Garlic: Grow Your Own Organically
Gardening is like Cooking...
Have a dozen cooks make a spaghetti sauce and the odds are you will wind up with a dozen variations. But they will all be spaghetti sauce. The same is true of gardening. All someone can do honestly is give you the result of their own experiences. A dozen other gardeners will give you a dozen other variations. But they will all have worked for them.
Listen, read, decide.
So, what sort of plant is garlic?
A native of Southern Europe, Garlic (Allium sativum) is what is referred to as a biennial plant, meaning that the plant requires two growing seasons to finish its life cycle. The first season from ‘seed’ it forms a small, undivided bulb. It then rests overwinter, and the next season forms a ‘head’ composed of several bulbs; the Garlic we are all familiar with in the kitchen.
Garlic is divided into two main groups: Hardneck and Softneck. Hardneck Garlic gained its name because it sends up a sturdy stem that its leaves grow off of during its second season. This will eventually contain ‘nutlets’ that are the seeds of the plant. Hardneck varieties form a ring of 6 to 7 larger cloves surrounding 4 or 5 smaller cloves hugging the center of the bulb.
Softneck Garlic does not send up a stalk, instead it forms a rosette of strap-like leaves, which when dried after harvest are often braided with other bulbs for storage. Softneck Garlics have smaller, more numerous cloves than does Hardneck garlic. It also does not store as long as the Hardneck types in our experience, though we have heard otherwise. This is the common Garlic found in the grocery stores, often the variety called "Polish White".
The so-called "Elephant Garlic", which can indeed form baseball sized or lager heads is not a Garlic. It is related to the Leeks. Raw, it has a garlic flavor. However cooked the flavor is gone. It is also considerably harder to harvest as the heads grow quite deep down in the soil.
“Head” is synonymous with “bulb” and refers to the collection of cloves attached together like segments of oranges and enclosed in a papery wrapper.
“Clove” refers to the single segments of Garlic.
“Scape” is the name the top of the Hardneck Garlics which forms a loop as it creates the flower head. The plant does not actually form flowers. Instead, it forms a miniature bulb containing “nutlets”, which are the plant’s seeds.
Garlic is available widely, and there are more ‘varieties’ available than you can shake a stick at. The differences between them are subtle, and often non-existent. All taste like ‘Garlic’, with slight variations in pungency, or heat, or strength; but only enough to provoke arguments between partisans.
In our experience, the biggest differences are in size and storage.
Here are some varieties we have grown, and their typical characteristics.
German Red: A large Hardneck Garlic, with a dark red skin on the cloves and good flavor. It does not last as long in storage as we’d like, usually becoming woody and dry by January or February.
Russian White Hardneck: Can grow to a huge size in rich soil, as big as an orange. Great for Farmers’ markets due to its size. Unremarkable flavor and storage.
Inchelium: A Softneck type. Unlike many Softnecks, this one is acclimated to northern areas. Very nice flavor, decent storage. The main drawback from the cook’s standpoint is the many small cloves in the interior.
Czech Red: A medium to large size Hardneck with maroon skin on the cloves. Excellent flavor, and a tremendous keeper in storage. This is the one we settled on for ourselves. It will keep stored at room temperatures right through the next harvest, though it will slowly dry out somewhat. There is no other ‘variety’ we’ve found that stores so well so long.
China Rose: A Softneck with mild flavor and limited storage, but earlier harvest than any other we’ve seen, which for Market Growers is a real plus. (There is nothing that warms the cockles of their hearts like bringing the first crop in before their competitors.)
When to plant:
Garlic is fall planted. Do not believe anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. Here in Upstate New York we plant ours in mid to late October. The idea is to plant before the ground freezes so the cloves can have time to grow some roots that will anchor it in the ground against the heaving of the soil as it freezes and thaws (known as ‘setting root’). On the other hand, do not plant too early. The plant may waste stored strength by sending up too much greenery. (But all Garlic will send up small shoots in the fall or during mild winters; so don’t worry if you see that.)
How to Plant:
You can either make a furrow with a hoe two inches (roughly) deep and place the cloves root-side down a foot apart in it and then gently pull dirt over them.
Or, as we do, prepare a bed by forking it up, then raking it smooth. Lightly draw lines down the length of the bed one foot apart. If the soil is soft enough, simply gently push cloves, root-side down, down into the ground until the top of the clove is about an inch below the surface. Space the cloves a foot apart down the row. When the bed is planted, use the back side of a rake to smooth the soil and cover the bulbs.
