To Plant Garlic:
In the U.S most varieties of garlic, under most conditions, do best when planted in the fall. The timing of fall planting should be such that the roots have a chance to develop and the tops just break the surface before winter, about three weeks before the ground freezes. In some regions spring planting is traditional. Although we have planted in the spring with good results the short growing season means that the garlic is not ready for harvest. Spring planted garlic matures later than fall planted. We plant in the fall.
Preparing Cloves For Planting:
Shortly before planting break the bulbs apart into cloves. This is called ‘cracking’. The cloves are attached to the basal plate, the plate that the roots grow from. When you crack the bulb each clove should break away cleanly, leaving an image of a ‘footprint’ on the basal plate. With true hardneck garlics you can crack them by giving the woody stem a sharp rap on a hard surface. The root nodules begin growing from edge of the foot of the clove. If the basal plate stays attached to the clove you may be able to flick it off. Be careful not to damage the foot of the clove. It is more important to keep the clove intact than to remove the basal plate. Set aside the small cloves to eat, to make into pickles, to dry, or to plant tightly together for eating in the spring, like green onions. Each larger clove will produce a good sized bulb by the end of the growing season. The smallest cloves require just as much space, care and attention in the garden and produce significantly smaller bulbs.
You can plant garlic in single or double rows or in wide beds with four to eight inches between plants. Tighter spacing in the beds will produce a greater number of smaller bulbs for a higher total yield in terms of pounds of garlic per square foot of garden. We have lots of land and plant garlic in well-tilled beds. We have devised a stamper that two people use to stamp out a row of garlic in the bed that pokes holes that are 6” by 6” spacing and are 3 1/2” deep. We use the stamper behind our 50” rototiler. Each stamp makes 45 holes.
We believe that it is important to plant hard neck garlic with the top (pointed end) of the clove up, at least two inches below the surface. When you have planted the garlic you can cover the holes by raking over with loom or compost.
Mulching conserves moisture, moderates soil temperatures and inhibits weeds.
Mulching can even out the soil moisture between rains and irrigation cycles. It is not recommended in wetter climates where excess water can be a problem for garlic.
Moderating soil temperature is helpful where there are extremes of heat and cold. Garlic does not like repeated freezing and thawing. Frost heaves can tear the young roots from the cloves. A thick layer of winter mulch is a good insurance against winter kill. Garlic does not like extreme heat either and mulch will moderate the daily fluctuations in summer soil temperatures.
Chopped leaves, swamp grass, reeds and alfalfa hay are among the preferred mulch materials. Grain straw is not recommended because it can host wheat curl mite which will attack garlic. Grass hay is ok if you don’t mind lots of grass seed in your soil.
In our area, we put on about 4” or so of chopped/ mulched leaves in the fall for winter protection. By spring this has settled to 2” or so which is enough for weed suppression and heat and moisture control. Where winters are harsher a thicker winter mulch is siutable come spring time it may need to be pulled. Some varieties of garlic find it easier than others to penetrate the mulch.
Label The Garlic Beds:
It is very easy to lose track of which garlic is which. By using a combination of maps and markers we can always identify the garlic in the ground. UV resistant markers are used to write on stakes for each end of a bed or section of a bed. We use a detailed map and also make custom ingraved stakes to label our beds.
Garlic requires fairly even soil moisture during the growing season with no additional moisture during the last few weeks. Mulch is one way of maintaining an even moisture regime. Not enough moisture means that garlic does not develop a full sized bulb. Over watering results in garlic with poor keeping qualities – poor wrappers, burst skins and mold. Also, it is harder to cure garlic that has been over watered. One of the arts of garlic growing is knowing when and how much to water. We leave a couple of early scapes on each bed and when they stand up straight that is usually one of our signals to stop watering. We stop watering two to three weeks after cutting scapes.
A few weeks before harvesting stop watering the garlic. Different growers have different rules of thumb regarding the best time to harvest. The dying back of the leaves is only an approximate indicator. To determine whether the garlic is ready to harvest inspect a few bulbs in the ground by carefully scraping away the dirt. You can feel the bumps of the cloves through the wrappers of a mature bulb. Lift the garlic from the ground when the bulb has reached a good size and before the wrappers begin to deteriorate or the bulbs begin to split open. If a bulb is not well-wrapped, and the skins on the cloves are not intact, the garlic will not keep well. Learning exactly when to stop watering and when to harvest is a matter of judgment that comes with experience. We begin harvesting our earliest varieties in mid to late July. The main harvest continues into August, with the late varieties and spring planted beds being harvested in late August. For harvesting flat we use a narrow-bladed shovel to loosen the ground beside the garlic bulb and lift the plants out by hand. Be careful as garlic bruises easily. Garlic can also get sunburned and some varieties of garlic change flavor when left out in the sun and so we take each basket of garlic into the curing barn as soon as it is full.