Everyone knows what garlic is, but how many people actually grow it? I know my father tried for years before giving up in despair. Every spring he’d select a particularly nice bulb from those he’d bought, divide it into cloves, and carefully plant them in beautifully prepared soil only to be disappointed come harvest time, when he would discover that the clove had barely grown to be a single, slightly larger bulb.
After some study, and a few attempts myself, I found out he had two problems: first and most serious was that he was planting in the spring; second was that he used a commercial bulb from California adapted to a far different climate and growing schedule, and it simply didn’t respond to his Vermont climate.
Fall-planted at the same time as tulips, garlic is easily grown; you don’t want them to break ground until spring. There are myriad cultivars of garlic, but they fall into two broad categories: soft neck and hard neck. For the very best results, try to find a cultivar adapted to your region; they are available from mail order merchants (or neighbors). Since garlic is propagated by planting cloves, not seeds, once you have a strain you like, just save some of the cloves each year for replanting.
Gently break apart the cloves that comprise the garlic bulb and press them, blunt root sided down, into the soil until the tapered tip is even with the soil surface. Spacing should be about eight inches each way in an intensive bed. It’s a good idea to mulch the garlic bed to moderate the freeze-thaw cycle if you are in a cold area. Come spring, restore the mulch (if any) or cultivate, because garlic does not compete well with weeds.
In recent years, a new (organic) fertilizer has come on the market that makes growing great garlic easier. Corn gluten meal (CGM) is a byproduct of the corn processing industry, and it has two characteristics that make it ideal for helping you get a good garlic harvest. First, it has an N-P-K rating of 10-0-0; second it has an herbicidal effect on annual weeds. Both of these characteristics are useful.
To make the best use of CGM, cultivate your garlic bed as soon as the soil can be worked in spring, and apply the CGM granules according to the label directions. If you want to mulch the bed, do so right after applying the CGM. It will break down over the next month or so, retarding the growth of annual weeds, and releasing nitrogen to the garlic during the spring, when it is needed.
Harvest your garlic once the tops have died down in mid-summer. With softneck types this is straightforward, but you will notice, if growing hard neck types, that they grow and long, curved shaft in early summer called a scape. Most gardeners cut this scape off at its base once it reaches a foot or so long so that the plant concentrates its energy of the bulbs below. Don’t toss them on the compost pile, though…there are many great recipes that involve garlic scapes and they are a valuable commodity at most farmers markets!
As with onions and shallots, garlic should be pulled up at the start of a dry spell and allowed to dry in the sun a day or two before being moved to a dry dark place for another week of curing. We use screens set on cinder blocks in the garage. Soft neck type can then be brushed off and braided by the tops; hard neck type should be cut just above the top of the bulb, and stored in mesh bags in a cool dry place. Remember to save the best heads for replanting a few months later!