Growing Great Garlic

Reader Contribution by Keba M. Hitzeman
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The bulbs that “made the grade” for planting. Photos by Keba M. Hitzeman

We are big fans of garlic on the farm. Until recently, we would purchase our winter supply from a local farmer friend in one of those pretty garlic braids. It was good hardneck garlic, full of flavor and a bit of heat. He grows many rows of the stuff, enough for his family, plus extra to sell at the virtual farmer’s market, and I got to thinking about how difficult it would be to grow it myself. The answer: not very difficult at all!

Hardneck vs Softneck Garlic

In the few years that I’ve been growing our own garlic, I’ve learned a lot. One of the first things was the differences between garlic types. There is hardneck garlic, which has the garlic cloves arranged around a central flower stalk, and softneck garlic, where the cloves are jumbled together, and there is no central stalk. I found that the large hardneck cloves peel easier than the smaller softneck cloves, which was the biggest selling point on planting my own hardneck garlic. Peeling 8 to 10 small cloves for one recipe definitely taxed my patience.

After settling on hardneck garlic, I started buying as much of their garlic as I could get my hands on. Large cloves will grow large bulbs, so I only saved the largest three cloves from each bulb, leaving plenty for our cooking and eating over the winter. I decided to plant this year’s crop in one of my raised beds. It has the best and softest soil and is protected from the chickens, which is very important since they will eat just about everything green they can find during the winter.

Planting: Timing and Tips

I think of garlic as a balance of sorts to the traditional garden. Most vegetables are planted in the spring, grow all summer, then are harvested in the fall. Fall-planted garlic is planted in late September or early October, grows until the frosts come, restarts growth in the spring, and is harvested in mid-summer. Soft, well-drained soil and good sun are needed for the best growth.

Planting is simple – poke a hole with your thumb, drop the garlic clove in flat side down (the flat side is the root end and the pointy side is the growing end), cover, and mulch with either straw or leaves. I like to use a good layer of straw but have had success with leaves as well. If you’ve planted softneck garlic, that’s all you need to do until next summer! If you’ve planted hardneck cloves, you will be treated to garlic scapes in the spring. These are the flower heads, and will need to be cut off before they bloom so the plant sends all its energy into growing a nice fat bulb and not a flower. You can use garlic scapes in cooking, and they have a mild taste.

Harvesting and Curing Homegrown Garlic

As the weather warms, the leaves will start to turn. The rule of thumb that I was told is that the garlic is ready to harvest when about half of the leaves turn brown. If you wait much longer, the bulb will start to shrivel up. Gently pull the bulbs from the ground and brush off the dirt. It doesn’t have to be squeaky clean, since the “food” part is inside the paper. Hang bunches (or braid them together) in a warm spot with good ventilation for a few weeks to cure them, similar to curing onions. I have a drying rack made from hardware cloth and scrap wood that I put on our back porch worktable — this works great to cure onions, garlic, and potatoes.

Storing Seed Garlic for Next Year

And now the process starts all over again! As you enjoy your homegrown garlic, set aside the largest cloves for planting at the end of summer. I keep my “seed garlic” cloves in a cool, dark place to cut down the amount of shriveling, but haven’t noticed any reduction in germination between shriveled and not-shriveled cloves. If you have a farmer’s market near you that sells garlic, that’s a great way to try new varieties. Plus, you will know that those varieties will grow well in your area.

I learned that from experience: I bought a lovely-looking variety that was not suited for our southwest Ohio weather. I got a harvest, but it was nowhere near what it should have been. Trial and error is definitely a part of gardening.

Have you grown garlic before? Are you a spicy or mild garlic fan?

Keba M. Hitzemanis an advocate, baseball fan, caregiver, chicken wrangler, daughter, farmer, fiber artist, gamer, gardener, herbalist, laborer, manager, musician, nature-lover, potter, shepherdess, and teacher. She owns and operates Innisfree on the Stillwater, a former beef cattle farm, where she currently raises sheep and goats. Read all of Keba’s posts in her GRIT series,Returning to Innisfree.

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