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Grow Great Garlic: Tips from Years of Growing

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Sarah Joplin
2021 Garlic Harvest

Photo by Sarah Joplin

Any time you have even relative success in the garden, it is cause for celebration. I’ll admit that garlic is pretty easy to grow, but like anything, the added qualifier is: if you know how. We’ve grown garlic for a number of years and learned along the way. In turn, our yield has improved. Last year, my fiancé decided to get serious about growing plump, abundant garlic with the prospect of selling this niche crop commercially.

Bob is from California and grew up not far from the “garlic capital of the world”, the city of Gilroy, where for 42 years, the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival has boasted tasty and unusual uses for the pungent allium including ice cream and jelly. As proponents of local food and things made in America, we aim to at least grow our own garlic if not offer some commercially. A disproportionate amount of the garlic we buy is not grown on American soil and garlic just seems like something we shouldn’t need to import.

Digging In

Establish raised rows by digging and mounding dirt.
Photo by Sarah Joplin

In late September, we established raised rows in a rather boggy area of our lower field. With two rows measuring 42-by-42 feet and planted fairly densely, we hoped for a substantial yield. We planted about 10 pounds of mostly soft-neck cloves from three different varieties.

Our seed stock was pretty well adapted to our soil and established itself quickly, but the other two varieties caught up with vigor over the course of the growing season. My garlic farmer friend recommended using Chickety Doo Doo Organic Fertilizer at planting while we sprayed with magnesium sulfate to deter white rot, a fungal disease that afflicts garlic.

The Seasons Pass

Snow-covered garlic mounds endure deep winter freezes.
Thriving spring growth follows the die-back in winter.
Photos by Sarah Joplin

Garlic is wonderfully low-maintenance. Aside from a few strategic and timely steps that need to be done, garlic pretty much takes care of itself. This boils down to: planting, mulching, fertilizing and harvesting. It’s fun to plant something as the growing season wanes, knowing that you’ll have a harvest the following summer.

It is also a leap of faith watching the plants sprout and establish only to die back in winter. One heavy snowfall, I watched as the stalks slowly disappeared into the white powder. This storm was followed by a severe deep freeze and then a few hard late spring frosts; I hoped the crop would survive such harsh conditions. Not only did it survive, but it thrived!

Harvesting Garlic

After digging the garlic, here I shake off excess dirt and tie bundles to hang for curing.
Photo by Bob Reade

Scapes are a wonderful “extra” provided by hardneck garlic plants. You can harvest these stalks which will eventually bloom if left on the plant. Removing the scapes allows energy to go back into the bulb. This garlic “bonus” used in soups, seasoning and sauces and makes a wonderful pesto. As my garlic farmer friend pointed out, it also makes exceptional garlic bread spread, and it’s green!

As you near harvest time, you want to let the garlic dry out some in-ground. The green leaf stocks will start to die back and you’ll know it’s time to dig up your crop when half are green and half are brown. Depending on where you live, this can be anytime between June and August. A natural dry spell preceded our harvest which was ideal for discouraging rot and making the soil easier to dig. Unfortunately, we didn’t harvest all of the crop before we left on a trip. The good news is that we took in about 100 pounds to cure. Thankfully we were able to salvage some of the remaining 2/3 of the crop but learned the hard way about what happens to over-ripe garlic. Now we embark on new forms of processing and preserving as it is necessary to do so right away with over-ripe garlic; it won’t keep otherwise.

I’ve recently compared our garlic growing experiences with my aforementioned farmer friend who has grown the allium commercially. She swears by Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers by Ron L. Engeland as her definitive reference.

Top Tips for Great Garlic

Here is my distilled version of years of trial and error along with her Cliffs Notes:

• Plant garlic in cultivated soil in the fall before the frost
• Plant in raised beds or well-drained soil
• Fertilize at planting
• Mulch liberally to keep weeds down and insulate for winter
• Do not overwater
• Fertilize again in spring
• Withhold water for a few weeks prior to harvest
• Harvest when leaves start to die back, but center leaves (six or seven of them) are still green
• Do not leave in-ground too long or stalks will die and sheaths will deteriorate
• Bunch in 10- to 12-clove bundles and hang to allow to cure in a well-ventilated area out of the direct sun
• Either leave hanging or cut tops and roots and store in a cool, dry place

Sarah Joplin is a mid-Missouri farmer at Redbud Farm. Though she enjoys travel, speaks French and is involved in an art business in California, Sarah is equally happy homemaking and getting her hands in the dirt.

Updated on Jul 14, 2021  |  Originally Published on Jul 10, 2021
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