If you have a garden and you enjoy garlic, take the next step: grow your own. The key in the south is planting it in the fall. Garlic needs 40 or more cold days below 40°F in order for the clove to split into a bulb. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a plant looking like a green onion with no bulb. Probably the hardest part about growing garlic is the initial step of finding a source of planting stock. Local farmers’ markets are a great place to locate garlic that is adapted to our region. After this you will be self sufficient (as long as you don’t eat it all) because you can save a portion of your crop as “Seeds” (actually you will save garlic heads and plant the individual cloves). Just don’t plant the store-bought stuff. It is not well adapted to our region. The majority of what you find in the grocery store comes from Gilroy, California.
There are many kinds of garlic, all different in taste, pungency, color, size, shape, etc. While some kinds were heirloom varieties brought to the USA by immigrants over the centuries, most of them came to us in 1989 from a tour of the southern USSR by USDA collectors and advisors, just before the fall of the Soviet Union. Word of these exotic garlics has spread among garlic lovers.
Garlic consumption is way up in the USA. It tastes good, and apparently is good for you. Garlic (Allium Sativum) is a perennial herb of the Liliaceae (Lilly) family, which has now become one of the essential ingredients in many main course dishes. Not only does it have culinary uses, but also many believe in its medicinal properties. It has proven its usefulness in the garden as well, giving protection to other plants from marauding insects. This plant, with its strong, pungent smell, is rich in amino acids, volatile oils, and sulphur compounds; it also contains enzymes and allicin and has antiseptic properties. It contains vitamins, A, B1, B2 and C, so clearly is a plant well worth growing.
Size in garlic is determined first by the variety and then by growing conditions. Soil conditions and watering are of the utmost importance when growing, excellent, large, healthy garlic. Garlic requires a well-balanced soil that is loose enough for the bulb to grow and expend. What it doesn’t like is dry, hard packed clay that may restrict its expansion. Work in lots of organic material so you have a fertile, well drained soil. You want the bulb itself to be in the drier part of the soil with its roots down where there is more moisture.
Prepare the soil a few months before you intend to plant. Plant the cloves during autumn — October even into early November — because garlic likes to come up and put a little growth on before the winter sets in. This ensures that it establishes its root system so that it can survive the winter ready to explode with growth in the spring. The bulb gets bigger until the heat of the summer kills off the leaves.
Plant the cloves 4 in. deep and 6 in. apart making sure that the root end is sitting on the bottom, mulching heavily to protect from sub-zero temperatures. Garlic likes a slightly moist but not wet soil; wet soil encourages disease such as fungus and blight, but too little moisture will cause the bulb to dry out and fail to expand. One way of determining the moisture content of the soil is to push your hand down into the root zone and feel the soil at that depth. If your hand comes out dry, it’s time to water; if it is muddy and the soil sticks to your hand, it’s too wet. In that situation, remove some of the mulch from around the plant; this will allow the soil dry out a little. Do not water during the week before you intend to harvest the crop, as it is easier to pull or dig out garlic from fairly dry soil than it is from wet soil, plus garlic will store better if it is not too wet.
There are few things in nature that give garlic problems because this plant kills or repels most insects, fungi, and many other predators that attack other plants. Therefore it isn’t necessary to give protection to the garlic like you would give to other more vulnerable crops.
You should remember that it is heat and sun that cause garlic to mature. A long cool spring will delay growth. Generally speaking, if you planted your cloves in October and you have one of the earlier maturing varieties and the weather has been warm, then by early June they should be ready to lift.
To make sure that you time the harvest correctly, you can dig down around a few plants to inspect the bulbs, but this exercise must be done with a great deal of care not to damage the roots. When they are ready make sure that they are removed from the ground without injuring the bulbs. If your soil is loose, you can gently pull them up by their necks, otherwise use a fork to gently loosen the surrounding soil by pushing it deeper than the bulbs and lifting with care. Once lifted, handle them carefully; never bang the bulbs together to shake off the soil. Take them out of the sun, as this will dry them out too quickly.
Garlic likes to dry gradually to allow excess moisture in the roots and leaves evaporate or withdraw into the bulb. Wait until the roots and necks are completely dried and emit no typical garlic odor when cut; that is the time to trim it. It often takes three or four weeks to get to that stage, longer for large bulbs. Following this you will store the garlic in a dry place out of the sun, but never put them into plastic bags or sealed containers.
The variety of fascinating and useful plants that can be grown in an edible garden is really unlimited. Get your garlic planted in the upcoming month!