How to Grow Garlic
Garlic planting day is one of my favorite days of the year; I love homegrown garlic THAT much!! It’s juicer with more flavor, and is sweeter with less bite compared to store bought. Besides adding flavor to dishes, garlic has many health benefits as well. Believe me when I say that we eat a lot of garlic. When I cook with it I go heavy handed and usually add 4 or 5 cloves to the pan. No one has ever complained that we smell like garlic, which is very surprising.
Growing garlic isn’t that difficult and doesn’t take up much space. Pests generally don’t bother this crop, so it’s easy to grow organically. I must warn you though, if you do chose to start growing your own, you'll never want to go back to store bought. I'm sure there are different planting routines depending on which grower you talk to. Below is Jamie's easy 4-step process, and he has never had a crop failure or problem. It takes him around 4 hours to plant 360 cloves of garlic within 9 rows, each 20 feet long.
Mid-October is the usual time to plant garlic in Connecticut. This article in Mother Earth News states, "In fall, plant cloves in well-drained beds after the first frost has passed and the soil is cool. Cloves can also be planted in late winter as soon as the soil thaws, but fall-planted garlic produces bigger, better bulbs."
Jamie has had success growing both hardneck and softneck varieties in our Zone 5 (he has also grown elephant "garlic", which is technically a variety of leek). However, for the past several years he's only planted hardneck varieties, which are the hardiest for cold weather zones. We buy our bulbs from a fellow in the area or from growers at the Garlic Festival held in Bethlehem each fall. If you don't have a Garlic Festival in your locale, you can order them online but be sure to look for garlic that was grown in your area or at least in your particular planting zone for best results. You can also grow the regular garlic that you get at the health food store or grocery store, but you probably won't find much variety and what they sell may not be right for your particular planting zone. Buying garlic from someone local is the best idea since it is already acclimated to your weather. We always buy organic garlic. Of course, if you grow enough and store it properly, you may have some leftover to replant for the following year.
Bulb refers to the whole head of garlic
Clove refers to the individual "toe"
1. SOAK THE BULBS
Jamie starts by mixing up a smelly concoction to soak the bulbs in: 2 quarts of water, 2+ capfuls of fish emulsion, and 2 tablespoons of baking soda. Liquid kelp can be substituted for fish emulsion. Whether buying fish emulsion or liquid kelp, look for all natural, no chemical formulas. Jamie buys his from Garden's Alive. Soak the whole bulbs for an hour or more. Jamie always pre-soaks, but I know that there are also successful growers that skip this step
2. PREPARE THE ROWS
While the starter bulbs are soaking, Jamie prepares his rows. First he shallow tills the area where he'll be planting, but if you don't have a tiller you can turn the soil over by hand. Jamie always uses a line strung around two posts to create straight rows. He also marks his rows with sticks or posts and labels them so he knows exactly what was planted.
Make the troughs 3" deep
Space the rows 8" to 12" apart
A note regarding soil: Soil composition is a blog in and of itself and will be covered at a later time. I just want to make a couple of points regarding preparing the soil to plant garlic. Make sure the area drains well otherwise the roots may rot. To successfully grow nutritious food – the soil needs to be fertile and healthy. If you doubt the health of your soil, read up on the topic and make the appropriate adjustments. You may even want to have it tested. Jamie supplements his soil with our own compost, and sometimes Coast of Maine organic plant foods, as well as our neighbor's aged cow manure or aged chicken manure.
3. PLANT THE CLOVES
Push each clove into the soil so that it is 3" to 4" deep with the pointy end facing up; plant them 6" apart.
4. COVER THE ROWS
Jamie uses a rake to cover the rows with soil. Once all of the rows are planted he covers them with a thick layer of straw so they are insulated from the cold during the winter.
So there you have it - Jamie’s 4 step process. Each season he plants around 300 cloves so that we have homegrown garlic most of the year.
In early June the hardneck varieties of garlic will send up stalks from the center of the plant; these are called garlic scapes. They are thicker than the leaves. The scape, if left on the plant, will form a flower and then seed. We cut off the scapes so that the plant gets the signal to send all of it’s energy to the bulb, instead of putting energy toward flowers and seed. Scapes are a culinary delight and can be used for making pesto; they are also delicious grilled, added to soups, etc.
After the garlic is harvested, we lay it outside to dry during the day, single layer on trays or tables. Then the stalks are cut off, and the bulbs are stored in baskets down in our crawl space - our makeshift root cellar.