“Garlic is such an easy crop to grow,” says Corrie Melanson of SunRoot Farm in Hants County, Nova Scotia. “It has minimal pest problems, it doesn’t take much work and it stores well. It’s also convenient because planting and harvesting happen when there isn’t too much other work to do in the garden.”
Growing great garlic
Growing garlic seems to be surrounded by rumour, lore and controversy. Ask garlic growers about their techniques and replies often start with “You have to…” I’ve been told countless times that I’m doing it wrong yet I consistently have high yields of huge tasty garlic. I’ve gleaned the following advice from several growers and tossed in lessons I’ve learned. One thing I do know about growing garlic is that there aren’t many hard and fast rules.
Start with seed garlic
Start by finding a source of disease-free ‘seed garlic.’ ‘Seed garlic’ simply means garlic that you intend to plant. Each clove will grow into a head of garlic the following year. Certified organic seed garlic is available from a few seed companies in Canada or you can plant garlic bought at your local farmers’ market. Hardneck (rather than softneck) varieties work best in much of Canada.
If you have to bring in new seed garlic, I recommend planting it at the edge of your garden. Monitor it closely and if it has premature yellowing, stunted growth or other unusual growth patterns, pull the plants and bury them deeply, far from the garden. Don’t plant garlic or other alliums (e.g. leeks, onions) in that area for many years afterwards: the few diseases which affect garlic can persist in the soil for many years.
Growing garlic seems to be surrounded by rumour, lore and controversy.
Garlic is an excellent companion plant for many vegetables, including tomatoes, lettuce, brassicas and beets. It often protects nearby plants from many pests and is said to enhance the flavour of some of its companions, such as tomatoes. However, garlic is not a good companion for potatoes or legumes. As with other crops, garlic benefits from crop rotation. A four-year rotation of alliums is sufficient, but a longer rotation is needed if you have experienced problems with pests or diseases in alliums.
Unless you have extremely cold winters (e.g. Zone 1 or Zone 2 with exposure to extreme windchill), garlic is best planted in the fall. It should grow roots but not emerge from the soil before going through winter dormancy. In the spring, often long before the soil is dry enough to work, the garlic greens will emerge from the soil. Aim to plant six weeks before the soil freezes. For much of Canada, garlic is planted from mid-September to mid-October. I confess that often, in mid-November or even early December, a forecast for snow has driven me to the garden with a bucket of garlic in hand. Even these late plantings have worked well for me, though it is much more comfortable (and probably more reliable) to plant earlier in the fall.
Garlic grows well in a range of soils, but prefers a well-drained soil with a neutral pH (6.5–7) and moderate fertility. I usually add compost to the soil before planting, or side-dress with compost in the spring. To control weeds before planting, you can solarize the soil by placing clear plastic over the prepared seedbed for several weeks before planting. Or, you can use stale seedbed cultivation by preparing the seedbed and cultivating at a shallow depth a few times before planting, one to two weeks apart. Both of these methods can, however, have a negative impact on soil quality and soil life. To plant, peel off the outer layer of skin that covers the whole bulb and pull the cloves apart. Keep the skin on the individual cloves. Plant the cloves with the pointed side up with an inch (2.5 cm) of soil covering the tops of the cloves. I plant the cloves six inches (15 cm) apart in raised beds.
Raised beds or raised rows give the crop better drainage and an advantage in the spring (particularly in clay or heavy soils) as the soil dries and warms up earlier. Some growers use dibbles (pointed sticks) to create planting holes. For bulk plantings, you can attach dibbles to a lawn roller; this can be then pulled across the field by hand or tractor.
The magic of mulch
One grower in Zone 5A, who wishes to remain nameless, told me how one year he didn’t find the time to mulch his garlic crop. That winter, 10,000 of the 13,000 cloves he planted were winterkilled. Ever since then, his garlic has spent the winter under a blanket of straw. I mulch garlic for many reasons. A layer of mulch insulates the soil from temperature fluctuations; if the garlic is subjected to freezethaw cycles over the winter, the cloves can rot or be pushed out of the ground by frost heave. In addition, mulch controls weeds, retains moisture and protects the soil from erosion.
