Topic for August 2007
Provided by the Western
Massachusetts Master Gardener Association
You can add another dimension to your usual garden next year by planting some garlic! No other vegetable has fostered so much legend and history, has such a reputation for curative power, and appears in so many cuisines around the world. It’s easy to grow, provides a flavorful, long-storing harvest, and, should you need to repel a vampire or even cure an earache, you’ll be all set.
FACTS Garlic, with its flat, grass-like leaves, is probably native to Central Asia, and can reach three feet tall when in flower. All garlic belongs to the genus Allium and the species sativum. Domesticated garlic fall into two distinct sub-species. Hardneck varieties (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) have large, uniform, easy-to-peel cloves around a stiff woody stem, store for 3 to 6 months, and do well in northern climates. Softnecks (Allium sativum var. sativum) have spicier flavor and are better adapted to warmer climates, store and travel better, have no flower spike, and can be braided. There are over 600 cultivated sub-varieties.
SOIL Garlic grows best in full sun, in moderately fertile soil with pH between 6.0 and 7.0. Raised beds, dug to 8” or more for excellent drainage, help the bulbs resist disease. Enrich the soil with good organic compost or composted manure and a root crop fertilizer high in phosphorus (bone meal or rock phosphate). Avoid too much nitrogen or you will grow more leaves and smaller bulbs.
SEED Garlic is asexual, each bulb a clone of the plant it comes from. Weak bulbs will pass on the weakness.
Commercial seed garlic, selected for health and strength, will guarantee you the best crop. Now that I’ve grown garlic for several years, I replant some cloves from my own largest and best-looking bulbs, but I also purchase fresh seed garlic. This allows me to try new varieties and avoid possible crop failure if some disease or fungus has infected my cloves or lowered their resistance.
Garlic from the grocery store, of indeterminate age and freshness, may have been treated to prevent sprouting and may not be adapted to our region. Plant it at your own risk!
FALL Here in Western Massachusetts, garlic-planting time is mid-to-late October, three to six weeks before the ground freezes. After the first hard frost, with soil temperatures cooled to 55 - 60 degrees, the roots of the garlic clove will begin to grow. You want strong roots anchoring the plant before winter, but don’t want to see any shoots.
When planting, break the garlic bulbs into cloves, keeping as much skin on them as you can. Plant the pointed end up so you don’t grow malformed bulbs. Make a two-inch deep hole with your finger, drop in the clove, and cover firmly with soil. Plant five to six inches apart in rows 12-18 inches apart. For intensive beds, space plants about seven inches apart on diagonal spacing.
It’s easy to plant a whole bed of garlic, but it is also a wonderful companion crop that helps repel bugs, including the imported cabbageworm. Consider interplanting some extra or smaller cloves among other crops to use as spring garlic greens, for their decorative scapes, and for their repellent benefit. Garlic for these purposes can be planted in the spring as soon as the ground thaws, but expect smaller yields.
Garlic itself is relatively pest free, but is popular with some rodents, especially gophers. Some sources advise rotating your garlic crop, avoiding soil where alliums (plants in the onion family) have been grown in the past few years. At the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA, however, the garlic beds keep their position for several years. When the garlic is harvested in August the beds are planted with quick growing fall crops of spinach, beets, and lettuce; these are finished by the time the new garlic needs to be planted in October.
MULCH Water the buried cloves well, and cover with at least three inches of mulch such as a mixture of ground-up leaves and dried grass clippings or simply a thick layer of straw. This is critical: it keeps the ground moist and warm; it prevents heaving of the young plants; and it keeps down weeds in the spring.
Avoid mulches like whole leaves or fresh grass clippings that can mat down and collect water.
Now you can just leave everything for the winter—although some people add an additional layer of mulch after the ground freezes as extra insurance against heaving. Snow is a great mulch too.
SPRING In the spring, bright green shoots begin poking through the mulch at about pea-planting time. Loosen the mulch, but leave enough to suppress weeds. Side dress with organic fertilizer, and watch the shoots grow. A wet spring is ideal, so if the spring is dry, plan to provide an inch of water a week while the bulb is forming - mid-May to July -. Garlic grows best in temperatures from 55°-75°.
SCAPES In early summer the main shoot of northern hardneck garlic forms a whimsical curl. This scape, or topset, with a seed at its tip, is a delicious delicacy in stir-fry, soup, salad, and, for some, just raw. There is debate about whether to leave the scapes on or cut them off. Some believe the scapes drain energy and result in a smaller bulb, others that allowing the scapes to remain until woody results in a better storing bulb. I like to use some for cooking and leave some because they are so decorative--an admittedly unscientific approach.
HARVEST In late July to early August stop watering for the couple of weeks before harvest. This helps the plants dry out and form a durable skin.
When the lower leaves start to turn brown, it’s time to harvest the bulbs. If you aren’t sure, dig up a few bulbs and slice them open to see if the cloves fill the skins. Small unripe cloves don’t store well; overripe cloves burst from their skins and also don’t store well. Dig the garlic gently with a garden fork. The bulbs are now several inches deep with strong roots and pulling them can injure both bulbs and stems.
CURING Brush the dirt off the plants and bulbs and lay them on a screen or a flat basket in a warm, dry spot with good air circulation, such as a well-ventilated room or covered porch. Most sources recommend shade for this. Curing is complete after three to four weeks when the skins are dry and the necks (stems) are tight.
The dry tops and roots can be cut off. If you further clean the bulbs by removing the outer skins, be careful not to expose any cloves. Although hardneck varieties are more common in the north, growing some softneck garlic gives you a chance to make a hanging braid, created the same way a French braid is done with hair. Braiding is easier before the stems are completely dry.
STORING Only store well cured bulbs. Garlic stores nicely under a wide range of temperatures, but produces sprouts more quickly at or above 40 degrees F. Mature bulbs store best at 32 degrees F with low humidity. Cloves should keep for six to seven months; I usually have garlic right through the following harvest.
WARNING DO NOT attempt to make garlic flavored oil to store your harvest. Garlic is a low-acid vegetable, with pH ranging from 5.3-6.3. Home-prepared oil may provide conditions to support the growth of Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium produces a toxic causing botulism, an illness that can result in death if untreated. Refer to links below for recommendations on safely preserving foods.
The 600 cultivars of garlic have some lovely names. Here is a sampling, divided by type:
HARDNECK (serpent garlic, named after the curling scape) Purple Stripe: Starbright, Chesnok Red, Persian Star, Metechi, Guatemalan, Shvelisi, Siberian, French Germinador, Bogatyr, Vekak Porcelain: Georgian Crystal, Romanian Red, German White, Georgian Fire, Leningrad, Zemo, Rosewood, German Extra Hardy, Music, Gypsy Red, Bzenc, Russian Giant Rocambole: Purple Italian, Spanish Roja, Hillside, Carpathian (Polish), Killarney Red, German Red, Calabria
SOFTNECK Artichoke (most common commercial garlic): Red Toch, Inchelium Red, Kettle River Giant, Transylvanian, California Early, Russian Redstreak, Tochliavri, Achatami, Simonetti, Siciliano, Tarne, Acropolis Silverskins: Nootka Rose, Rose Du Var, Chilean Silver, Mother Of Pearl, Tipatilla Turban: Shantung Purple, Gregory's China Rose, Shantung Purple, Tuscan, Morado Gigante, Xi'an, Sonoran, Chinese Pink, Beijing,
For further information on growing garlic, refer to these websites or look for cultural information in your favorite seed catalog:
Graceful garlic scapes form in early summer.
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Provided by the Western
Massachusetts Master Gardener Association