Author: Sarah Kleeger

All Things Garlic – An Adaptive Growing Guide

‘All Things Garlic’

Garlic is one of our favorite crops – this year we grew over 2,000 lbs! Since we’re in the middle of garlic selling season we thought we would share some basic (and not so basic) info about how to grow and care for this kitchen staple.

We offer three main types of garlic at Adaptive Seeds.

So named because it produces a woody stem, this type of garlic is known for having fewer (4 – 12) easier-to-peel cloves than softneck garlic. It generally has a more pungent flavor, which many garlic lovers prefer. Hardneck garlic tends to have fewer of the papery sheathes both around the clove and around the bulb. This wrapping protects the garlic from light and changes in humidity, so hardneck garlic does not store as long as softneck. Generally speaking, hardnecks store well for about 3 – 4 months. We offer two types of hardneck garlic – Porcelain & Glazed Purple Stripe.

Varieties include: Music, Purple Glazer, Romanian Red, Rosewood

In contrast to hardneck garlic, this type of garlic has a pliable stem (neck). Softneck garlic stores better and can be more productive. We offer several varieties of Silverskin type softneck, which is the most common garlic for commercial growers and what you most likely find in the grocery store. Silverskins have excellent storage and pure white bulb wrappers. Silverskin garlic can have up to 40 well-wrapped cloves per bulb. We also have Artichoke types of softneck garlic. Artichokes have only about 12 – 20 cloves each, and both the cloves and bulbs tend to be significantly larger than Silverskin varieties. Artichoke garlics tend to mature up to 4 weeks earlier than Silverskin types. Both are great storage types and generally speaking can store up to 9 months.

Varieties include: Broadleaf Czech, Harry’s Italian Late, Nootka RoseOregon Blue Silverskin, Siskiyou Purple, St. Helens.

Elephant garlic is not technically garlic at all, though it looks, acts, and tastes similarly. It is a leek, and has a much milder flavor than true garlic. The bulbs usually form giant 3-6 cloves. This type will produce a scape, like hardneck garlic, and also stores about the same as hardnecks.

Soil Preparation and Fertility
Garlic is a green, leafy plant for most of its life cycle. This means that it requires plenty of nitrogen for healthy, vigorous growth. But it is also a bulb, like a tulip, and so needs a fair amount of phosphorous as well. We fertilize our garlic prior to planting with a 4-4-4 chicken manure product.  In the Pacific Northwest many soils are low in calcium and sulfur. In this situation gypsum is a great amendment.  Because garlic is in the ground for so long, it requires an additional application of fertilizer in the spring. We top dress in early April with fish bone meal (4-16-0) because our soils are very deficient in phosphorous.  If your soil has adequate phosphorous, top dressing with a good source of nitrogen (such as blood meal) is recommended. We also apply a foliar mix of fish emulsion and kelp extract 2 – 3 times from late April to early May.

Garlic “Seed” Preparation / Cracking and Planting
In preparation for planting, the bulbs need to be cracked; that is, the outer papery hull needs to be removed and the cloves need to be separated and sorted for easy planting.  It is important to use only firm garlic bulbs and cloves for seed. If cloves give a little, that is okay, but NEVER use a clove that is soft or has obvious mold damage. The vigor of the plant and the size of the garlic bulb are determined by both the size of the parent bulb and the size of the parent clove. For this reason, it is best to choose medium-large size bulbs and cloves when planting. We use only the 75% largest cloves for planting and there is no need to peal the clove wrappers. The larger the clove, the more energy resources the young plant will have to draw upon in its initial stage of growth. For us in the Willamette Valley, the best time to plant garlic is October, but it can also be planted through February. Later plantings will result in smaller bulbs. Plant one clove every 6-8” in rows that are 1′ apart. Make sure the clove is covered by at least 1-2” of soil, with the blunt end pointing down. 

Care and Cultivation
Garlic should sprout and come up within 2-4 weeks, but this can vary depending on seed storage, and climate and soil conditions.  Most growers mulch garlic 2-3” thick with straw or leaves. This helps keep weeds down and limits fluctuations in soil temperature and moisture content. Mulching can be done at planting time because the first leaf shoot that the bulb sends up is a specialized leaf that can break through barriers such as soil and mulch. In our area, garlic tends to grow 4-6” in the fall, then go dormant from December – February. Growth begins again late February to early March (this is when spring fertilizing begins). Garlic is very sensitive to weed pressure and needs to be cultivated regularly to be free of weeds.
garlic weeding

Pay attention to the leaf color and shape during the growing season, and cull plants that look off – yellow or curled leaves, deformed stems, stunted growth, etc.