Bulb: shaped like a lumpy teardrop with 4–15 cloves inside (depending on the variety). Bulbs are sometimes called ‘heads’ of garlic.
Clove: a segment of a bulb. Most recipes call for cloves, not heads.
Scape: garlic tops. As hardneck garlic matures, it produces a long stem. This eventually forms corkscrew-like curls at the top with bulbils developing in the tip.
Straw is an ideal mulching material because it has good insulating capacity (due to the air in the hollow stems), it often doesn’t contain weed seeds, and it adds organic matter to the soil as it decomposes. A layer of straw four to six inches (10–15 cm) deep is ideal, however, Sonia Stairs of Boundary Garlic in B.C. does not recommend straw “because it can host wheat curl mite which will attack garlic.”
Leaves can be used but sometimes they either blow away or mat together, thereby losing some of their insulative value. I have had success with a foot-deep layer of leaves held down (but not compressed) by thin branches spread overtop. Hay can also be used but it often contains weed seeds.
In the spring, if the weather is particularly cold and wet, many growers remove the mulch to let the soil warm up, and put the mulch back a few weeks later after weeding. This isn’t essential but it may help reduce the chance of rot and the extra warmth stimulates spring growth. “Garlic tells us when spring is here,” says Melanson. “It comes up when you’re so keen to see something green.” Harvesting green garlic, also called baby garlic or spring garlic, is a growing trend, where the plant is picked before the bulbs are fully developed. It is more similar to a scallion and used for similar culinary purposes. In highly fertile soils, the plants do not suffer any adverse consequences of leaving the scapes on.
If your garlic is mulched, you will only need to irrigate if you have a dry spring and early summer. Unmulched garlic will need to receive moisture weekly through most of the growing season, however avoid irrigation during the few weeks before harvest. Again, mulch will reduce or eliminate the need for weeding. However, if weeding is required, hand weeding and flame weeding work well.
In late June or early July, each hardneck garlic plant puts out a ‘scape,’ a long stem-like structure with a corkscrew curl at the top. If left untouched, these structures eventually form clusters of tiny garlic bulbs called bulbils. The theory is that if you leave these on, energy from the plant will go into the top and you’ll end up with maller bulbs. In busy years, I’ve left some scapes on and still had huge heads. After talking to many other growers and now that I’m gardening in a new location, it seems that removing scapes is often, but not always, essential. It appears (based on my own experience and that of growers I’ve interviewed) that in highly fertile soils, the plants do not suffer any adverse consequences of leaving the scapes on.
However, in soils with low to moderate fertility, plants with scapes produce smaller bulbs. Some growers insist that the scapes hould be cut only after the scape has curled twice; others cut at any time. The scapes can be cooked or sold at farmers’ markets.
Adventurous garlic growers can let the scapes mature and harvest the bulbils inside. These tiny garlic bulbs (ranging in size from that of a grain of rice to a chickpea) can be used to regenerate planting stock. Paul Pospisil of Maberly, Ontario, is conducting a nationwide research project on growing garlic from bulbils. For details on his project and instructions on using bulbils, see TCOG Winter 2010.
“I watch the plants and let them tell me when to harvest,” says organic farmer Larry Burkam. When he lived near Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, he usually harvested at the end of July. In cooler areas, the harvest might not take place until August. The plants are ready to harvest when the top two-thirds of the foliage has turned yellow and the bulbs have a papery skin. If you pick a few early, you’ll see how the immature skin is thick and succulent.
The ideal harvest day is a sunny day when the soil is quite dry. In loose soil, the bulbs can be simply pulled out of the ground; in heavier soil, they might need to be forked out. Take care not to bruise the bulbs. Paul Pospisil recommends that you “handle garlic like eggs.”
