How to Plant Garlic and Why You Should
A Little Bulb of Self-Sufficiency
Living sustainably isn't just about zero-waste packaging and switching out fluorescent lights to LEDs. It's also about adopting a lifestyle that embraces self-sufficiency and planting garlic is a small part of that calculation. Growing your own crops allow you to feed yourself but also, as in the case of garlic, provides a resource packed with important medicinal properties.
Health benefits contributed to garlic include an improved immunity system, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, reduced risk of heart disease, improved skin, anti-oxidant that improves memory and reduces bones loss. - I am not a doctor nor do I play one on the internet so please consult your physician with any of the above mention medical conditions.
Who knows what the future of healthcare looks like so it's important to keep ourselves as healthy as possible. Remember what our old friend Benjamin Franklin said: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
What is Garlic?
Garlic (Allium sativum L. fam. Alliaceae)
Garlic grows into a white bulb, similar to that of an onion. The entire garlic can be interchangeably referred to as a “head”, "bulb" or “knob.” The small individual segments that make up a whole head of garlic are called cloves. The head itself and each individual clove are wrapped in natural, papery skins that are best left in place until planting or consumption.
Garlic breath has been around for a long time. It is considered one of the oldest known horticultural crops and references to garlic is found in the Egyptian and Indian cultures as far back as 5,000 years ago. There is solid evidence that the Babylonians used garlic 4,500 years ago and other evidence suggests it may have been grown in China as far back as 4000 years ago.
Garlic has a long and complex history.
Little is known about the early types of garlic that were grown. Early writings have no mention of garlic varieties but some experts speculate that Softneck was the predominant crop. However, there have been what appears to be garlic of the Hardneck variety found in Egyptian tombs. Today garlic only grows wild in Central Asia but is cultivated around the world.
The distinction between Hardneck and Softneck varieties started to appear approximately 1,000 years ago when southern Europeans started cultivating them. Through its 5,000 year history, the producers of garlic have had little desire or need to specify type or variety. It has only been within the last few hundred years where effort has been given to documenting detailed descriptions of varieties for really any crop plant.
The Romans Dedicated Garlic to Mars the Roman God of War and Roman Soldiers Ate it Prior to Going into Battle to Give Them Courage and Strength.
Homegrown garlic is one of my favorite crops to grow. I plant the garlic bulbs in early winter, harvest in early summer, and with each harvest, I cull the best bulbs from the yield to plant for the coming season. That's literally it. Now you're fantasizing about your own harvest for next summer, aren't you? I can relate fellow garlic head!
In most milder regions, it's planted in preparation for winter by late fall. It grows best when weather conditions are favorable and plants have had enough time to mature without interference from summer crops that might compete with them during their tender growing stages.
The two main different types of garlic are Softneck (Allium sativum) and Hardneck (Allium ophioscorodon), also called Stiffneck. They can be distinguished through their bulbous heads with several cloves per bulb as is the case with Softnecks and although the Hardneck varieties have a lower amount of garlic cloves per head they still produce eight to 10 cloves per plant.
I have thrown elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) into the mix although it is not true garlic as many people consider it to be. It has the same basic growing and harvesting instructions as garlic but unfortunately, it doesn't contain all the health benefits as true garlic.
All three, soft, hard, and elephant garlic plants grow into large plants that stand upright when mature; their stems range in height from 24 - 36" tall.
Softneck Garlic Varieties
This is the type of garlic that you'll most likely find at your grocery store and it has a relatively mild odor. They thrive in climates with mild winters so if your winters aren't too harsh then this is definitely worth something to consider growing!
Softneck garlic varieties can be harvested all year round. Although Harnecks produce a scape or flower stalk, Softneck garlic does not but nonetheless is easy to grow.
Preferred climate: Softneck varieties are not fans of cold winters and prefer climates with milder winters.
Hardneck Garlic Varieties
Hardneck garlic varieties produce a stiff stem or scape that grows up through the center of each bulb with a bud at the end. The bud can be harvested and replanted but can take three to four years to mature into garlic plants. Because of the scape's mildly sweet flavor, many people harvest the scape for general consumption in cooking recipes.
It's easy to tell the garlic scapes apart from the rest of the garlic plant because they look a bit like green onions with long stems and contain a bulbil at the end. It is recommended that the scapes be harvested before they flower or approximately three weeks before harvest. Doing so allows the plant to maximize bulb growth potential and create the largest healthiest yield.
You can tell when the scapes are ready to be removed because a spiral loop develops at their end that can easily be removed with a pair of garden scissors.
Preferred climate: Hardneck varieties are pretty robust and cold hardy.
