In case you haven’t had the pleasure of growing your own garlic yet, I’m going to de-mystify the basic process, right here. Even if your growing space is small, you can squeeze in a little bed and enjoy this beautiful process for yourself.
It starts in the Fall. Down here, some of our friends plant their garlic in mid-September. We’ve waited as late as early-mid November and still had a good crop. Garlic is an ancient crop (6,000 years or so) that has grown in many temperate places all around the world. It is hardy, flexible and forgiving.
We grow two kinds of garlic – one hardneck named “Music”, and one softneck named “Siciliano”. Hardneck and softneck are apt descriptions. Hardneck is the older type of garlic. As advertised, it has a hard “neck” or stalk around which the bulbs form. The neck becomes a beautiful shoot in the springtime and makes a tasty little swan curve with a bulb at the end, called a scape. It is a seasonal delicacy. If the scape is left on the plant, it will firm up and make seeds. We want the garlic to make a bulb, not seed, so we cut the scape off while it’s still nice and tender, and bring it to market, or pickle it. (More about this in the Spring). Softnecks are a more recent development in the garlic world. They don’t make scapes, and they have a softer “neck” which makes them easy to braid, which is a lovely way to store and display the harvest. Some softnecks make lots and lots of tiny little bulbs. We like Siciliano because it makes less bulbs and bigger ones.
We pop the bulbs apart and separate out the best cloves. Each clove will (hopefully) make a new bulb. Watch for signs of deterioration on the clove. We don’t plant the ones that are funky. We also avoid cloves that are doubled in one wrapper. They can both sprout and yield two small bulbs, which, in our opinion, is not as nice as one big bulb.
Work up a piece of ground. Ideally, that ground will be well drained and fertile, in full sun, with a nice layer of mature compost worked into it. Note, I said that this is “ideal”. We have grown our garlic in the bottom land, where the soil is much less than well drained and the sun less than “full”. And the garlic was OK. It’s better when we grow it up on the hill, so that’s what we try to do.
At our place, we lay out our rows on a string, then use a fresh cut measuring stick to keep our spacing even as we move down the row. This year we mislaid our usually spools of row line and adapted by pulling out the fishing pole and finally putting it to use. Do whatever works for you!
The papery, pointed top sticks up.
We push our cloves into the ground an inch or so deep, about 9 inches apart. You could crowd them closer, or space them further, depending on your spacial needs. You can plant it deeper, but ideally, you will be mulching it almost immediately, so you don’t have to go too deep. Sometimes I leave a bit of the tip out of the ground, just so I can have a visual on how the row is coming along (that is to say, whether I’m traveling in a straight line).
When the bed, or row, is planted, it’s time to mulch.
Our friend Eric likes to say, “knee deep and fluffy” about mulch. He and Cher grow some really excellent garlic. He’s right, I’m sure. However, to be honest, we don’t always have that much mulch hanging around at the end of the season, so we don’t always live up to those guidelines. Nevertheless, we cover our garlic well. It is satisfying to see it there, tucked in for the winter.
There’s so much to do in a big garden, all the time. But one of our jobs is also to wait. The cloves should sprout and emerge before Winter really intensifies, so we’ll be waiting for that next.
The subsequent installments of this post will be published as the garlic growing season progresses. Watch for them!