By late May, the plants stop leaf production and begin to bulb out. Stop fertilizing at this time.  May is also a good time to scout for “doubles” – when two plants emerge from one spot. Pull out any doubles until only one plant remains. Leaving doubles in the ground results in smaller bulbs. We joyfully eat our doubles as green garlic! In mid-May to June, the hardneck and elephant garlics (and potentially some of the softneck) will send up a flower stalk from the center of the plant, this is called a garlic scape. Wait to remove the scape until it curls (or whips) around itself, then pinch it off at the base. Also known as garlic whistles (for the sound they make when pulled out), they are a gourmet delicacy: a mild garlic flavor with the texture of asparagus. YUM! We highly recommend garlic scape pesto! (And pickles!) Removing the scape allows the plant to send more energy to its bulb, and results in bigger garlic, so even if you don’t want to eat it, it is important to break it off. If you leave the scape on it will flower and produce little bulbils that can be planted. These will form garlic bulbs in two years.

garlic scape

Fortunately, the rainy season takes care of most of the watering needs of garlic plants here in the Pacific Northwest. In late April to mid-May, if the rain stops, the garlic still needs to get regular watering. Irrigate garlic at least once a week until two or three weeks before harvest. In mid-late June, plant leaves will begin to yellow from the tips downward and the outside leaves inward.  Stop water when a few of the leaves have dried down, typically the middle of June.

Plants are ready to harvest when 50% of the leaves are all dried down. If you wait until the entire plant is dry, you will lose a lot of the wrappers during harvest and/or may end up with bulbs that have cracked open – both result in decreased storability. For us, harvest of mature bulbs begins with Artichoke types in late June or early July, hardnecks around mid-July, and finishing off with Silverskins by the end of July. Harvest time can be a few weeks earlier or later depending on weather and growing conditions each season.

garlic harvest    garlic harvest2

To harvest, simply pull the garlic out of the ground. But be careful, fresh garlic bruises very easily and will not store well if the neck or cloves are damaged, so it’s best not to drop or throw bulbs. If a bulb is damaged in harvest, it is best eaten fresh. Uncured fresh garlic is a real treat!  Even with our tractor digging tool bar which makes garlic harvest a lot easier, we sometimes need to use a digging fork to loosen the soil around the base of the bulb. Again, take care not to stab the bulb with the fork. (We call this farmer blight.) Freshly harvest garlic should be kept out of direct sunlight so don’t let it linger too long out in the field or garden when harvesting.

Garlic needs to be cured for it to store properly. If it is not cured, it will not keep for very long and will likely develop mold. Your garlic storage and curing location should be out of direct sunlight and have good air circulation. We use our barn with a combination of pallet racks and hanging from the rafters.  Don’t cut your leaf stalks (necks) or the roots before curing. Garlic will cure better and last longer if it is cured with them on. Be sure to remove as much dirt as possible from the roots (we do this in the field during harvest).
garlic hanging
The simplest way to store and cure is to tie a string around the stalks of a dozen or so plants and hang the bundles in a shed or garage.

Post Curing
To prep garlic for long term storage, clip the leaf stalk, trim the roots, and remove as few of the papery leaf sheaths as possible – just enough to be ‘clean.’ Note that the more wrappers on the bulb, the better and longer it stores. Softneck varieties are perfect for braiding. Hardneck varieties should be eaten first as they won’t store as long. We bring all our garlic into the house from the barn when the weather gets cool and moist to avoid sprouting.  At room temperature, our Silverskin garlic stores through spring.

garlic storage

A note about disease
Garlic is susceptible to fungal, bacterial, and viral diseases that may be naturally occurring in soils and/or introduced by critters in much of the US. Practicing wide crop rotations (5+ years between any onions, garlic, or leek crops) and diligently removing any plants that look like they may be infected are two effective tools for limiting disease in garlic. Infected or questionable garlic should not be planted.

