This is the Eleventh in a twelve part series for new gardeners. If you have never planted vegetables before but always wanted to, this is the series for you. Robin, who writes the blog Vegetable Matter, and I will post on the first of every month. Robin lives in Houston and I live in Boston. We will be posting about what to do in the garden that month and giving advice. So if you have always wanted that vegetable garden, but didn’t know where to start, you have no excuse. Get growing!
In New England our gardens are winding up. Our summer crops are mostly gone, our fall crops are getting harvested. Our first frosts have either hit in northern New England or will come this month in southern New England. Unless you have a greenhouse or are overwintering some greens, it is too late to plant here except for one crop. Garlic.
Garlic is a bulb and like daffodils and tulips, it is best planted in the fall. Until the ground freezes solid the garlic clove will put out roots and get established. Occasionally leaves will start to emerge from the soil as the plant will try to grow even in the dead of winter. Garlic is very hardy and doesn't mind being frozen solid.
Garlic is typically divided into two kinds, hardnecks and softnecks. They are so named because when they dry, the hardnecks have, well, hard necks. You can't braid them because they are stiff. The softnecks have soft necks and braid easily.
The reason for the difference is that hardnecks put up scapes (flower stalks - though garlic doesn't really flower, but produces bulbils instead). Softnecks have been bred over the years not to have flower stalks. The flower stalks take away energy from the plant. This might give you the impression that you should grow softnecks, but though scapes might take energy from the plant, they are a gourmet treat in their own right. I look forward to garlic scapes every spring. Now that I've divided them up, I should let you know that some hardnecks can act as softnecks on occasion and not put up a flower stalk and softnecks can put up scapes when they are stressed. So don't be shocked if they don't always behave as you think they ought to.
When you buy garlic from the supermarket, typically it is a softneck type of some unknown variety. Most garlic that is grown in the US is grown in Gilroy CA and that really limits the selection. Most garlic grows better in colder climates. Many hardnecks won't even grow in the south. In the north we have a huge selection. There are hundreds of varieties to choose from. And garlic is very particular to where it grows, so it might taste different and grow differently depending upon your conditions. My advice is to plant a lot of varieties to start with and keep growing the ones you like. I've narrowed my garlic varieties this year to two that I will keep growing. One is German Extra Hardy and the other is an unknown softneck from the supermarket. If you are a real gourmet you will have varieties for all the different uses. Some are mild, some are sharp, some are better to eat raw, some are better cooked, some store really well and some don't. I have trouble keeping that many varieties sorted, so two is enough for me. Both of mine are good keepers as I want stored garlic all the way through May or June.
You can get garlic from many places, but if you really want to try a lot of varieties you should become a member of the Seed Savers Exchange. I didn't count, but I'm guessing they had over three hundred different varieties of garlic listed in their yearbook. They are a non profit organization that promotes seed saving. They do some themselves and sell with their online catalog, but the real fun is their yearbook. Anyone that is a member can list seeds that they have saved (or with garlic, bulbs they have saved). You can find an amazing number of varieties for all kinds of crops in the yearbook. It is a wealth of diversity that you won't find in any other catalog.
Garlic does not put out real flowers, so it does not grow from seed. All plants are clones from the mother plant. You can get plants two ways. You can plant the bulbils that the flower stalks produce. They look like little tiny cloves of garlic. They take about three years to get to a full size bulb. Or you can plant cloves. This is what most people do. You plant them in September (in northern New England) or October (in Southern New England) and harvest the bulbs in the summer. If you save some of the bulbs for planting again the next fall, you will never have to buy garlic seed again.
There is a lot of differing opinions on how to prepare the cloves to plant. First remove all the cloves from the bulb. Toss any that aren't perfect. If the clove is damaged, it may not survive the winter, but regardless it won't do well. Now is where people start to differ. Some people soak their cloves in a variety of solutions. The wrapper around the clove can play host to a variety of nasty things - fungus, bacteria, or insect eggs. Soaking them in a solution (of baking soda, vinegar, or alcohol, all in varying concentrations) helps kill those unwanted pests. Then comes the question about removing the wrappers themselves around the cloves. Some people think that it protects the cloves before they start to grow so leave them on. Others like to remove them to get rid of anything they may be carrying.
I've done it both ways. I get marginal results if I don't peel. I get much better results if I do. So I'm in the peeler camp. First before they are peeled I make up a solution of one quart of water and one teaspoon of baking soda. The night before I drop in all the good cloves I sorted out. The next morning I take them out and peel the skin off. The solution makes the skins much easier to peel in addition to helping to disinfect the cloves. When the cloves are peeled, I usually find a few cloves that are bad, but I couldn't see because of the skin. Once they are peeled, rinse them. Then put them in alcohol for three minutes. I use vodka which is 80 proof, but many use a higher proof. I don't happen to have anything higher in the house and 80 has worked for me. Once the three minutes is up then rinse them off again. Now the cloves are ready to plant.
Garlic is better planted in soil that drains well. They are bulbs and can rot out if they stay too wet. So a sandy loam or loam is best. If you have clay don't despair though. My last garden was clay and the garlic grew just fine. Just make sure to plant in a raised bed so they will drain well. Double digging before the crop is planted helps immensely to make the soil drain better. Garlic is a bit of a heavy feeder so make sure your soil is rich by giving it plenty of compost in the soil and sprinkle with an organic fertilizer.
