Thursday, October 16, 2014

Planting Garlic

Italian Purple Stripe
Garlic is one of my all-time favorite veggies. I love the flavor and I appreciate the incredible health benefits of garlic. However, the cost of garlic can be prohibitive when using it in the volume I like. That's why I started growing my own.

Hardneck garlic. Notice the single layer of large
cloves around the central stalk.
Planting garlic is incredibly frugal and insanely easy. It is one of the easiest gardening projects I've undertaken (unlike garlic's cousin onion which I've given up on for the time being). You can buy a single bulb at the market and turn it into 4-8 new bulbs, with some leftover to eat beforehand. You can get a few different harvests from garlic, depending on what type you plant, allowing you to try new things. Garlic helps to repel pests from the garden, so planting a border or planting throughout the beds may help to keep pests from preying on your other veggies or flowers.

The best part of all is choice. At the grocery store you get...garlic. When you grow your own, you can grow Music (high yield, easy to peel with a strong, lasting garlic flavor), Purple Glazer (great for baking), or Chinese Pink (early with a mellow flavor). In can grow the type of garlic you most like to eat/cook with instead of just getting whatever the grocer sells you.

Softneck garlic. Notice the multiple layers of cloves.
First...get yourself some good garlic. You can order it through a reputable seed catalog if you'd like, and especially if there is a certain variety you want to try. This is high quality garlic for planting, but will cost more and you'll have to pay shipping. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you can gamble with grocery store garlic. Sometimes store-bought garlic is sprayed to keep it from sprouting which is the exact opposite of what you want it to do. Some grocery stores don't do this, and if you regularly have garlic purchased from a particular store that sprouts, you can assume it will grow okay. In my opinion the best way to get "seed" garlic is to go to a local farmers market where the farmers only sell what they grow. I've never heard of a small truck farmer spraying their garlic with anti-sprouting chem. Often, they will supply you with lots of details about the variety, how it tastes and how to best cook/use it. Also, since it is grown locally, if it looks great, it will most likely do great in your climate. It is also priced somewhere between the cheap stuff at the grocery and the expensive stuff in catalogs.

Mixture of cloves. I chose the largest cloves to plant.
There are two types of garlic, plus elephant garlic. Softneck garlic produce more cloves than hardneck, but they are smaller. Softneck garlic stores longer and can be braided. It grows better in milder climates. Hardneck garlic produces fewer but larger cloves. It doesn't store quite as long as softneck and can't be braided. It grows best in cooler climates. The big benefit to hardnecks, I think, is that it sends up a scape. The scape is a crunchy, flavorful seedstalk that can be eaten as a vegetable. It gives you a garlicy harvest a month or so early and is one of my favorite veggies. Elephant garlic looks like garlic, but is closer related to a leek than to garlic. It has huge, milder cloves. It is grown similarly to regular garlic, but a few inches deeper (6 inches deep) and a foot apart because it grows so much bigger. I like to grow a mixture of different varieties of hardneck and softneck garlic for diversity in flavor, storability and in case weather causes issues for one variety.

Plant garlic in fall for the biggest harvest, about 2-8 weeks before the first hard frost of the year. I've seen gardening sites/books vary greatly on this date, so I assume that as long as it's got some time to get established before the ground freezes, you're fine. I plant in mid-October in Zone 5b and had a fantastic harvest last year. You can also plant it in spring, about 4-6 weeks before the last frost, although spring-planted garlic doesn't get as big as fall-planted (but any garlic is better than none).

There is a great variety of sizes in a single bulb.
Plant the biggest ones.
The day you are going to plant, gently break apart your garlic bulbs.  You can remove the outer papery covering to get the cloves separated, but don't remove any more of the covering than you have to. Once you've broken apart your bulb, select the biggest cloves in the bunch. Chosing the biggest cloves ensures a bigger bulb next summer. Look them over for any blemishes: mold, rot, cuts, or removed papery covering.

Don't throw away the smaller or blemished cloves! These are perfectly edible and should be enjoyed. After I plant my larger cloves, I remove the papery covering from the smaller cloves, trimming away any bad spots. I put them in a jar in the refrigerator to use within the next couple of weeks. The inner covering can be added to stock (Avoid the outer layers to avoid getting dirt in your stock). Outer coverings can be composted. No waste!

Soaking garlic in water and baking soda.
You can soak the cloves or not. Again, there is a lot of talk about whether or not it is better to soak before planting, but it probably makes less of a difference than the debate wouldn indicate. Some people soak in manure or compost tea. Some soak in a vinegar, baking soda and alcohol mixture. Some soak 2 hours, some soak every night.The first year I grew them, I didn't soak them at all and they grew fine. This year I soaked them for 1/2 hour in a baking soda and water mixture. I doubt it will have any affect, but we'll see.

Plant garlic about 4 inches apart.
The ideal soil is a good loam, but don't let imperfect soil deter you. I grew garlic well in my clay to clay-loam soil with no issue. Prep your bed by working in some good compost. Smooth the bed, then dig furrows 4-6 inches apart. Plant the garlic cloves 4-6 inches apart with the pointy side sticking up and the root side down. Cover with 4 inches of soil.

Garlic in autumn. The leaves die back when
it freezes, but come right back in spring.
Over the next few weeks, if the weather doesn't turn really cold, the garlic shoots should pop up (Don't worry if they don't sprout yet; they'll be fine in spring) These little shoots are so beautiful in late autumn when the rest of the garden has been put to bed and the threat of winter looms. Mulch heavily with shredded leaves or straw (I always go with leaves because it's free and sourced on site), piling them up deeper as the shoots grow. When a freeze is coming, pile a bit more on and leave til spring.

In the early days of spring, you'll see them start to grow again. Sometimes they'll even pop up through the snow-another beautiful sight! Keep the beds well weeded for the biggest bulbs possible. Water them every 3-5 days, unless it rains.

Garlic scape harvest.
Garlic scapes on hardneck garlic.
If you are growing hardneck garlic, you'll get a scape. It is a round stalk that comes up through the middle of the leaves, straight at first, then curling. There is an arrow-point at the end. If left on, this will turn into a flower and you'll get bulbils to plant. However, leaving them on may take some of the energy away from big bulbs, so there is a trade off. I harvest them when they curl once by cutting the entire scape at the point where it meets the leaves. This allows the plant to put all its energy towards big bulbs and gives me a garlicy harvest a month early. The scapes are absolutely delicious. These can be added to soups, salads, mashed potatoes or they can be steamed or stir fried. They can be added to quiche or omelets.

Garlic bed in early summer.
Garlic in summer. The stalks are thickening up.
Towards the end of summer (depending on your climate), the leaves will start to die back. Once the leaves are yellow and falling over, harvest the bulbs. Don't wait too long as this will decrease their storage life. Use a garden fork to dig 6 inches away from the leaves. Gently brush away soil from the bulb, but don't scrub or wash them. Allow them to cure by sitting or hanging outside in an airy, dry spot for a couple of weeks. If it rains, bring them inside (warning: this will make your entire house smell like garlic. If this is an issue, put them in the garage or shed). At this point the soil will have dried and you can brush off a bit more of the dirt, again, gently. If you have softneck garlic, you can braid it. Hardneck varieties should be trimmed so the stem is only about 2 inches long. Store in a dry area.

Garlic harvest. Not bad for the first time!
In a couple of months when it's time to replant, select your biggest bulbs and repeat the whole process. Some people say that the longer you grow garlic in your microclimate, the bigger the bulbs will become. At any rate, you'll save a lot of money over buying garlic at the store and you get the supreme pleasure of flavoring your food with homegrown garlic. What could be better?

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