28 January 2009

Grow Garlic! Here's How.

Another request has come across my Facebook. My friend would like to know more about growing garlic. Garlic is a very easy crop to grow, though I haven't found much consistency in the "how-to's" of growing it. I learned by reading all the books, then throwing together my own recipe, so to speak.

One challenge is finding the right variety. Garlic is divided into two categories: Hard-neck and soft-neck. Hard-neck varieties send up a central stalk and produce a flower. The cloves are larger and easier to peel which are rich and usually not too spicy. Hard-neck is preferred for northern climates. Soft-neck varieties usually don't send up a flower spike. They are easier to grow, mature faster and more productive. They tend to be more adaptable to a wider range of climates though these garlic varieties are typically grown in southern California and near the Gulf of Mexico where winters are moderate. They generally have a spicier flavor.

I have been fortunate enough to find a hard-neck variety that suits our family well. I don't know the variety. Sorry. Several summers ago, I bought garlic from a farmer at the Farmer's Market. Garlicman, as we affectionately named him behind his back (and yes, probably his superhero identity) grew the tastiest garlic. His garlic cloves became our starts, but you should be able to stick any garlic in the ground and get it to grow. I would recommend using organic garlic. The cloves of the garlic act as bulbs like tulips, crocus, daffodil, etc. Use the larger cloves to produce larger heads of garlic.

As always, start with fertile soil. The Vegetable Gardener's Bible recommends "deep fertile soil that is well drained but has plenty of organic matter." So what exactly does that mean? It means, don't plant it in heavy clay or sand. If you don't have a nice layer of top soil in your yard, you may need to make some layers. This is also known as sheet mulching. You can read more about building up a garden HERE. I would recommend building your soil up, anyway. It makes for easier gardening. Garlic likes full sun, which translates to at least six hours of full exposure a day.

In the fall, or whenever you plant bulbs in your part of the country, plant individual garlic cloves pointy side up about two to three inches deep and six inches apart. In Knoxville, we plant garlic in October, but watch the weather because you don't want to plant when it's too hot. You'll want to wait for a bit of a cold nip. We may have planted at the beginning of November this year due to a very warm Autumn.

After you plant the bulbs, put down a layer of mulch. Autumn leaves work well for this.

Garlic does not like to get choked out, so keep the area free of weeds and grass. If you are rotating a preexisting garden, do not plant the garlic after onions. I don't know why. It's just what the books say. Sometimes I don't question gardeners who are more experienced than me. I just take their word (and experience) for it. Do not plant garlic with beans or peas, but you can interplant beets or lettuce, which help keep the soil cool in the summer. Apparently, garlic likes full sun, but not hot soil. Last year, after last frost, I interplanted the garlic with some sunflowers and zinnia. The flowers added color to the garden and didn't shade out the garlic. The flowers also served as an invitation to other beneficial insects.

Once you have planted the bulbs, garlic has low watering needs. In the Spring, just like other bulbs, you will see shoots popping up. Keep the area free of weeds and as the season continues, add another light layer of mulch especially if the whole interplanting thing is confusing. The mulch will keep the soil cool, but allow for the garlic stalks to grow high to the sun. When flower buds appear (hard-neck varities), snip them. This focuses the plants energy to creating a larger bulb.

Garlic is harvested in the mid to late summer. The trick is to watch the garlic. When the lower leaves turn yellow, start paying attention. The book says to wait till the stalks fall over, but that caused me to overshoot the garlic last year and some of the bulbs had separated. I think it is best to harvest when the stalks begin to yellow and turn a little brown. It is best to use a garden fork to loosen the soil so you can pull out the bulbs. If you pull the first bulb out, and it doesn't look quite ready, put down a little mulch and wait a little longer for the other bulbs to mature.

Next, you need to dry the bulbs. This is known as curing and the secret to long shelf life. Handle the garlic with care so as not to bruise it. Leave the stalks on. I don't know if there is a real science to this since I have several different gardening books and each one has a different method. Last year, I tied my garlic up and hung it in a sunny well ventilated window in the house. Other years, I have layered the garlic in a criss-cross way and left it in a sunny window in the shed.

Curing takes about two weeks and is finished when it looks like it does at the store. Clip the stalks and store as you would normally store garlic. Remember to save a head or two for next year's garden…that is if you like the variety.

Garlic bulb sources:
Check your local Food Cooperative. They should sell organic garlic.

Territorial Seed
Seeds of Change

I found this great source with an easy to follow PDF information sheet, after I spent a couple hours writing mine. I should just throw my article out! But alas, hopefully mine is more entertaining.
Garlic Farm
Garlic Farm Garlic Info Sheet PDF

As always, thanks for reading.