Plant the cloves on a grid six inches apart in all directions. They should be planted four inches deep in the north and mulched a couple inches over that. I've mulched with compost, straw, and shredded leaves (never used unshredded leaves as they mat down too much). They all seem to work. If you use straw or shredded leaves make sure to fluff it up a bit in the spring. I've had issues with the leaves getting through the mulch if it was packed down too much over the winter.
Garlic is rather easy to care for if the bed was prepared properly. The mulch keeps down the weed. I fertilize once in the spring just as the plants start to take off. Regular watering will insure that the garlic grows bigger, but bigger with garlic is not always better. The smaller ones tend to be stronger in flavor and store better. But don't let it get too dry as the stress will invite disease.
Garlic is pretty resistant to most of the diseases and insects in the garden. In fact it repels a lot of insects and is used in sprays to repel things like aphids. Rotate the crop (along with the other alliums) and you probably won't have problems.
In the north garlic is usually harvested in July or August depending upon the variety and weather. There is no real set time to harvest garlic. Understanding what you want the garlic for is the key. Green garlic can be pulled in anytime the spring. The individual cloves won't have been formed yet. It will look a bit more like a leek. The leaves and bulb can both be used at this stage.
Later if you are growing hardnecks the scape will form. They can be grilled like asparagus or can be made into things. I love garlic scape dressing on my salads. Scapes can be picked anytime, but get tougher as they age. So when they first show themselves they are at their tenderest. After they start to curl around they get tougher, but there is more of it.
Then we get to the main harvest - the bulb that you usually think of when you buy garlic. If you intend to eat them right away you can pick them at anytime. If you wait a long time the bulbs will start to split apart into individual cloves. This makes for easy use in the kitchen, but the bulbs won't store well this way. If you want to store the bulbs you have to walk a tightrope on when to harvest. The earlier you harvest the less flavorful the bulbs are. The later you harvest the shorter lifespan the bulbs will have. What you do is watch the leaves as they start to die from the bottom. Each leaf represents a layer of skin for the finished garlic bulb. When the leaf dies, that layer of skin rots below the ground. The more layers of skin you have on your garlic, the better it will keep. When you start to see the lower leaves dying, quit watering. Garlic keeps best if it hasn't been watered a lot before harvest, but don't worry too much about it. I've harvested after some veritable floods and still had it keep well enough (choose good keepers as varieties if you intend to grow enough for the whole year). Usually people harvest their garlic when there are about six leaves still living on the top. I've done it with as little as four and they still keep pretty well.
I harvest with a trowel as I don't want to damage any bulb. I try to loosen the dirt under the bulb then I just pull them up. I don't remove the roots or the leaves yet. The bulb needs to be cured before storage. I might point out that this is another highly debated topic too. Some people do cut off the leaves and roots at this point. I'm a believer in letting it all dry first.
Once the garlic is harvested, you can brush off the dirt, but don't wash the bulb if you want the prettiest looking bulbs. I know that seems weird, but really they look better if you don't. I lay them out on racks to dry or tie them up with string to hang them dry. Either works well. I used to have the room to lay them all out single high to dry, but I don't anymore, so I hang them in the shed. It is best if they dry slowly, but if you are like me and only have a hot little shed to dry them in, use it. Once they are dry, in about 2-3 weeks. You can cut off the tops of the garlic and cut off the roots. I also brush out what is left of the root stub so I don't get a lot of dirt in my kitchen. Then I peel off the outer wrapper to remove the rest of the dirt. This removes any fungi spores that are on the outside and makes the bulb look really pretty - something I would want to bring into my kitchen.
Once they have been cleaned up you can store them. Garlic needs air. I usually store mine in a cardboard box with holes in it. I've also been known to just store it in a bowl. But I put the bowl in a dark place as light is bad for them. The refrigerator is too cold for long term storage.They do best in the basement if you have a dry basement or a cool room.
Other Posts in the SeriesDetermining your growing zone and planting peas (Vegetable Matter - December)
Planning a Garden (Daphne's Dandelions - December)
Growing Lettuce (Vegetable Matter - January)
Starting transplants indoors (Daphne's Dandelions - January)
Growing tomatoes (Vegetable Matter - February)
Compost (Daphne's Dandelions - February)
Snap Beans (Vegetable Matter - March)
Peas and Spinach (Daphne's Dandelions - March)
Eggplant (Vegetable Matter - April)
Brassicas (Broccoli, Cabbage, Asian vegetables) (Daphne's Dandelions - April)
Edamame (Vegetable Matter - May)
Tomatoes (Daphne's Dandelions - May)
Lima Beans (Vegetable Matter - June)
Disease Control (Daphne's Dandelions - June)
Chili Peppers (Vegetable Matter - July)
Insect Control (Daphne's Dandelions- July)
Southern Fall Garden (Vegetable Matter - August)
Preserving the Harvest (Daphne's Dandelions - August)
Season Extension (Daphne's Dandelions - September)