Additional Resources
Much of this information is adapted from Growing Great Garlic by Ron L. Engeland, Chelsea Green Publishing co., 1991.

Seed Swaps for Everyone – “How To”

The world could always use more seed swaps and here are a few tips for organizing your own Seed Swap. (Thanks to Kim in central Virginia for the e-mail prompting this blog post.)

The folks at Seedy Sunday Brighton have a whole page devoted to hosting a seed swap. Food not Lawns also has a bit about organizing one.

The first thing is to get some friends involved, because it can be a lot of work (organizing, set up, clean up, promotion, etc.). If you don’t know anyone that will help you, post some fliers at garden stores or your local natural foods store, or maybe even the community garden bulletin board if your community is lucky enough to have one.

We have seen a few ways seed swaps can be organized. You have to decide which is best for your group.

Seedy Sunday Brighton has a central table, and when people come in, they give their seeds to the table, then volunteers organize them for redistribution. This way seems overly centralized and impersonal to me, but it works for them, and it may be necessary to do it this way at an event that draws upwards of 1,000 people. They also charge a small entrance fee to cover their expenses and require either a straight across swap of seed for seed or 50 pence for a seed pack, partly because “people don’t value that which is free.” At every other seed swap I have been to, everything is free.

A second way is to set up tables and have people stand near their stuff, so they can explain it to others that might have questions. This is what we do at the smaller fall seed swap.

A third way, which is also good, is to set up tables and have designated areas for different types of plants: flowers, herbs, tomatoes, etc. this is what we do at our large spring seed swap.

Most seed swaps descend into a sort of chaos even with the rough framework, so you could just have some tables and have people toss their seeds wherever they land. Then it’s a real treasure hunt!

Some other tips:

* If the group is 30 people or less, it is nice to stand in a circle and have people introduce themselves and what they’ve brought. This gives the swap more of a community vibe.

* If you know any seed geeks or old gardener types, be sure and personally invite them to help ensure there are some good seeds there.

* In your promotional materials, remind people to bring envelopes, tea packets, or paper to make origami cups. As an organizer, be sure to bring plenty for those that have forgotten.

* It is also good to bring pens and tape them to a string attached to the table, so people can label as they pack up their seeds.

* Remind people at the event to clearly label everything they’ve brought to the best of their ability.

* Ask that people deflate and then close the bags/packets when they are done with them. Ask a few volunteers to go around closing bags that were left open.

* Some seed swaps have a rule that people only take 1/2 or less of the seed from each bag/package. I prefer to remind people to only take that which they are sure to plant or sure to share with others.

* On your fliers, make sure to note that people are welcome to come empty-handed, or may bring potted plants and root divisions, or anything they have a surplus of, whether it be dried herbs and tinctures, jams, winter squash, honey, home brew, etc.

* A bouquet of flowers really makes it feel nice.

* If your group is passionate about seed saving, consider inviting people to form a Seed Sovereignty Network, also known as a Seed Circle, where people can coordinate future seed grow-outs: someone grows Red Russian kale, someone grows rutabaga (hopefully these two aren’t neighbors, as they will cross-pollinate), someone grows beets, someone grows chard, etc. This is especially good if the people are city folk and don’t have space for lots of large seed grow-outs, but maybe can do one or two species that require large populations.

* Print up a few dozen copies of our seed saving zine (pdf 3.5mb). This file is ready to be printed with two-sided printing (duplex), so if you do not have two-sided printing ability you can print one page at a time and flip them over and back in the printer for the back side of the page. Offer them for free or for sale by donation (donations for you, not us). It usually costs us about $1.50 per copy to print them, and we ask sliding scale of $2 – $5 to help cover our gas costs and whatnot (we live about an $8 drive from town).

* Bring a broom and dustpan to sweep up the potpourri of seeds that get spilled. Then ceremoniously sprinkle them in unplanted garden beds around the swap.

* If you have lots of seed, or older seed of questionable germination, consider having a seed ball making playshop for kids and adults. (Just google seed balls for loads of how-to’s).

If this is your community’s first seed swap, don’t be surprised if people only bring leftover commercial seed packets. As people get more excited about and familiar with seeds and seed saving, the commercial seed packs all but disappear.

That’s it for the moment. If anyone has any other tips to add, please do!