How To Grow Garlic
The first thing that we do is to choose the kind of garlic to grow. There are two basic types: hardneck (stiffneck or topset) and softneck. Within the two types there are many subspecies and varieties. Generally hardnecks will have cloves growing around a central woody stem and the flavor is usually hotter than the softnecks. Softnecks may have many cloves growing around a center clove or a large number of center cloves. Most of the garlic that you buy at the local supermarket is softneck and grown in California, China, Mexico and other parts of South America. Many of these softnecks do not grow well in northern climates.
For best results, planting should occur in northern climates after Sept. 15th and before Nov. 30th. Due to climate change, we are beginning to see a lot of precipitation during the month of October and beyond. So the recommendation is to try and plant or at least have your soil prepared before the end of September. You may also spring plant, but the resulting heads are much smaller because the garlic did not have the opportunity to develop a good root system.
The site where you would like to grow your garlic should be a sunny, well drained spot with a soil that has a fair amount of organic matter. Clay and sands are OK, but the key is organic matter like compost or vegetative mulches. Loosen the soil and make a furrow about 1″ deep. Place each clove root tip down, 4 to 6 inches apart in the furrow. It’s also very important that the PH level is between 6.2 and 6.8.
Just before planting, split the cloves off from the head of garlic. You may use a fertilizer or compost higher in Phosphorous (P) and Potassium (K) to ensure good root development throughout the cold months. Cover the clove and pile on 4 inches of dirt or mulch. This helps prevent heaving during the freezing winter. The plant will begin to emerge in March. This is a good time to feed the garlic with a fertilizer high in Nitrogen (N) to promote top growth and eventually good bulb formation. Keep the area weed free and in the first week of June your hardneck varieties will begin to grow a scape from the center of the top leaves. You should snap the scape off before it reaches a length of 12 inches. Once the scape is removed, energy is forced back into the head or bulb. Scapes are edible, and if you are planning to keep them for recipes such as garlic scape pesto, you should put them into refrigeration and they will last at least a couple of months.
Softnecks tend to be mature a week earlier than hardnecks. Harvest time for softnecks is when you notice that some of them have fallen over and are laying on the ground. During the last week of June begin pulling a couple of hardnecks every few days and cutting a cross section of the head (bulb). Look at the cross section and once you see space forming between the cloves and the central stem, the the garlic is ready for harvest.
Dig the garlic with a fork or shovel. It is OK to leave it lying on the ground for a day or two to dry unless the temperature is above 90 degrees F (you don’t want to cook it). Pick up the garlic and shake off the dirt. The garlic will need to dry for a couple of weeks (or eaten at any time). To dry the garlic, place it in an area where there is plenty of air movement around the stems and heads. We use fans on ours, and we try to maintain a temperature of about 100 degrees F. High tunnels work really well for this. Just remember to monitor the temperature carefully, as you do not want to exceed 120 degrees F.
Preserving and Storing
There are many different ways to preserve your garlic. Cut it up and put it in the freezer for later use. Dehydrate and put through a coffee grinder to make powder. Keep loose in a bowl in a cool dark cupboard. Place in a brown paper bag and put into the crisper of your refrigerator – this method has been working very well for people and allows for you to buy, store and eat fresh garlic for the whole year. Braid it and hang it in the kitchen. Don’t forget to pickle a little bit while you are at it. Storing garlic in oil in the refrigerator is not recommended as botulism can form. Storing very large amounts of garlic is best at about 32 degrees F and a humidity level of about 65%. Additionally smaller heads store better than larger ones.
If you are interested in growing garlic on more of a commercial scale feel free to call to discuss other options for growing and harvesting larger quantities. I also can provide a 3+ hour consultation for a small fee (usually during the winter months when things are slower on the farm).