Garlic culture: successes and failures of a novice

Flowers form on the stalks of hard-necked garlic.

Well, my last post clarified my opinion on the reasons why you should know where your garlic is grown. I did not know last year that much of our garlic was coming from China, I just knew that recently I had been very unhappy with the quality of garlic I had purchased in the stores. It was often very dry, sprouting, and green in the center. It seemed “old”.  It also seemed to have gotten quite expensive. I had grown garlic years ago, and remembered how juicy and fresh the cloves seemed when they were first harvested, and I wanted some more of THAT kind of garlic so I decided to plant some again.

The good news is that garlic can be grown almost anywhere. My friends in Wyoming grew garlic successfully, even with their crazy weather. It is all about choosing the right variety. Garlic also is very space efficient, so you do not need much room to grow garlic. In fact, you could probably grow the average American yearly supply of fresh garlic (about 3 pounds) in a few  good-sized pots on your deck. Hopefully, I have motivated you to think about growing your own garlic if you have not done that yet.

We planted our garlic last fall, and began our harvest in mid June.  It has been a long time since we grew garlic successfully, and as a result, there are a few things I had forgotten that I had to “learn the hard way” this year.  I thought I would share with you a few lessons I re-learned this year.

1) Garlic should be planted in the fall. Last year we tried to plant in the spring, and ended up with tiny little heads.

This is a garlic plant in our garden which I photographed this winter

Garlic is one of the crops you just plant and sort of forget about. In cold winter areas you might put a bit of a mulch over it, but for us, we just stick it in the ground, control the weeds and wait until Spring. It is easy to grow and if you pick the right variety, you can grow it almost anywhere.

2) Make sure to plant the garlic cloves with the root (flat end) down and the top (pointed end of the clove) pointing up. It seems obvious, but I gave a beginning gardener friend of mine some cloves to plant last year and she admits now she planted a few of them upside down!

3)  Don’t wait too long to harvest. This is especially important for the garlic that has a thin outer skin with large cloves such as the hard-neck type of garlic.  For example, Spanish Rojo has amazingly large, easy-to- peel cloves, but should be harvested when only a few of the lower leaves are dead.  If you wait until the majority of the top of the plant has died, the skin on the outside will become too thin and the cloves will bust out of their skin, like this:

This garlic was harvested too late and the cloves are separating from the head

A garlic like that cannot be sold, and is not going to last very long either. In general, harvest garlic when only some of the bottom leaves have turned yellow and died.

The two other types of of hard necked garlic we grew, Kilarney and Metechi, took longer to mature and we got decent heads with not as much separation of the cloves as the Spanish Rojo. However the Spanish Rojo cloves were giant and easy to peel, so they definitely are worth growing again.

4) Dig out the garlic heads carefully with a shovel.

Do not try to pull them out by their tops, even if the soil has been loosened. If there is any resistance, especially with an over-ripe head of garlic, the top will come off from the top at the base, like this:

          Top of the garlic separated from the head

This is another garlic that cannot be sold or stored.

5)  When digging the garlic, give a wide berth. Some of the heads of the Spanish Rojo garlic were monsters, much bigger than others, and I ended up nicking some cloves with the shovel.

These cloves of garlic were cut by the shovel while digging the heads out.

This is one more head of garlic that cannot be sold or stored.  I am starting to think homemade garlic powder would be a good use for all of this booboo garlic! I also will try freezing some. Even the longest lasting garlic only stores for 8-9 months max, and I think frozen home-grown garlic would be an improvement over the shriveled-up and green sprouting (Chinese?) garlic left in the the grocery stores at the end of the winter!

6)  After storing your garlic for several weeks in a shaded dry place, clean it up. Rub off the outer dirty skin leaving as much intact skin as possible to protect the cloves. Remove all the dirt from the roots and trim them up if you like. You can also clip off the top of the plant leaving just the bulb. However, I have read that the garlic stores best if you leave as much of the roots and top of the plant as possible.

7) If you grow several varieties of garlic, grow some that are good ” keepers”. When you harvest your crop, know which garlic lasts better in storage and which doesn’t. Use the most perishable garlic first. I grew 5 varieties of garlic this year.

The garlic varieties we grew (from left to right)

Back row:  Metechi, Kilarney, Spanish Rojo (all hard-neck) and not great keepers

Front Row: Silver Rose and Ichilium (both soft-neck) and good keepers

As a side note: supposedly the hard-neck varieties of garlic we grew are said to grow better in places with cold winters. We do not have cold winters here at all, with seldom even a frost, but other than the few over-ripe Spanish Rojo garlic heads, we grew beautiful large heads of garlic successfully.  Since over 80 percent of the commercial garlic grown in the US is grown in California, my guess is most varieties will grow here successfully.

