Food Garden: Garlic

Food Garden: Garlic

Garlic isn’t hard to grow. Growing garlic plants is almost ridiculously easy. It has a few important requirements that are easily met: decent soil, adequate moisture, and, of course, planting and harvesting at the right time.

When is the right time for planting garlic? Plant garlic four to six weeks before the ground freezes in your area. You can fudge the planting time a little. I have planted as early as September (by mistake) and as late as Thanksgiving (to experiment) and have had decent crops. Roots will start to grow soon after you plant. You aim to get good root development before the plants go dormant. Green shoots may appear in the fall, which is fine.


Which type of Garlic?

If you look in a specialist catalog, you'll find dozens of varieties, but for general purposes, the most important difference is between softneck and hardneck.

Softnecks get their name because the whole green plant dies down, leaving nothing but the bulb and flexible stems that are easy to braid. Hardnecks have a stiff stem in the centre that terminates in a beautiful flower — or cluster of little bulbs — and then dries to a rigid stick that makes braiding impossible.

Softnecks, standard in grocery stores, are the easiest to grow in mild regions. They keep longer than hardnecks, but they're less hardy and produce small, strong-flavoured cloves. Hardnecks do best where there's a real winter since they're more vulnerable to splitting — or simply refusing to produce — in warm climates.

Gardeners in most of the U.S. can try some of both. Specialty sellers will suggest best bets based on your climate and tastes (check out your gardening zones here). It's also wise to get some seed stock from your local farmer's' market. 


When to grow garlic?

Grow your garlic in full sun - garlic needs to grow quickly to produce good-sized bulbs. Pick a site that is not prone to water-logging, this will ensure the bulbs do not rot over winter.

Garlic is very well suited to growing in raised beds as the higher-yielding over winter varieties won't suffer from waterlogging in a wet Winter.


Plant the garlic

To plant, place the cloves 4 inches apart in a furrow. Hold each clove pointed end up, and push it into the soil about 2 inches deep. After all the cloves are in the ground, smooth the soil surface using your fingers or a rake to fill in the holes, and water well. If you’re planting more than one variety, be sure to label each one clearly. Make a map of planting, in case the labels go astray. Wait to mulch for a month or more after planting to give the soil a chance to cool down. When it’s leaf-raking season, put several inches of chopped leaves over the bed.


When to harvest?

You will know when to harvest garlic when most of the leaves have turned brown. This usually occurs in mid-July to early August, depending on your climate. At this time you may dig the bulbs up, being careful not to bruise them. If the bulbs are left in the ground too long, they may separate and will not store well. Lay the garlic plants out to dry for 2 or 3 weeks in a shady area with good air circulation. Be sure to bring the garlic plants in if rain is forecasted for your area. When the roots feel brittle and dry, rub them off, along with any loose dirt. Do not get the bulbs wet or break them apart, or the plants won't last as long.

Either tie the garlic in bunches, braid the leaves, or cut the stem a few inches above the bulb. Hang the braids and bunches or store the loose bulbs on screens or slatted shelves in a cool, airy location. You may want to set aside some of the largest bulbs for replanting in the fall.

During the winter months, you should check your stored garlic bulbs often, and promptly use any that show signs of sprouting.

Each set (bulb) is made up of several sections called cloves, held together by a thin, papery covering. Before planting, break cloves apart.


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