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Growing Garlic

If you want to feel like the most accomplished veggie gardener, this is the crop for you to grow. It’s about the easiest veggie to plant, harvest, and consume. Nothing eats it: not deer, chipmunks, or rabbits. It seems only humans are interested in it. As for insects and disease, sadly there are a few but it’s very rare that you will have to deal with that. Even if you don’t like garlic, grow it anyway so you can donate your harvest to a local food bank. They are especially grateful for this produce.

Where to start?

The first thing you need to do is select the garlic you will grow.

There are two main kinds: hardneck and softneck.

  • Hardneck garlic is just what the name says: the bulbs grow a hard stem in the middle of the bulb. They also have a stronger taste than softneck varieties, and come in several “flavors.” Hardnecks are recommended for cold climates as on the whole they have better cold hardiness.
  • Softneck garlic varieties grow without that central stem. It’s usually what you buy at the grocery store. Softnecks are a bit milder and can be grown in warmer regions. Softneck garlic is the best choice for regions with mild winters, plus it's the type to grow if you want to make garlic braids.
  • There’s a third kind known as Elephant garlic. It does in fact look like a garlic head on steroids and is in the allium family. But it really isn’t garlic per se – it’s a type of leek. Elephant garlic is only used for its mature bulbs vs. other garlic that can be harvested young. It also matures differently. In its first year after planting, elephant garlic only grows one large clove. It needs a second year to deliver multiple cloves.

What to plant?

An internet search of “garlic bulbs for fall planting” will yield lots of options and educate you about the different varieties and their associated flavors. Then when you go to your garden center or local farmers’ market, you will be knowledgeable about their offerings. Don’t use inorganic garlic you buy in the grocery store. First, you won’t know what you’ve got and second, it’s usually treated with a growth inhibitor. On the other hand, organic garlic from the grocery store is a possibility but again, the variety will be a mystery, it might not be hardy, etc. After experimenting with several varieties, German Extra Hardy is the one I now grow exclusively in my zone 5B garden. It’s an heirloom garlic that grows well in colder regions, and produces a large bulb with easy to peel jumbo cloves. It also keeps well after being cured.

How to plant?

You will need a bed in full sun with well drained soil. Like all bulbs, too much moisture will rot your garlic. Raised beds are ideal, but an earth bed with the right soil composition will do fine. Make sure you amend with lots of compost like Coast of Maine Quoddy Blend, your garlic will love it and thrive.

  

Planting is easy. Just follow the directions you got with your garlic, but plan on a minimal distance of four inches between each plant. Prepare your garlic for planting by breaking up the head into individual cloves just before planting to keep it fresh.

Each clove gets planted in your amended bed at about 4” deep with the pointy side up. Cover the cloves and pat them down to make good soil contact, then cover the bed with about 2-4 inches of mulch. Some people like shredded leaves, straw, or an organic bagged mulch like those offered by Coast of Maine. A gentle shower of water will settle things in nicely.

When to plant?

This is a common question. The soil must be cool enough that the garlic will spend its time getting established and not think it has to grow. Garlic cloves need cold temperatures to root: hardneck garlic needs 4-6 weeks of cold temperature below 40-45°F to develop bulbs (vernalization). On the other hand, softneck garlic is less demanding about vernalization, ergo, it grows better in warmer zones. The science is that garlic roots will grow whenever the ground is not frozen, and the tops will grow whenever the temperature is above 40°F. If you live in a cold region, you want your garlic to grow roots before the ground freezes while keeping the top growth at bay until most of the winter is past. You have a few ways to determine this. You can wait until after the first killing frost, or use the fall foliage changes as your signal, or use a soil thermometer. With the thermometer, you are looking for about 50°F at a depth of 4 inches (where the roots live). I have experimented with planting my garlic when the soil temp was below 50°F (and I was uncomfortably cold) and at about 60°F. For me, it made no difference in quality of the harvest.

After planting

Once your garlic is in the ground and mulched, you can sit back and relax while Mother Nature does all the work. Come next spring, you’ll see the green tops emerge which is a sign that the soil is warming and your garlic is actively growing. Plan to cut the curly stems (scapes) that your bulbs produce as leaving them will take energy from the bulb. Those scapes are a delicious, sought after ingredient for pesto, salads, soups, etc.  Is it ready yet? Your garlic should be ready to harvest sometime in July when about 3 lower leaves on the stems have turned brown.

Gently loosen the soil around the plant with a garden fork and give it a firm tug to lift it out of the ground. Shake the soil loose and store the garlic in a very warm, dry place (shed, garage, etc.) for a few weeks to cure.

I like to wash off the dirt before curing. When storing garlic, you want to be sure it’s thoroughly dry so the bulb doesn’t rot from the inside. Then cut the stems and root hairs off. Inspect your harvest to determine the best bulbs to save for planting your 2021 crop. That’s all there is to it! Written by Lorraine Ballato, author of Success With Hydrangeas, A Gardener’s Guide.

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