Garlic was one of the first crops we ever grew and it continues to be a yearly staple in our garden. Why? Because it is easy to grow and is a multi-tasker!!! In every way, we try to make use of everything the Lord provides to its fullest extent and there are so many uses for garlic that it well deserves the time and effort that it takes to grow it. Honestly though, it is one of the simplest of crops to grow and gives a great deal in return. Let’s begin!!
As I have stated before, we live in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7B here in East Central Alabama. To find your zone for gardening click here: “USDA ZONE MAP” The plant hardiness zone is designed to help you determine the best plants and planting dates for your area. It is very useful when planning your gardening chores. In Zone 7B we can plant garlic in the late fall – October through early December. Garlic is part of the allium family along with onions, leeks and shallots. They all do really well growing slowly in the cooler months of the year. The leaves spring up and begin to fill out and become quite full. Then as the days begin to lengthen in late spring and early summer the bulbs begin developing. Flowers begin developing on top of the leaf stems.
Allium sativum is the most common type of garlic grown and it is divided into two categories: hardneck and softneck.
Hardneck varieties produce scapes or bulbils on top of the stems as they mature. If you allow these to develop, you are doing so at the expense of the main bulb and it will be smaller, so you need to clip these “flowers” off. There are three of these types: porcelain, rocambole, and purple stripe. Hardneck garlic bulbs are much stronger in scent and flavor and have a shorter storage life, but they are much prettier as far as coloring and while they have fewer clovers per bulb, the cloves themselves tend to be much larger.
Softneck will generally not develop the “flowers” and so are more commonly used for gardening. This is the type you generally see at the grocery store produce stand and can be recognized as white with a papery covering. They have a long storage life and an abundance of cloves. As you can imagine by their name, the necks are soft and therefore make them easy to braid together for hanging up. You can purchase a bulb (consists of many cloves) of garlic at your local grocery store and plant it. You will have a nice crop but it will take you being diligent to chose only the largest cloves to plant to eventually get a nice larger bulb through the seasons.
Finally let me add a bit about Elephant Garlic (Allium ampeloprasum). It is more closely related to the Leek family than to the other garlics. The bulbs are HUGE with only 4 to 6 cloves per bulb, but again they are huge. It has a milder, sweeter flavor.
Okay, now to the planting and soil needs. Garlic does best with a sandy or clay loam with very good drainage as with all alliums. If you have tested your soil you will want to have a pH between 6 and 8, with 6.8 being best. The best thing to do is feed the soil with good compost and mulch. As these break down in the soil, the ph will become what it needs to be. If you live in a very clay area then add some lime. Paul dumps the ashes from our wood burning stoves into the garden soil and we till it in. The ash works wonders on clay soil. You have to feed the soil naturally if you want it to feed you! You also need full sun for growing garlic. They will not do well in shady areas.
When you plant garlic, you begin by breaking the bulbs into the individual cloves. While you can plant any of the cloves, obviously the small ones are not going to produce nice large bulbs. Another important tip is to not separate the cloves until you are ready to plant. If you do the little root nodules will begin to dry up and it will take longer for roots to form. If you want big healthy bulbs you need to plant big healthy cloves – use the little, skimpy ones for cooking or in pickles.
Be sure when you plant each individual clove that you plant the root edge downward and the tip upward. I plant my cloves about an inch deep but I have read that others suggest 2 to 4 inches deep. Hardneck varieties need the extra depth. I have never planted them that far down so I will just present that information to you for reference.
Once you have planted all your cloves, be sure to mulch them – this will keep the temp of the soil consistent, conserve moisture and protect from extremes (and cats). Mulching also helps with weeds which are a problem for crops like garlic and onions. They do not like the competition from weeds and it will decrease the size of the plants. From this point just let them do their thing. If you have an extremely long period with no rain then be sure to give them a drink periodically. The leaves will begin to shoot up within 10 days to 2 weeks,
After the days begin to lengthen in the late Spring/early Summer you will notice the leaves begin to yellow and wilt. When a third of them are wilting down then you can begin your harvest. Pull the garlic from the soil by the leaves. Loosen the soil first with a hand fork to make sure you don’t pull the leaves and leave the bulb. Lay the garlic in a warm dry spot with plenty of air circulation to cure for about a week. After that brush the soil off with your hands gently and clip the roots off leaving about a 1/4 to a 1/2 inch. Don’t rub off the papery covering as this will help protect the bulbs and keep them from sprouting. After about 2 weeks you can then braid the softneck variety or trim the leaves of the hardneck variety. At this point you can store them safely in a mesh bag or braid the leaves to hang.
Garlic can last anywhere from 2 to 8 months depending on variety and storage environment.
As far as pest go, we have never had any pest problems growing our garlic. I have read that tiny onion thrips and onion maggots are potential risks but generally if you practice good garden clean-up and keep the weeds down you shouldn’t have that. Also be sure to rotate your root crops with your other crops so that pests and disease are thwarted.