One way to store soft neck garlic is to make a garlic braid. I am very proud of the braid I made with the Ichilium garlic I grew this year. It is the first time I have made a garlic braid. The directions on this website were very helpful.

Ichilium garlic braid

8) Pick out some of the best heads to save for planting in the fall for next year’s crop.  Each clove of garlic will be planted to make a new head of garlic so keep that in mind when you are deciding how much to save. If you notice ANY white fungus on the heads of garlic at harvest, do not save those cloves, and do not reuse that area for growing garlic again.

Overall, we got a good sized harvest, some of which as you can see here.  This cart contains only the Spanish Rojo, but we had 4 other varieties to harvest as well!

All of the garlic was cured in a shaded, dry spot with plenty of air circulation (ie our garage with the garage door open during the day) for several  weeks. Then we cleaned up the heads by rubbing off the dirt, tied them in bunches by variety and stored them on these racks in a cool, dry place.

Garlic bunches on racks for storage

A few nutrition notes:

The health benefits of garlic are still being clarified, but the strongest research so far suggests that garlic has natural compounds that thin the blood. Small blood clots are often the initial insult that leads to a heart attack. Garlic also seems to have anti-bacterial properties although how this works once the garlic is eaten is still unclear. In addition garlic contains compounds that have anti-inflammatory effects. Studies on the health benefits of garlic have focused on it’s role in the prevention of cancer, heart disease and infectious disease.

How about you? Have you grown garlic successfully? What challenges have you faced? What varieties have grown well, or not, in your area? Feel free to share your comments:

© 2012. Dayna Green-Burgeson RD, CDE. All Rights Reserved.

My Garlic culture conundrum (or why garlic is like a canary)

It has recently come to my attention that this article was snoped. Please see this link for my response to the snope article including references. While I made a few minor changes, I stand behind the content in this article as it is currently published including the information on how to look for imported (mostly Chinese) garlic when shopping. Although I support what snope is doing, and use them as a reference for truth in the internet myself, in this case I think they took a nuanced complicated subject and tried to make it simple and came up with the wrong conclusion.

photo 1, garlic wm.It started as a simple enough blog post.  This winter I grew garlic successfully for the first time in many years, but in the process of harvesting it I made some mistakes and thought I would share them with my readers.  I had a few pictures, thought it would be fun, something light and simple. I started the blog post, then figured I would look up a bit on the web about garlic culture in California, that type of thing. I walked away from my computer 3 hours later shaking my head and steaming about the degradation and outsourcing of our food supply. Thus my conundrum. Should I let it go, stay with the simple fun blog post, or should I go down the rabbit hole in this post, covering at least a bit of what I gleaned? That is my garlic culture conundrum. Should I tell you why garlic is like a canary  in a coal mine when it comes to the safety and security of our food supply? Well, if you know me by now, you know what decision I made….

Garlic is one of the most common ingredients in a traditional Mediterranean diet. It is an essential component of sauces such as pesto (Italy)  skordalia (Greece), aioli (Southern France), and alioli (Spain), and of course garlic is used liberally in a variety of recipes as a flavoring for meat, fish, poultry, vegetables. legumes, rice, pasta and casserole dishes. Besides olive oil, there is no more ubiquitous ingredient in Mediterranean cuisine. Throughout history, garlic has played an important culinary and medicinal role in Mediterranean culture.

California has it’s own special garlic culture. The world-famous Gilroy Garlic Festival is held this month on the coast of California, however in truth, most of California’s Garlic is now grown in the Central Valley where land is less expensive and there have been less problems with fungal disease. White rot, a fungal disease that renders soil unusable for garlic production, has been a challenge faced by California growers but much of California’s garlic culture is now threatened by economic forces as well.

Less than 15 years ago, California produced almost all of the garlic sold in the United States.   Now, China produces more than half of the garlic sold in the United States. In the late 90s China began flooding the market with inexpensive garlic, putting California growers out of business. Questions have been raised about the contamination of Chinese garlic with lead, sulfites and other unsafe compounds, as the food safety regulations in China are known to be lax.  Land in California is expensive, and California has some of the most stringent pesticide and food safety regulations in the world, so growing garlic in California is more expensive than growing garlic in China. California farmers just could not compete and in the last decade the amount of California land devoted to growing garlic has been cut in half.

The American consumer has more than doubled their intake of garlic over the same period of time. California garlic has been shown to have a higher sugar content (Brix) than Chinese garlic which is a factor associated with improved taste. I wonder if many consumers even know what good quality garlic is supposed to taste like.