Elephant Garlic Varieties
Elephant garlic is named as such because of its large size. You might be surprised to learn though that it's actually a type of leek. It belongs in the same genus as true garlic (Allium), but they're not really related at all.
It produces very large bulbs with few cloves, usually three to four per head, and has a sweet, mild flavor somewhere between garlic and onion.
This plant is fast-growing, versatile, and can grow in Hardiness Zones 3 through 9.
For those who haven't directly sampled garlic directly from the garden then let me tell you from experience: Getting your hands on some fresh organically grown garlic is an incredible epicurean delight.
Preparation and Cultivation
If you're planning on growing garlic from your summer's harvest, choose heads with big cloves that are in good shape. If purchasing new stock for planting this fall/winter season, hit up your local nursery that values freshness and quality- be sure to ask them if their product has been treated against sprouting before you buy.
Can you grow garlic from the grocery store? Yes, just keep it simple and buy organic.
To Prevent Rot Speed up Germination:
The day before your planting date, break apart the garlic heads into their individual cloves making sure to leave as much as you can of the papery husk.
Next, Get Soaked. To help promote sprouting and health, soak your bulbs overnight before planting. Fill a quart jar with water and a teaspoon of baking soda.
Thoroughly stir the mixture until there are no floating clumps and then add the cloves. The anti-rot properties of this mixture will ensure a faster germination period.
Garlic likes well-drained, moisture-retentive soil with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Your garden needs to have loose soil that is freshly composted and ready for planting. About a week prior to planting I like to give my garden a light spraying of fish fertilizer which really helps boost germination. Depending on where you plant and how you control weeds you'll want to keep an eye on your plants because weeds can easily overtake young seedlings. Growing them in containers as I do helps reduce the number of weeds I need to deal with.
Planting Garlic - How Do I Plant Garlic?
When should I plant garlic?
Whether you are growing garlic in rows in a garden, raised beds or in patio containers, it's the same process:
- Make a hole with your finger or implement to the specified depth for the variety you are planting.
- Place one clove, pointy side up, into the hole (All varieties).
- Gently cover the hole with soil and avoid compacting it.
- Water lightly and as necessary going forward.
Be sure when planting garlic to not seed more than one variety per square foot because if both types share similar needs they may not yield as much depending on how often they're ready to harvest.
Using a Grid
If you choose to plant your garlic in patio containers here is a trick I use to quickly space the individual cloves.
First, I use a handful of bamboo sticks (You can use any kind of straight sticks) to quickly layout a rough 6"x6" grid on the container
Second, then I place the cloves at all the intersection points on the grid.
I then remove the grid and plant the little guys pointy end up and gently cover with soil.
6" apart in-row with rows 6" to 10" apart.
The distance between the in-row plantings and the distance between rows depends on the vigorousness of the variety being planted, adust your distances accordingly.
3" deep, 6" apart in-row with rows 6" to 12" apart.
Closer spacing will produce smaller garlic bulbs, while wider spacing will produce larger bulbs. After planting, smooth over the soil surface.
4" to 6" deep, 8" to 12" in-row with rows 12" to 18" apart.
Elephant garlic will send up a scape just like Hardneck garlic does.
I told You it Was Easy
As far as planting garlic goes that's it, however like with any crop you still need to weed, water, and fertilize as required but it is an extremely easy plant to grow. As I have already mentioned the only fertilizer I use is organic compost and fish fertilizer which produce a huge yield for me every year. I of course take other steps to build my soil but that is another blog post in and of itself.
Garlic Companion Planting - What Grows Well With Garlic?
It may be easier to ask what doesn't grow well with garlic, which by the way is beans and peas because it is believed it can stunt the growth of these two crops
The sulfur that accumulates in the garlic bulb acts as a fungicide which is a natural pesticide and deterrent to many common garden pests and therefore explains why other plants benefit from being companion planted with garlic.
Companion plants for garlic include but are not limited to: Fruit trees, Dill, Beets, Kale, Spinach, Potatoes, Carrots, Eggplants, Tomatoes, Peppers, Cabbage, Cauliflower, and Broccoli.
Garlic as an Organic Pesticide
I make a concentrated garlic spray that works as an excellent organic pesticide. I pour 1/2 cup of boiling over two pureed garlic bulbs and let it steep overnight. I then strain the mixture before I funnel it into a spray bottle to mitigate clogging the sprayer's nozzle.
I then spray the garlic mixture directly onto the leaves of plants especially lettuce, spinach, and other tender leafy vegetables, I even spray the soil as well - It works like a magical charm. I should note here that garlic as a plant, scattered throughout your garden, also works well to drive away pests.
