On garlic

This is what happens when I run out of something important like garlic before I think I will: an overharvest. Crazy but this isn’t even all of it. This stuff cures in the dark in the tractor shed on these old window screens for about a week before I either braid it or cut the hardneck stalks and roots off.

This is the time of year that fall-planted garlic is harvested. Having been a crazy garlic experimenter, and having a husband who thinks all produce is edible only IF it is stiff with garlic and salt, to say this is a banner year for Allium sativum is an understatement. We are swimming in the stuff now.

It has taken me a few years of growing it to really understand garlic’s needs. Let me just say I do not have the expectation of having enormous heads of garlic, with beautiful huge cloves, in my harvest. I expect to get bulbs about 75% of the monstrous tasteless things commonly available. (Small packages of power is what I want!) For the most part, garlic is reproduced vegetatively: the parent plant produces clones of self-sufficient cloves that become separate heads with time. Each clove has two leaf shoots in it, as you might have seen if you had some that got sprouty. And in instances of extreme stress, garlic occasionally produces seeds. I am not aware if these seeds are likewise clones of the parent, or if they are separate varieties (think apples: seeds of a Granny Smith apple will not be Granny Smith trees). I have only planted cloves and bulbils (of which more later).

This older head shows how garlic eventually divides.

There are two distinct types, softneck and hardneck garlic. The major difference between the two is storage ability. Softnecks tend to last much longer, and are in the main the sulfurous stinkbombs you buy at the grocery store. Their cloves tend to be small and hard to peel. Hardneck garlic, or rocambole, is characterized by larger, easier-peeled cloves, and a much shorter shelflife. I also think they are lots more tasty. It’s the rocambole (hardneck) garlic that has that lovely garlic scape: the thin leafless flower stalk that is a spring wonder in fresh cooking. At the end of the stalk, or sometimes in the middle of the neck, little cloves can sometimes be found. These are called bulbils. They are also edible, though getting the skins off cloves the size of peas is not what I call a fun task.

Anyway, the experimentation: I have mentioned that I tend to let certain garlic plants “naturalize” in an unobtrusive part of the garden. A couple of years back, I set some sprouty garlic in the tomato and root veg beds so I can use their greens. These greens happen for a long time, and are often the first to shoot up in the spring, so they are quite welcome. I also pull green garlic at will from this pile. After a couple of years, though, I tend to rework entire beds, and this year I pulled up a clump to see what was happening. This is what happens if you let 3 garlic sprouts stay in the ground for almost three seasons:

Bulbils are another experiment I have tried. Do you plant onion sets? It’s the same concept: the little set onions are 2nd year onions that were not allowed to get large their first season (they’re not thinned so they don’t get big. You can do this too with your onion seed.). You may not have ready access to these bulbils, but like the sprouts, they will take more than one season to get large. I planted these babies in a row last fall (planted about 1/2″ apart) when I planted the regular garlic. I have pulled them up, am now curing them, and I will soon fool them by cleaning off their dirt, roots, and dried greens and sticking them in a paper bag in the fridge for a while. I will then plant them back in the greenhouse beds in early September at the proper distance apart (5-6″). We’ll see what happens next: I am hoping it is warm enough in there that they can be harvested in early spring, like my last batch.

Softneck candidates for naturalizing, left, and bulbils, center. Right: Bulbils after one season. Next year they’ll be normal sized.

And then the regular, fall-planted garlic. I stretch that window by planting a big huge batch in late October, but I continue to plant cloves as I get them. I planted a lot around Jan. 1st in the greenhouse from some garlic I got at my co-op. This is still in the greenhouse and I should harvest it soon-ish (no rush). I also planted the same garlic in the outdoor beds at the beginning of May: this stuff is just now producing scapes, so it has about another month in the dirt before I can harvest it. Then there is the regular expensive garlic I purchased a couple of years back from Filaree: I haven’t been too happy with the results of all of it. Taste-wise, sure, but dang nothing got terribly large, so this year I need to eat it all and then select only the super producers to plant this fall. But you want to know the best, biggest garlic I planted? Stuff I got at the Union Square farmers’ market in NYC late last fall. It’s a German rocambole. HUGE!! (You should have seen how my suitcase smelled coming back from that trip.)

So: in summation. If you are willing, you need not only plant garlic at one time in the autumn. A many-pronged approach works well with all of the Allium family. By doing this, you relieve yourself of the worry of one bad event wiping out your entire crop (as happened to me last wet August with many of my second planting of onions). Plus, it’s fun to see what happens!

14 responses to “On garlic

  1. Beautiful garlic! What varieties do you have? I have some soft, some hard. We really like Nootka Rose here and it keeps so well I never come up short. I’ve also had pretty good luck with Susanville. Hardnecks are Metechi and the Chesnok Red.

  2. I’ve made lame attempts at planting store bought garlic before but this is my first year to order a lot to plant properly. So timely information for me! I especially found the part about the bulbils helpful. Thank you – great post.