After harvest, the garlic needs to dry. Drying should take place inside in a well-ventilated location. Barn lofts work well, or a room with a fan. Burkam grew about 7,000 bulbs a year. To dry, he hung some in bunches but spread much of the garlic on racks made of old bedsprings stacked up like bunkbeds. A few weeks later, the tops and roots can be cut off and the garlic is ready to store in a dry place at 10–150C.
Although garlic is resistant to most common garden pests, a few diseases and pests, such as thrips, nematodes and garlic bulb mites, can affect the crop. In general, most pest problems can be avoided by using clean planting stock and crop rotation. Two serious pests are white rot and the leek moth.
White rot, a form of Sclerotium, produces a spotted white growth on the base of the bulbs. The rot often kills plants soon after infection. The most effective way to prevent problems from reoccurring is to destroy infected garlic and quarantine the area from all alliums for at least five years, ideally longer. White rot is particularly common in coastal B.C. Putting seed garlic in a hot water bath before planting may kill the white rot, however there is a risk that the process can also kill the bulbs.
The onion leafminer (the immature stage of the leek moth) is becoming a serious garlic pest in parts of Eastern Ontario and Quebec. The larvae tunnel through the leaves and scapes leaving plants stunted and vulnerable to damage by other pests and diseases. The moth can be controlled through crop rotation, removing infected plant residue, destroying the larvae, harvesting early and using floating row covers.
A quick and easy way to peel garlic is to smash the clove with the side of a large knife or smooth stone.
Cooking with garlic
When it’s time to cook dinner, I usually start by chopping garlic even before I know what I’m making. There aren’t many meals I cook without garlic. A quick and easy way to peel garlic is to smash the clove with the side of a large knife or smooth stone.
Garlic scapes can be steamed, grilled, pickled or stir-fried. Their flavour and texture is somewhat like that of a dense green bean, though with a slightly garlicky tang. In fact, they can be used as substitutes for green beans; I like to use them in a Salade Niçoise, or steamed and served with aioli (garlic mayonnaise), butter or a vinaigrette. I also make ‘dilly scapes’ when I’m putting up ‘dilly beans.’ To freeze scapes, chop them up and bag them: no blanching required. To make scape pesto, simply blend olive oil and scapes in a food processor. The pesto can be frozen for a mid-winter treat. Parmesan cheese, pine nuts or basil are wonderful additions.
I use raw garlic in many dishes, such as salad dressings, hummus and other dips, tzatziki, tabouli and aioli. Garlic is assertive when raw but the flavour becomes milder after cooking. For many meals that start by sautéing onions, I add garlic just before the onions are cooked. I’ll do this for spaghetti sauce, most soups, curries and much more. Garlic can also be tossed into a stirfry towards the end of the cooking and used in marinades.
For garlic that is more sweet than pungent, try roasting. Simply cut off the tip of an unpeeled bulb of garlic, brush with olive oil, and roast at 350OF for 40 minutes or so. For a special touch, sprinkle with coarse salt and a sprig of fresh rosemary. The garlic is ready when it is soft and oozes out when you squeeze a clove. This is delicious spread on a baguette. Individual cloves can also be roasted in a dry frying pan, letting each side blacken.
Garlic as medicine
“Garlic is super if you feel like you’re getting a cold,” says Jennifer Scott of Centre Burlington, Nova Scotia. At Red Fox Co-op, Scott grows organic garlic for food and medicine. She recommends garlic to lower blood pressure and boost the immune system. “For the effect on the immune system,” she says, “it’s important to take garlic in a raw unprocessed state. I chop it up into pill-size pieces and swallow these whole, as well as incorporate garlic into my diet.”
For people adverse to the flavour of garlic, she recommends making garlic honey by simply chopping several cloves “into small but not tiny pieces and stirring these into honey.”
Corrie Melanson says that she and the other members of SunRoot Co-op “use garlic daily when travelling overseas because it’s a great anti-parasitic agent.” “Garlic is the last thing to plant and the first thing that comes up in the spring. It marks the beginning and the end of the season,” says Melanson, “It really is one the easiest and most enjoyable crops to grow.”