Growing Garlic

Growing Garlic

Today I sorted through my garlic harvest and I am more than pleased with the results. I’ve been growing garlic almost every year since I’ve begun gardening and it is probably the crop that I have influenced the most people to grow themselves in their gardens. It’s not hard, but there are definitely a few very important things I’ve learned along the way about growing garlic. Because so many family and friends have been asking me questions about growing garlic, I thought it was about time to blog about it.

While I was cleaning my garlic today I was reflecting on the reasons that I enjoy gardening. There are many, but today I was thinking about the the meditative quality that repetitive, tactile, methodical process brings me. Doing things in the garden such as weeding, cleaning a garlic harvest, or pruning gives me opportunity to get lost in my thoughts and ideas. I do some of my best thinking in the garden. Today was a bit of a rough one for me. My baby had a rough night and I was very tired. I tried to nap, but instead went into the garden to do some work in the sunshine and fresh air.  I found it just as, if not more, refreshing than a nap would have been.  As I made my way through each garlic bulb, trimming, cleaning and sorting, I composed blog posts in my mind, renewed my exhausted self, and cleaned my foggy head. This is one of the gifts that gardening brings me.

How I Grow Garlic

Variety

I’ve grown several different varieties in the past, but the one I’ve had the most success with is Red Russian Garlic. If I’m being completely transparent, I’m not actually 100% sure that everything I have growing in my garden now is Red Russian, as some of my seed garlic got mixed up in my 2016 garden. But let’s just assume it’s Red Russian, as it’s highly likely that is what it is and I know for a fact that I have grown it many times in the past with success.

Location

This is the most important thing I’ve learned over my years growing garlic: rotate your crop every year! Garlic is very susceptible to disease and crop rotation is one of the best ways to prevent it. Luckily, it’s actually fairly easy to tuck a few cloves in here and there wherever you have room in the fall, but keep in mind that they will be there until at least July the following year. If you do have problems with disease, don’t despair! I had root rot last year and this year I had rust. Usually, you can salvage your crop by removing the diseased bulbs as soon as you notice them. This year, I noticed the scaly orange sign of the rust fungus on the leaves of my garlic. I actually harvested about 80% of my crop a bit earlier than I should have in order to prevent spread in my garden. From everything I’ve read, rust should not affect the storage potential of the bulbs or next year’s seed.  The bulbs are still a good size and look perfect!

Rust on my garlic leaves
Rust on my garlic leaves

Planting

I sow my garlic in October or November, similar to the time of year you would plant other flower bulbs for spring. Separate the cloves from the head, trying to keep the skin intact. Plant pointy-side-up, about 4 fingers deep (2-3″) and about a hand’s length (4-6″) apart.

Maintenance

Keep the area weeded and watered. You should see the sprouts poke out of the soil in January or February. This always really excites me, as its one of the first signs in my garden that winter will eventually end and that spring will soon arrive. In May/June, the plants will send up curly scapes (flower heads). Cut these scapes off so that the plant sends energy to the bulb instead of to the flower. Stop watering sometime in June after the leaves begin to yellow.

Garlic and apple blossoms in May
Garlic and apple blossoms in May

Harvest

July 1 (Canada Day) is my rule of thumb for harvest time, but of course this varies by year and planting location. This year we had a very cold, wet spring, so I harvested my garlic a little later than normal. You will know it’s time to harvest when the outer leaves have yellowed and dried. Dry leaves equals dry skins around the garlic, so you want to wait until about the first 3-4 lower leaves have yellowed. When ready to harvest, gently loosen the soil with a fork or small shovel and carefully pull the garlic out. Be gentle with it – I read somewhere to handle your garlic head like you would handle raw eggs. Any bruises or nicks can impact storage potential.

Freshly dug garlic
Freshly dug garlic

Curing and Storage

Lay the garlic someplace out of the rain in a dry, well ventilated area to cure for about 3 weeks. I lay mine on an old tarp under my deck. Once completely dry, I cut off the stem and root, gently rub off the dirty outermost layer of skin, and use an old toothbrush to clean the root end. Select the largest heads to save for seed for the following year. Store the heads in mesh bags in a cool, dry, well ventilated area. I like to save old mesh lemon and lime bags for this purpose.

Garlic stored in mesh lemon bags, with seed for next year sorted and labeled.
Garlic stored in mesh lemon bags, with seed for next year sorted and labeled.

Enjoying

There are so many delicious ways to enjoy garlic. The wonderful thing about growing your own is that the flavor is so much more distinctive and robust than the California or China grown grocery-store garlic. For this reason, I find that I can often use less than a recipe calls for.