Whenever I mention growing garlic, I encounter people who tell me “you can’t grow garlic up here.” What? I’ve grown garlic successfully now for two years (can’t say as much for onions and leeks)! After conversations with folks, though, I think I have discovered the answer: timing.
Garlic is something you plant in the fall. Don’t try planting it in the spring with your seeds and transplants. You may get lovely stalks, but you won’t get bulbs. Once you discover this, you’ll find growing garlic is a cinch.
First, find some good bulbs. Around these parts, you probably should stick to hardneck garlic. The stuff you buy in the grocery store is softneck garlic, and it is comprised of a bulb that is clove after clove right down to the center (and it probably comes from China or India). Hardneck, on the other hand, has a hard stem in the center which is surrounded by six to twelve cloves, depending on the variety. You don’t get as many cloves, but you get something that is hardier and grows well in our northern climate.
You can purchase garlic from many gardening/seed catalogues. If you place your garlic order in February with your seed order, don’t expect it to arrive with your seeds. Any company worth its salt will not ship garlic until the fall.
I discovered, however, that catalogue garlic is really expensive. For a mere fraction of the cost, you can go to a garlic festival (like the one in Sharon Springs, which I just found out is cancelled this year) to purchase bulbs. This is what I did last year. The comparison is amazing. Catalogue garlic: get about 20 cloves, pay over $20. Garlic Fest garlic: get 100 cloves, pay about $8. It’s well worth the trip to a festival. The nearest garlic festival I could find this year is probably the Mohawk Valley Garlic and Herb Festival in Mohawk on 12 September, 10:00 AM – 5:00 PM.
Once you have your garlic, wait until October to plant. The later the better. You’ll want to prep your bed, removing weeds, adding compost, etc. When the day arrives to plant, you’ll want to be ready, so have your bulbs sorted – choose only the largest bulbs and the largest cloves.
It’s planting day. Separate the bulbs into individual cloves. Press each one about two inches into your soil (with the pointy end of the clove upwards) and cover with soil. Space them three or so inches apart. When you have the bed filled, cover it with about six inches of grass clippings – good mulch. Last year I used leaves and I don’t think they worked as well. For one thing, they decomposed and blew away a lot more readily than grass clippings will.
Do not panic if you start to see green shoots poking out of the mulch before the snow flies. This is normal.
Next spring, the shoots will grow (or continue to grow). Just let them do their thing, making sure the soil stays evenly moist (but don’t over-water). Garlic is pretty low maintenance. As summer progresses, the tips of the stalks will loop around a couple of times and develop swellings at the end. These are called garlic scapes and they are quite attractive. They are also edible and are considered a gourmet item, but I I found I couldn’t give ’em away this year! No one wanted to even try them. You can steam them and serve with melted butter like asparagus, or you can cook them in a stir fry; I’m sure the internet is full of recipes just waiting to be tried. I’ve even read you can store scapes in a plastic bag in the fridge for up to three months. If you don’t plan to eat them, however, be sure to pinch them off. Otherwise, they will develop into bulbils, tiny bulbs, taking energy away from the main bulb underground. You want the plant to put its energy into the main bulb, so eliminate all competitors.
Sometime around mid-July, the stalks will start to turn brown. When the bottom three or four leaves are brown, but the leaves at the top are still green, it is time to harvest your garlic. You will want to stop watering a few weeks before this – this will make your garlic better for storage.
Pull up your garlic gently and by hand. You want to be careful not to bruise the bulbs, and don’t leave them in the sun. Trim the roots, and gently brush off the soil. Then you you need to place them in a well-ventilated, but out of the sun location to cure. Curing takes about two weeks and hardens the bulbs up for storage. After curing you can trim the stems and move the garlic into storage. Hardneck garlic doesn’t braid well, thanks to those hard stems. So, instead of long decorative braids, I cut the stems short and stick the bulbs in old onion bags I’ve scrounged from friends.
Never store your garlic in the fridge. Room temperature is good, or in a root cellar where temps are about 32-35 degrees Fahrenheit. Low humidity is also a plus. A fridge is simply too warm and may cause your garlic to sprout prematurely.
Garlic has a history that stretches back more than 5000 years. Coming to us from central Asia, this bulb is full of good stuff that our bodies need. You don’t have to go overboard like me and plant a couple hundred cloves, but everyone with a small garden should at least give it a try.