  3. Wow – loved the post; loved the garlic! I guess you won’t have to worry about vampires at hour house!

  4. Your problem with Filaree garlic may be that the hot dry climate that is grows (east central Washington) in is just too different for yours. Local is best, even when it come to garlic!

  5. Eva, do you have recommendations for varieties that do well in Washington? I’m on the Northwest side of the Cascades and want to try planting some this fall.

  6. Bulbils! So cute and unknown to me.
    Makes me want to sing…
    “Abdulla Bulbil Ameer.”

  7. Thank you, Thank you. We eat garlic around here as a vegetable – your husband would be happy at dinner, but I’ve never bee terribly successful at planting and havn’t tried in years.

    I’d be lost without it and suspect it would grow well here. So, I’m happy to learn more about growing garlic and the diffferent varieties.

  8. What a great post about managing expectations! I have found that my garlic doesn’t reach the monstrous proportions of the grocery store garlic either. But it is much more flavorful and precious.

    Robin Wedewer
    Gardening Examiner

  9. So I guess this means it’s time to harvest mine? I planted some last fall and it looks about like yours does now (the above ground part is a mix of brown and green leaves).

  10. Hi Marcy: I had to look but was rather unsuccessful finding the varieties. I am sure it’s in my paperwork somewhere! The batch I got from Filaree (and this is my problem: I probably should have been more specific, but went with a sampler pack) is an artichoke, two rocamboles and a silverskin. The wildlings are both softneck and hardneck. The stuff from my co-op is a Russian red stripe, the stuff from NYC is German red stripe. I ran out because I didn’t grow enough softneck, and I barely made ANY garlic soup! sniff!!! Not this year though heh heh

    You’re welcome, Lewru. I just think the stuff you grow yourself is much more tasty and fresh (even if it is months old).

    Mrs. Greenhands, yes indeed. We do adore the stinky clove. I had also scattered the wildlings around to scare off vampiric bugs (I do the same with onions). Not sure if it works or not as some years are buggy some not.

    Eva, you are so right. That’s why the NYC stuff grows better: their climate is just like ours. But I do think my tough soil has something to do with it too. The stuff grew great in that greenhouse of ours (lighter soil usually).

    Laura, yeah, check out Filaree. Even if my stuff wasn’t stellar it was because I cheaped out and got the package deal. If you call them they can help you too. Their website has gotten a lot more specific since the time I bought mine 4 years ago.

    CC, you never cease to crack me up!! Such little pearls you drop (or should I say bulbils).

    Yeah, Verde, I think this is one of those veggies that you can either just live with by getting it at the store and live your life just fine, or you can try your hand at growing the proper varieties (or not even, as in my case) and really step into another world. A subtler world maybe…you know, the onion family is kind of like that. I harvested some shallots yesterday and dang what lovely little things minced in the salad dressing.

    Hi Robin! I do believe one really shouldn’t hold grocery store sizes in one’s head once one starts veg gardening. For years I shopped at a co-op in Minneapolis and never ducked into a regular grocery store, but when I did I was shocked to see a display of colored bell peppers that were the size of small footballs. Who can grow things that big? And why? All water, little flavor. But somehow we expect garlic to be the same jumbo size. Some of mine is, I will admit that, but most is smaller, and I am fine with that 🙂

    Hi Rob, yep, when the lower 6 leaves or so begin to yellow up, it is time to take a peek and see how they’re growing. If they’re softnecks they sometimes fall over when they’re big enough, but actually you have waited too long: the greens have died and the plant is rapidly dividing into different bulbs now. It’s actually best to get them before that while the skins are still tight to the bulb. And if you get it too early that is okay too; just plant a whole heck of a lot more next year if you think your harvest is small!!!

  11. Wonderful post! Thank you for the tutorial, I’ll use this information soon!

  12. I’ve been meaning to say thanks for this; you answered every question I had and then some.

  13. I planted garlic last year in february ( Somerset England ) and because of the wet summer they prodoced no cloves. They are now ( april 2009 ) over a foot high with big leaves but the one I pulled to check just looked like a small leek, it was chopped up and put in some cooking and also in olive oil, the flavour is good.
    Will these plants produce cloves this year or do I give up with them and use green garlic.
    I never had this happen before.

    • Hi Somerset. That sounds like green garlic to me (i.e., what it does before it forms a bulb of cloves) so I would say hang tight! You’ll get garlic soon. I consider green garlic (the leeky thing you described) to be a fleeting, heavenly treat so use what you wish now but in July you’ll probably have just regular cloves. You’ll probably get scapes (the curly blossom thingies) before then in June; snap these off (and eat them like chives) to give the bulbs more energy to head up. Most garlic is “finished” by the time it gets 9 or 10 real leaves so I would count them now…you might only have 7 or 8. Good luck!

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