Growing a Successful Garlic Crop

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If you are a garlic lover, like many of us, and also happen to grow a garden, consider incorporating garlic into your vegetable garden rotation. Garlic is a nutritious, flavorful, and relatively easy to grow vegetable, and stores for up to a year if harvested and handled properly.

Plant garlic in the fall for an early summer bulb harvest. Planting date can range between late October and December – generally, aim to plant after the first frost, and about a month before the ground freezes. Garlic requires a cold, or vernalization, period of 40 days to initiate bulb formation.

Most cultivated garlics do not produce true seed, so garlic cloves are planted to generate new bulbs. Garlics are classified into ‘hardneck’ and ‘softneck’ varieties. The majority of garlic purchased in grocery stores are softneck types, but homeowners often prefer growing hardneck varieties, in part because hardnecks will produce a scape, or flower, in mid- to late- spring, which is edible and often cut for eating. Softnecks do not typically produce a scape, and the bulbs tend to be harvested earlier than hardneck varieties.Softneck varieties can be braided for storage purposes; garlic braids make attractive decorations and lovely gifts.

If you have never grown garlic before, purchase a couple of varieties to see which you prefer.

Hardneck varieties generally do better in cooler climates and softnecks are better suited to warm climates. In our area, both can perform well. Within the hardneck varieties, there are the ‘rocamboles’, whose cloves alternate large and small, and the ‘continental’ types, whose cloves are mostly uniform in size. Rocamboles are typically easier to peel and have the most pungent garlic flavor, but do not store as long as continental types. Recommended hardneck varieties for North Carolina include German or Porcelain Extra Hardy, Music, Spanish Rioja, and others. Choose softneck varieties adapted to relatively cold winters.

Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) produces a bulb up to four times larger than other garlics, and is actually a different species from true garlic (Allium sativum). Its large cloves are easy to work with in the kitchen but the flavor is not as strong. It will grow well in our area.

While it is tempting to plant cloves from garlic heads purchased at the grocery store, this is not recommended because these may be infected with viruses or other diseases that can cause a stunted or poor garlic crop. Purchase garlic seed from a seed company or garlic seed grower; most will ship their garlic seed orders in September or October. Be sure to order early each year, as most suppliers sell out by early fall.

Garlic does best in well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter. Planting in heavy poorly drained soil can lead to problems with rot. Take a soil test prior to planting to determine what amendments are needed. The optimum soil pH for garlic is 6.2-6.8. Soil tests are available free-of-charge until Thanksgiving through the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Test kits are available at the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Wilkes County Center (416 Executive Drive, Wilkesboro). Incorporate fertilizer equivalent to 17 lb per 1000 square feet of garden space of 10-20-20 fertilizer (or 1.7 lb per 100 square feet) before planting. Compost can supply some of the nutrients required by garlic and will also add organic matter to your garden soil.

To plant, prepare the soil and separate individual cloves, but leave the on the wrapper. Plant cloves point-up, 2” deep. A common planting pattern is a 4” x 4” grid, but generally, cloves should be spaced 2-6” apart. Garlic is a poor competitor with weeds, so plan to weed beds often to achieve a good garlic yield. A 3” layer of straw or leaf mulch helps keep weeds down, protect cloves in winter, and maintains even moisture, which is important for bulb formation.

Garlic typically benefits from a light application of nitrogen fertilizer such as bloodmeal, or 34-0-0 in spring at “green-up”, when green leaves begin to grow again, and once again about one month later. Do not apply fertilizer after May, as this may favor leaf, rather than bulb development.

Harvest garlic when there are still approximately 5-8 green leaves remaining on the garlic plants, typically in late June or early July. Elephant garlic should be harvested mid-May to mid-June, when about 30 percent of the foliage turns yellow. The bulbs will split open or rot if harvested too late.

To cure garlic, knock off extra soil but do not wash bulbs, leave the foliage and stem on and store in a well-ventilated place out of reach from rain or dew for several weeks. After curing, cut the tops about 2” above the bulb and remove dirty outer layer of wrapper. Softneck varieties can be braided following a short drying period but before the stems become stiff; approximately two weeks after harvest. Following a curing period of 6 weeks, cut stems and foliage 1” above the bulb, trim roots, and remove soil and/or the outer layer of paper. Store long-term in a dry place away from light.

Garlic experiences a few minor pests, but they are not seen every year or in every garden. Onion thrips may feed on and leave white spots on the tops. Control these with insecticidal soap. can infest the bulbs, leaving small brown spots, which is mostly a cosmetic problem. Bacterial rot may also affect cloves and is more likely to do so in wet soils or those with a recent history of other alliums, such as onions. Soil-borne Fusarium fungus is native to our soils and can affect garlic. Inspect garlic bulbs before placing into storage, and in storage regularly. Use any damaged bulbs first to ensure longevity in the saved supply. Practice crop rotation and avoid putting diseased plant material in compost. Avoid re-planting garlic seed that has any disease or insect issue.