Growing Great Garlic

Growing Great Garlic
Posted in: Lawn and Garden

Garlic Select Your Type

The garlics grown for cooking are found mostly in two species: Allium ophioscordon, the hard-neck types, and Allium sativum, the soft-neck types. The hard-neck garlic bolts in spring to produce a woody flower stalk with bulblets atop. Plant the bulblets and you’ll harvest garlic “scallions” the next spring. Hard-necks are favored by knowledgeable cooks for their deep flavor and ease of peeling. Keeping quality for this group is only moderate, usually until January. To grow a decent sized bulb, hard-necks must be fall planted. Two pounds will plant about a 50 foot row. Soft-neck varieties are stalkless, have a soft, braidable leaf, and produce many more but smaller cloves per plant than the hard-necks. Soft-necks are easier to grow, more productive and more adaptable to varying climates and soils. Most soft-neck varieties are either very mild or very hot and do not possess the subtle, interesting flavors of the hard-neck types. Soft-neck bulbs are better keepers than the hard-neck types. Under optimum conditions they’ll hold for ten months. Two pounds will plant about a 50 foot row.

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When to Plant

Garlic sprouts in autumn, survives bitterly cold winters as an underground plant (or grows frost-hardy leaves where winters are mild to moderate), resumes rapid growth when the weather warms in spring, and forms bulbs in summer. In the north, plant four to six weeks before the ground freezes. This gives the plant time to make good root development but not enough time to make leaf growth. In the Rogue Valley, October is generally the best time for planting garlic. Soft-neck varieties can be planted in spring in locations where winters are severe or snow cover so unreliable that garlic freezes out.

Soil Preparation

Garlic can survive in poor soil so long as it does not become waterlogged. But to make nice bulbs, garlic needs fertile soil with lots of organic matter. Bulbs must be dug cleanly, so the soil must remain uncompacted through the long growing season. Growers with clayey soils should add a lot of compost before planting; those blessed with lighter soils having naturally loose texture need add only small amounts of organic matter, or grow and till in green manures prior to planting.

How To Plant

Break the bulb into individual cloves. There will be a mixture of large and small bulbs; plant only the larger ones. Use the small cloves in your kitchen. Where winters are mild, plant cloves 1” deep, root side down; where winters are severe, put them 2-4” deep and lightly mulch immediately after planting. In spring, the garlic will have no trouble pushing through an inch or so of mulch. Minimum spacing on raised beds is 4” apart in rows 8” apart. To grow the largest bulbs, try spacing your plants 6” apart in rows 12” apart.

Growing

Most of the work comes after garlic has overwintered. It must be kept well weeded. Take care not to damage the shallow roots when cultivating. Garlic needs to be moderately fertilized as soon as it begins growing in spring. Organic gardeners can side-dress a little chicken manure or sprinkle one-half to one gallon of cottonseed meal alongside each 50 row feet. The plants also respond very well to foliar fertilizer sprayed every 10 days to two weeks, but remember: nitrogen is garlic’s major requirement. While the plant is rapidly growing new leaves, keep the soil moist as you would for any other leafy green-like lettuce or spinach. When summer arrives, garlic stops making new leaves and starts forming bulbs. Once bulbing begins, fertilizing is useless – and maybe even harmful – to getting the best quality bulbs.

Seed Stalks

Hard-neck varieties put up a tall, woody flowering stalk that usually grows bulblets at the top. But, if the plant is allowed to put its energy into these “seeds,” the bulb forming below ground will end up smaller. So cut seed stalks off as soon as the flower head has reached 8-9” tall.

Harvest

Gauging the right time to harvest is very important. Dug too soon, the skins won’t have formed around each clove. Hard-neck bulbs, if dug too late, may have begun to spread apart in the soil. Each year the timing is a little different so rather than watch the calendar, observe the plants. As the bulbs mature, the leaves brown off. When there are still five or six green leaves remaining on the plant, dig and examine a plant every few days to check the bulb. Incidentally, immature bulbs that haven’t fully developed skins around their cloves can be chopped up like onions and make delicious additions to cooking. In very good garlic ground (very loose soil), the plants might be pulled by hand, but it is usually better to loosen the soil first with a spading fork. Immediately brush off the soil from around the roots but do this gently. Drying is the essential part of curing the bulbs so do not wash them in water. Immediately move the newly dug garlic out of direct sunlight.

Curing

Some growers tie the plants by their leaves or stalks in loose bundles of 8-12 plants and hang them under cover. Others spread the plants in single layers on screens, drying racks or slatted shelves. Garlic stores longer if it is cured with its stalk or leaves attached. Good air circulation is absolutely essential. The plants should cure from three weeks to two months, depending on the humidity and amount of air circulation. Some growers use a fan in the curing shed. After curing, you may trim the roots. If the garlic is to be kept in sacks, cut the stalks off ½” above the bulb and gently clean the bulbs with a soft bristle brush, taking care not to strip off the papery skin.

Storing

Hang garlic in netted sacks so there is air circulation on all sides. Alternately, hang the dried bunches or make and hang braids of the soft-neck types. Perfect storage conditions are 45-55°F at 50% humidity. Keeping below 40°F actually makes it sprout.
September 30, 2017
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