A close relative of the onion, garlic (Allium sativum) is an edible, bulbous plant that has been cultivated for several thousand years. It is more popular today than ever and, with over 600 sub-varieties available, there is ample room for gourmet garlic growers to carve out a niche. For the home gardener, it is quite easy to grow a year's supply, and the leftover crop can be given away to friends and neighbors.
The many sub-varieties of garlic fall into two basic categories: hardneck garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon), which includes the varieties porcelain garlic, rocambole garlic, and purple stripe garlic. The softneck garlic (Allium satvum var. sativum) varieties include artichoke garlic, silverskin garlic, and creole garlic.
Softneck varieties are best for warm climates, while hardneck is the garlic of choice for northern garlic growers. Softneck garlic stores and travels better than hardneck garlic. It also has a stronger flavor and generally speaking, produces larger cloves. If you want a milder garlic taste, try elephant garlic—which is actually more closely related to leeks than it is to true garlic.
Planting and Growing Tips
Garlic is planted either in the fall or the spring, depending on your climate. In the north, plant garlic in the fall. In warmer climates, it is best to plant garlic in early spring, though seed garlic must be chilled first to break it out of its dormant state. Garlic prefers loose loamy soil with plenty of organic matter.
- Separate the bulbs into individual cloves right before planting, leaving the papery layer around each clove. Choose larger cloves for planting and use the little ones for eating or preserving.
- Plant the cloves 2 inches deep if you plan to mulch and 3 to 4 inches deep if you do not plan to mulch.
- Be sure to plant each clove with the pointy tip facing up and the basal/root end facing down.
- Space the cloves 4 to 6 inches apart in rows spaced 18 to 24 inches apart. Commercial growers often plant the cloves and rows closer together; this leads to smaller bulbs but an overall higher yield in terms of garlic per square foot of garden.
Soil and Mulch
Soil should be kept evenly moist through the first part of the growing season, but allow the soil to go dry for two or three weeks before harvest time. If conditions are too wet near harvest time, mold may grow.
Mulching your garlic with straw, hay, swamp grass, reeds, or chopped leaves or plastic can be very helpful in some circumstances, though it is not recommended in wet climates. Mulch can protect against winter kill in cold climates, and in hot climates, It helps moderate soil temperatures and conserves soil moisture.
Good mulch can also help keep weeds in check. Weeds can easily outcompete young garlic plants, so be sure to keep the plot well-weeded.
Pests and Problems
Extreme temperatures can damage your garlic crop. Other problems include:
- White rot fungus: This disease, caused by the Sclerotium cepivorum fungus, is the most serious disease of garlic, and it can also strike all Allium crops, including onions. White rot-infected garlic plants can be identified by leaves that turn yellow and plants that wilt and die back partially. As the roots rot, infected plants uproot easily. This disease typically develops from the middle of the season up to harvest. Be sure you obtain cloves from certified disease-free stock because once a field has been infected with white-rot fungus, it can take decades for the infection to completely clear.
- Nematodes: These microscopic pests, Ditylenchus dipaci, are another chronic problem for garlic. These tiny worm-like creatures live inside the garlic plant itself, eating it as it reproduces. Nematodes do not need water to survive and they can live in the surrounding soil for several years. Nematode infestation can build up for several seasons without much damage, then strike and take out an entire crop. To control nematodes, make efforts to plant clean stock, inspect growing plants frequently, and remove any plants that look diseased.
- Onion thrips: Thrips are the most common insect to plague garlic. Thrips have rasping-sucking mouth parts that first damage the leaves then suck up the seeping plant fluid. Severe damage can cause the garlic plant to wilt and die. The wounds to the leaves may then create entry points for other diseases. To control thrips, keep areas free of moist, wet mulch that provides breeding areas, and trap the insects with sticky traps.
As it grows, hardneck garlic produces a curly green flower stalk called a scape. Garlic scapes should be harvested from the plant as it grows so that the garlic concentrates its energy into growing the bulb larger.
It's time to harvest your garlic when 1/2 to 3/4 of the bottom leaves have died. This usually happens by mid- to late-summer—July and August for most areas. Harvest a test bulb or two to determine maturity. The garlic bulb should be well-wrapped but not split. To harvest garlic, loosen the soil with a shovel or fork and pull up plants by hand. Use caution, as garlic bruises easily.
Storage and Preservation
You can eat garlic fresh out of the ground, but if you want to store it for winter, you must cure it first. In warm sunny climates, garlic can be left in the field to dry, but it should be covered with leaves to prevent sunburn.
Place garlic in a dark place with good air circulation for 2 to 3 weeks after harvest to allow it to cure.
- For softneck garlic, you can braid ropes of bulbs and stems and hang them to dry.
- For hardneck garlic, trim stems to one inch above the bulb then place in a dark, well-ventilated place.
After curing, garlic will keep at for 6 to 12 months when stored in optimal conditions. Store garlic where it will have good air circulation, 65 to 70 percent humidity, and a temperature of 35 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Garlic is propagated by planting individual cloves separated from bulbs or by using bulbils—the tiny undivided bulbs found in the scapes of hardneck garlic. Propagating garlic using bulbils can be much more effective than planting cloves. If you are planting cloves, save 15 to 20 percent of your crop, making sure to use only truly disease-free bulbs for planting next season.
There are many more bulbils than cloves, making it easier to build up your planting stock, and since bulbils are above the ground, there is less chance of soil-borne diseases. Plant them just like you would cloves. If you are growing bulbils for seed, allow the garlic scape to grow—they are edible and delicious.