Many insects are repulsed by garlic and will skedaddle when they run into it. Garlic spray will repel the majority of flying or crawling insects but not the ones that burrow. The common pests that garlic repels are flies, mosquitoes, beetles, mites, slugs, caterpillars armyworms, cutworms, and aphids.
Harvesting Garlic - How Do I Harvest Garlic?
How to Know When it's Ready to Harvest
The signs a garlic plant is ready to harvest are when the lower leaves turn brown (approximately 40%), and/or the plant falls over. Additionally, the tips of the upper leaves may turn brown at this point as well. It's important that you don't let the mature garlic sit in the ground too long, if so the bulbs will break apart allowing bug infestation, dehydration, mold, and rot to set in.
The one rule to make sure you follow when harvesting garlic is to NEVER attempt to pull the garlic out of the ground via their stems/stalks. You may get a few out of the ground ok but you will inevitably snap the stalks off leaving the garlic head in the ground.
The best tool I have found to ply garlic from the ground is a good garden fork preferably one with relatively close tines that will, loosen the terra firma, cradle the bulb but allow the excess soil to pass through. It doesn't matter if it is a handheld or a standing-type fork. If you don't have a garden fork a shovel will do but take care not to cut through the bulb you are digging up or the bulbs surrounding it.
Curing Garlic - How Do I Cure Garlic?
Space, Time & Temperature
Before you start the process of curing your garlic harvest make sure that you have a space with enough room to process your harvest, which is of course is dependent upon the size of your yield.
You'll want a space that can be sufficiently heated (if necessary) and with good air circulation so that the plants dry thoroughly and avoid decay. Do not wash the plants but rather carefully knock off any chunks of soil and take them straight into the curing process.
Leaving the garlic heads and stalks attached weave the stalks of 8 to 10 plants together and secure with string. Next, hang the plants upside down (bulbs up) in a warm dry space. In order to help the plants retain their oils pay attention to not disturb the plants' papery skin during the curing process.
Ideally, curing your garlic yield for two weeks at a temperature of 80°F will produce beautifully cured garlic. If it's not 80°F outside you don't want to crank up the heat in your curing space you will obviously then need to let the plants hang for a longer period of time.
If you don't have the space to hang the plants you can lay the plants flat (heads and stalks attached) in single layers on a drying screen - again sufficient airflow is a must. This process can take a little longer, up to 4 weeks depending on conditions.
It's important to be patient, and you should err on the side of caution when it comes time to end the curing process. Shorter curing periods produce garlic with sharper flavors that are better suited towards raw uses like adding them directly into cooked food.
You can tell the curing process is completed when the entire plant has turned brown and is dry to the touch. Do not break up the heads of garlic until this process is complete.
It's all about the skin.
The skins are important because they reduce moisture loss and extend shelf life so handle with care. I have found using gloves reduces the oils on my fingers sticking to the skin plus they keep my fingers from smelling like garlic for days.
The goal is to keep as much of the skin intact as possible.
Leave a Little on the Top
Once the plants have completely dried, cut the bulbs free from the stems leaving approximately 1" of stem attached to the bulb if you are storing the garlic. The longer you can leave the bulbs intact the longer they will store, some people leave the entire plant intact until use.
Breaking Up is Easy to Do
I've got a fast, easy and tidy way for you to break garlic bulbs into cloves whether for general consumption or planting.
- Cut off the 1" of stem flush with the head of garlic.
- Place the bulb inside of a freezer bag on a counter pointy side up.
- Stand directly over the garlic bulb and place the butt of your palm over the pointy end.
- Push down gently and crush the head apart into individual cloves.
- Don't peel garlic bulbs/cloves until you're ready to eat them.
What I really like about this process is that it minimizes contact with my skin, I can do several heads in one bag at planting time and it keeps all of the skins in the bag. No mess.
Storing Garlic - How Do I Store Garlic?
Dry, Dark, and Cool
If you have curled your garlic correctly it can be stored for several months but the longer it stays in storage the drier the cloves become. I keep my garlic bulbs in mesh bags on hooks in the mudroom pantry and we use them all before I've ever seen one turn soft and unusable. The ideal temperature for long-term storage is between 55-58°F and stored out of direct sunlight and heat.
Clove to My Heart
You'll be glad you started growing garlic in your own garden because it is the most enjoyable and easiest crop I grow. I put it in everything and that's not much of an exaggeration. It's such a versatile plant that even if you don't like the taste of it, it's worth growing to use as an Organic Pesticide or possibly to barter with. The garlic economy may save us all.
See you in the garden.
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