Garlic powder and dehydrated garlic are another significant area of concern as over 75% of the garlic Americans eat is in this processed form. The majority of our garlic powder comes from China. The rapid expansion in our dependence on foreign foodstuffs seems to have left the FDA in the lurch and they are rushing to catch up by expanding their programs for inspection of imported foods. One of the primary reasons for their increased focus on imported foods is their recognition of pesticide and bacterial contamination of foods grown in China in general and heavy metal contamination of Chinese garlic powder in particular. Look on the shelves of your pantry. How much of your packaged food contains garlic, garlic powder or dehydrated garlic? Again, most of this garlic is from China. Even “organic” garlic is often from China, but it appears their organic certification methods are also questionable. Unfortunately, as we are all well aware, the FDA is one of those “big federal programs” slated for budget cuts whenever deficit reduction talks get going. So if you think the FDA is protecting your health in this area, even they admit they are not adequately staffed to do so at this time.

Have you noticed that over the past few years while the quality of garlic in the stores has been especially poor the prices have been very high? I did, which is why I went back to growing my own garlic again. In 2009 a drop in the world supply of garlic, increased demand for garlic in China as an herbal remedy to protect against flu and speculation in garlic by Chinese investors lead to a tripling of the wholesale price for garlic. But there were only half as many California growers to make up the gap. So now we were left with high prices AND poor quality.

What crop will it be the next time?  As more and more of our food production is outsourced to China, Mexico, Chile (and the next new frontier is Africa) due to our demand for cheaper food, regardless of the quality and safety, California farms are closing down and going out of business. California at one time was the primary source of the fruit consumed in America. Now more than half of our fruit is imported. If more and more farms close down, and we can no longer feed our country, what security will we have? We have already seen garlic fall prey to the whims of one country and the shrewd speculations of a few investors.  What will be next? And what will happen as the price of fuel continues to rise and we are dependent upon shipping our food all over the world because we have lost our local productive farms? And let’s not even get into the discussion about the carbon footprint of all of this.

Where is the garlic you eat grown? If you live in the US, hopefully it is grown locally or in California, not shipped all the way from China. One way to tell if your garlic is imported or is US grown is by the roots. American garlic usually has some of the roots left on the bottom, though they may be clipped very close to the base. Due to the agricultural import regulations of many countries exporters of garlic remove all soil (which requires removing every bit of root mass) prior to export. (here are Canada’s regulations for all imported garlic except that from the US) Here is an example of imported garlic. Notice that the root area is actually indented as the roots are carved away completely. Every head will be like this and this is not the same as a few head with roots cut away and some clipped close.


chinese-garlic watermarkedImported garlic: bleached white, with all root mass and dirt carved away from the bottom

Here is an example of California grown garlic with the bits of root still attached to most of the heads:California garlic watermarked

California grown garlic, with a more natural color, and root mass still visible on the bottom of most of the heads.

Unfortunately it appears you cannot trust all of the stores to be honest about where the garlic comes from. The garlic shown below was being sold at Sunflower “Farmer’s Market”  in Roseville, CA.  I have been advised by the consumer affairs department at Christopher Ranch garlic, the largest garlic company in the United States, that there are NO commerical American growers that pay the extra expense to have the roots completely removed from all of their garlic as it is not legally required for American grown products. Don’t you just love the little USA sign next to this garlic that has been processed in the way that only imported garlic is processed?

Garlic processed in a manner associated with imported garlic only (all root material removed from every head), but marked as “Product of the USA” . Photo taken at Sunflower Market in Roseville, California.

I wonder if there are other fruits and vegetables imported from China, Mexico or whatever, that are also mislabeled. With garlic one can see the difference, but what about green beans, zucchini, peppers? I did email the USDA regarding my finding at Sunflower, but I got no response, so I am curious as to whether anyone actually enforces the Country of Origin labeling laws. If you are paying extra for American or California Grown produce, it seems it is not clear that you are always getting what you are paying for. This is yet another reason to buy from a local farm, CSA or a real “farmer’s market”.

Well. now that I have gotten THAT off of my chest, I would like to get back to the subject at hand, which was originally my garlic culture successes and blunders. However, I have exceeded by far the recommended length for one blog post. Rather than overwhelm you with so much to think about at one time, today I will let you ponder all the reasons why you really should find a source of local garlic, or better yet grow your own. In a few days check here again for my next blog post about my tips on growing garlic.

© 2012. Dayna Green-Burgeson RD, CDE. All Rights Reserved.