how to grow garlic, part two

(It’s been a little quiet here at Radical Farmwives.  Robin is out of state and Cher is having internet interruptions, not to mention the fullness of the growing season upon us.  I’m taking the opportunity to follow up from last Fall’s post, How to Grow Garlic, Part One.  And I hope we will all be back to our regular schedule soon!)

It happens as summer begins it’s full glory, usually around the time of our neighbor’s amazing, long standing traditional Solstice Party.  Things get fiery – it must be time to harvest the garlic.  solstice

We watched it all winter.  The sprouts emerged and gained a little height before the deep cold set in, and then they sat there.  And we waited.

In Spring, if you mulched well, there’s not much to do with a garlic bed except harvest scapes.  If you’re into that sort of thing, you could do some aerial fertilizing with compost tea or the like.

this was back in April. nice.

this was back in April. nice.

And watch for weeds.  A biologically active soil eats mulch.  So, as the soil warms and comes to life, the mulch will thin, the sun may be able to reach the soil, and seeds will sprout.  It’s in the best interest of the garlic grower to keep the weeds at bay.

This year, we had a lot of galinsoga in the garlic patch, as well as some pernicious poke weed.  Galinsoga goes from seedling to full blown flowering adult in about 3 days, but at least it’s easy to pull.  We did what we could do between rains and other work, but the patch still looked a mess by the time we got up the hill to pull the garlic.  It’s painful to be honest about that – but I’m doing it anyway.garlic patch

There have been years, when our soil was particularly soft and the mulch just right, that we could pull the hardneck garlic varieties by hand with a gentle tug.  Softneck varieties don’t hold up so well to that treatment.  For the most part we use a digging fork or a trowel.  This year, we also engaged the helping hands of a nine and a four year old, to help rub the soil out of the roots of each bulb as it emerged.  They were proud to get dirty for the good cause, and they slept well that night (but not on the garlic wagon).garlic patch 2

Ideally, we want to see a couple of decent looking leaves still standing on the stalk when the garlic is harvested.  Each leaf is an extension of one of the sheathes around the bulb underground.  Keeping those wrapping layers intact is important to the storage life, and beauty, of the bulb.

Good handling is also important.  We handle our bulbs with care – never tossing them onto the ground, into the wagon, or into baskets.  They can bruise, and then, they can rot.

Once all the bulbs are out of the ground, with the dirt rubbed out of their roots, they need to cure and be stored.  Like many a small homestead, our storage facilities are lacking.  It’s intensely humid in our hollow and we do not have any climate controlled space, at all.  Ideally, we would be curing garlic in a shady but not necessarily dark, cool but not really cold, location with low humidity.  Needless to say – that’s just not happening here.

We have learned that good air circulation and shade are our best bets for successfully curing the garlic.  Some experts claim that keeping the bulbs attached to the stalk, with the roots removed, is the best.  We cut off the roots, but we also cut the stalks on the hardnecks, just to make storage a little more smooth.  Softnecks can be braided, which is a beautiful way to store them.  It also makes for an enjoyable afternoon in the shade on a hot day.braided garlic 2

Whatever your storage capabilities – it is important to care for your garlic harvest in an expedient manner.  One year, our timing was poor.  It was raining and we left our garlic piled on the wagon under a tarp for a day or two while we took care of other things that seemed more important.  It was a horrible mistake.  When we peeled back the tarp, the garlic was a damp, dirty mess – really gross.  Not a total loss, but far from ideal.

It is a deeply satisfying process to see the garlic put up for the season.  We handle each bulb, trimming off the roots, feeling their bulbs for any damaged cloves, and separating out the largest and most perfect ones to plant again in the Fall.

Our garlic hangs in the rafters of our tractor shed.  It cures well enough there, where the sun never shines but the wind does blow, and will keep there for the heat of the summer.  As temperatures begin to really dive at the end of the growing season, we will bring it indoors and hang what remains of it upstairs, where it is slightly too warm (being better than slightly too cold) but at least the air is a little more dry.  Any bulbs showing signs of deterioration will be plucked from their bags or braids and used immediately.  Bulbs damaged in harvest, or deemed too small to share are also held separately and used up first thing.hanging garlic

All this said, you might like to know that you can just wing it too.  One local gardener recently told me that she grew garlic but only harvested when it suited her.  She just let it grow and multiply underground, digging out what she needed from time to time.  No curing, no storage, no sorting for seed.  Pure home gardening. (We love our garlic braids too much to go that route just yet.)

Garlic is an amazing plant.  As medicine, as food, as experience with the living world, it is well worth growing your own. braided garlic

(For more technical and cultural information about garlic, please see Growing Great Garlic by Ron L. Engelland.)

a confession

i just mulched my garlic. today. the last day of november. golly. i tried to be happy for my friends and fellow farmers when each duly noted their garlic crop was planted and covered. over and over again each joyfully finished the project and there i was with this gnawing feeling “robin, you gotta get out there and get ‘er done” yikes. this went on for weeks.


planting and mulching the garlic is the last big job of the growing season around here. depending on a number of factors in any given year, this can happen flawlessly or, hmmm, not so. this year we planted our garlic on time. a beautiful series of october days allowed us to complete this process fairly flawlessly. and then other projects jumped in and took hold and that garlic remained uncovered.


i spent most days from october 21st through november 21st more or less glued to my computer screen. it was my  indiegogo crowd funding campaign after all, and i was on it and in it for most of my waking hours.(another confession, many of my middle of the night hours as well…)in the wee hours of that final friday night, the moments just before our final delivery of the csa season, i reached my funding goal and the campaign ended a success, just like that. i was exhausted and thrilled and shocked and amazed at the process and most of all, i was ready to head outdoors!


the holiday week was full of delight and so it came to pass that just yesterday i made it to the garlic patch. just me and my youngest mulcher. the weather was pre storm balmy, the kind of november weather in kentucky that alerts you to the storm. but the sky moved and my buddy and i spread bale after bale of our neighbor’s oat straw. i was jubilant actually. it felt great to finally complete this job. it was rejuvenating to be back in the fields one last time before winter really sets in.


now, i am truly ready for the rain. today, i would welcome even sleet or snow. i am so thankful for completion: of the garlic, of the CSA season, of the crowd funding campaign. all of it. the final push for the 2014 season was a grand one for me, full of late nights and lofty goals.  now, completely ready to embrace the winter months,  i want to share with you all my deepest gratitude. i hope each of you is as cozy as hill and hollow farm’s garlic as december arrives!