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Growing great garlic

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Garlic is an unusual crop. It’s vegetatively propagated, planted in autumn and especially flavorful. It probably originated in central Asia, and then was brought to Europe, and by the early 1700s, to America.

There are two types of garlic. Hardneck garlic forms a false flower stalk in spring called a scape. Its bulbs usually have five to seven large cloves.

Softneck garlic doesn’t produce a scape. Its bulbs contain a dozen or so smaller cloves. Elephant garlic is not a garlic at all, but in the leek family. It produces large bulbs with three or four cloves.

Garlic grows well in many different soils and climates, but only varieties that are hardy and adapted to the Northeast will perform well here. These are best obtained from commercial garlic growers in your area or from seed companies that specialize in serving the Northeast. Once you find a variety that does well in your garden, you can save the largest and healthiest bulbs for replanting to build your own seed stock.

Individual garlic cloves should be planted in late October, about a month before the ground freezes. This timing allows roots to establish, but shoots won’t get up above ground level. Set cloves about four inches deep, eight inches apart.

Next spring, each clove will form a bulb with the same genetic makeup as the original clove. Garlic requires a cold treatment to induce bulbing, so garlic planted in spring will only produce a small single bulb without cloves.

Garlic grows best with a soil pH of 6.2 to 7.0. Add lime, phosphorus and potassium as needed, based on soil test recommendations, and incorporate those thoroughly prior to planting.

A light addition of mature compost can benefit garden soil that’s low in organic matter. In spring, apply about three pounds of nitrogen per 1,000 square feet on top of the garlic planting when the shoots are about six inches high. That’s equivalent to about 20 pounds of Chilean nitrate, 25 pounds of dried blood or 50 pounds of soybean meal. Scratch in lightly if possible.

Garlic can be planted into holes made in black plastic mulch, which suppresses weeds and helps warm soil in spring, encouraging early top growth. Photo by Vern Grubinger/UVM Extension

Mulching garlic with a thick layer of clean straw after planting helps control weeds and retain soil moisture. In a wet spring, mulch can keep the soil from drying out and lead to soil-borne diseases, so pull it away from the garlic if the soil remains saturated due to frequent rain. Plastic mulch, with holes for each clove, is another option for weed control.

Good weed control is critical. If no mulch is used, shallow cultivation will be needed. A narrow collinear hoe works well in tightly spaced crops like garlic. Apply irrigation frequently during dry periods to ensure good growth.

Harvest garlic once the lower third of leaves begin yellowing, usually in late July. The ideal time is when bulbs attain maximum size but cloves have not started to separate inside the bulb. Dig up a few bulbs and cut them in half, perpendicular to the cloves, to see if they’re ready.

After pulling the bulbs, gently wash them or rub off the soil later once the bulbs are dry. For good storage, thoroughly dry bulbs for several weeks. Hang them in bundles or spread out on a piece of wire fence in a well-ventilated shed or other structure protected from the elements.

Garlic should keep for several months in paper or plastic mesh bags in a cool, relatively dry, dark and well-ventilated area, such as some basements. Temperatures in the fifties and about 50% relative humidity are ideal.

by Dr. Vern Grubinger, Extension Vegetable & Berry Specialist, UVM

Featured photo: After planting garlic can be mulched with six inches of clean straw to protect bulbs against freezing and thawing in winter and to suppress weeds. Photo by Vern Grubinger/UVM Extension

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