If the soil is too hard to easily push the cloves in, use a ‘Dibble’ to pre-drill a hole in the ground. Simply drop the clove (root-side down of course) into the hole, then use the back-side of a rake as above to cover the cloves.
Where to plant:
Garlic responds to fertile soil by producing larger heads. So pick a spot with rich soil, or soil that had been heavily manured with compost the year before.
Because Garlic is fall planted and harvested by mid-July (at least here it is), it affords ample scope for inter-planting.
We usually transplant baby lettuce plants between the Garlic plants in June, or Chinese Cabbages between them. After the Garlic is harvested those plants have the beds to themselves as they mature.
Cultivation and Care:
Ensure your Garlic gets a thorough watering at least once a week. Most growers will tell you water should be with-held somewhat about a month before harvest, which is when the bulbs start sizing up. We don’t worry too much about that. If we get a rainy spell during that last month, we’ve never seen any effect on the size of our crop.
Hoe shallowly regularly, (once a week, or as weeds appear).
Hardneck garlic’s flower Scape needs to be snapped off, or cut off, in order to get decent-sized bulbs. If you don’t; too much of the plant’s energy will go into producing seeds at the expense of bulb size.
There is a great deal of talk about exactly when to cut the Scape off. Some ‘experts’ say one must wait until the stalk has made one complete loop, but before it starts the second loop. Others say to cut it anytime after one loop. Still others say cut it before it completes a loop.
Our thinking is you can make this as complicated as you want, but the reality is we snap them off as we find them curling: Some we snap when they have made a loop, others before they’ve finished a loop, and some when they’ve started the second.
Frankly, we’ve not seen a correlative difference. The biggest difference we see in size is due to soil richness and depth.
Those cut Scapes can be added to food but be aware the flavor disappears if cooked. Hard to believe, but true.
Those same Scapes contain the ‘nutlets’ of future Garlic plants and they are tenaciously adamant about surviving. You can use that to your advantage to cheaply increase your Garlic greatly by drying them a bit, then sowing them. In the fall dig up the tiny bulbs and replant as you would regular cloves with more spacing.
By the same token do not discard the cut Scapes in your garden because your garlic will become weeds.
Softneck Garlic will also produce "Nutlets" in a swollen node on the stem.
The good news is that you will probably never have a pest problem, and neither rabbit, woodchuck, or deer will eat them on you.
Once again, the timing of the harvest is a source of much writing by experts.
Yes; if you wait too long the marketability of the head will be lessened (but it will be fine for eating).
Yes; if you harvest too early you lose some bulb size.
But: In our experience the easiest guide as to when to harvest is to look for remnants of dried leaves on the stem of the Hardneck types. When you see the remains of 2 dried leaves, one on each side of the stem (because that is how Hardneck Garlic leaves grow; alternately up the stem) it is time.
Take a Gardening or spading fork and loosen the soil under each bulb. We go right down the bed, forking up all the soil.
Then we uproot the plants and stack them in a wheelbarrow and cart them to a hose. Rinse the dirt of the leaves and bulbs (Yes; I know. Experts say don't do this. I've been doing it for decades with no, I repeat, no, issues. And the bulbs are nice and clean.)
The next steps are important.
Let the Garlic sun-dry after the hosing for a day.
Then bundle them together in bunches of 10 to 12 and then hang from nails in a rafter in a shady shed or garage with plenty of air flow.
Leave them to dry for at least 2 weeks. A month is preferable.
Cut the stems off about an inch above the neck of the head. Trim the roots off. I use sharp hand pruning shears.
Important: If you use Garlic before it has fully cured the flavor will dissipate during cooking.
Garlic stores just fine at room temperature in the average kitchen. Don’t store it in the refrigerator. It is alive and requires air circulation so keep it in a basket, a “Garlic-Keeper”, or an open box.
Saving Stock for the Next Year...and the Next...and the Next...
Remember inn the beginning of this article I mentioned something about never having to buy Garlic again? Well, here's how:
Select only your biggest heads for replanting in the fall. We save 15 of the very biggest. That provides us with a lot of Garlic for the whole year, and enough to be generous with to others.
Set these heads aside and mark them so you don't accidentally use them.
When the time comes for planting break the heads apart as you need them and plant only the biggest, outer cloves, not the smaller inner ones.