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.

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