Nothing compares to homegrown fresh garlic - growing your own supply and extras for friends and family is very gratifying. Growing for market will find never-ending demand.
How many bulbs?
How much garlic to plant is determined by how many bulbs you would like to harvest and how many plant-able cloves you will get per bulb of your variety of choice. For example, if you want to harvest 100 bulbs of a Porcelain variety (averages 4 large cloves), you will need about 25 bulbs. If you want to harvest 100 bulbs of a Purple Stripe variety (8 to 12 cloves, averages 8 large cloves) you will need about 13 bulbs. While you can plant every clove from each bulb, you will find that the larger cloves yield larger, more vigorous bulbs.
It may take several years for some varieties of new seed to fully adapt to your growing conditions. Selecting and replanting your own garlic each year will result in a crop that is more acclimatized to your local conditions.
In preparation for planting, crack your bulbs and separate your cloves no more than a couple of days before they will go in the ground. First, shuck off the loose outer bulb wrappers. Then use your thumb nail to slice remaining wrappers between each outer clove. At this point you should be able to begin separating cloves - use can use the stalk as leverage to help twist the bulb apart. Take care to not damage the cloves. Clove size is just as important as seed bulb size in determining the size of the bulb you will harvest; the bigger cloves will produce bigger bulbs. You can plant them all or sort out the smaller cloves for kitchen use.
Garlic does best in fertile, friable garden soils. Most garlic varieties are best planted in the fall. In our region (zone 2b), we plant between the last week of September until as late as the second week in October depending on fall temperatures and moisture levels. Ideally, the cloves are in the ground with enough time before freeze up to allow for root establishment without any shoots forming. Some Silverskin, Marbled Purple-Stripe and Creole varieties will produce a reasonable bulb when spring-planted but in our experience, without a period of winter dormancy, the results from spring planting are too variable to be relied upon. In Manitoba’s Parkland, a lot of spring-planted garlic results in undifferentiated rounds.
At Snoetic, we plant the cloves 6 inches apart in double or quadruple rows. In our double rows this translates to 4 plants per foot. Plant each clove with the growing tip up, 2 to 3 inches deep. How deep you plant will depend on how harsh your winters are and whether you intend to apply mulch. If you live in an area with poor snow cover or harsh winters, it is a good idea to protect your crop with a layer of mulch to avoid root damage from frost heaving the soils as winter sets in. You may want to pull back the mulch in the spring to allow the soil to warm and facilitate emergence of new shoots. Mulch can be used year round to conserve moisture and suppress weeds. Unfortunately it also provides habitat for rodents and some mulching materials introduce pesky seeds.
Provide your garlic crop with consistent and even moisture throughout its development until 2 to 3 weeks before harvest. Take care not to over water to avoid mould, rot and bulbs that do not store well. Mulches can help maintain moisture, protect the soil and suppress weeds but in areas of heavy summer rainfall, they may keep the soils and plants too wet.
Once the plants have reached their full height, hardneck varieties will produce a scape. A scape is a flower stalk which grows up the centre of the plant and droops over at the top or forms a few curls before ending in a flower umbel which will in time grow to form bulbils. For most varieties, removing the scape will allow the plant to direct more of its energy to bulb formation. To remove them, simply bend the stem until it snaps naturally similar to asparagus.
Garlic scapes are in fact a tasty culinary delight of their own. Scapes can be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge for months. As they age just snap the older bottoms off again (just like you would with asparagus) and use the crisper parts. They pickle well and can also be frozen without blanching. As they gain in popularity, an increasing number of recipes are being published in newsletters and online. Garlic Scape Pesto is a favourite one of ours.
If you wish to develop the bulbils for replanting, simple leave the scape to grow in the field until harvest. It will straighten up tall, flower and then, in some cases, develop wild demonstrations of bulbils. During harvest, remove the scapes and set them to dry separately from the bulbs.
As harvest time approaches, the leaves will begin to brown and dry starting with the leaves closest to the ground. As the crop approaches maturity, you should stop irrigating and this will promote drying down and curing of the bulb. We harvest our bulbs when two thirds of the total leaves are still green. If you aren’t sure whether your garlic is ready for harvest, carefully uncover a couple of bulbs to check the state of the bulb wrappers and the size of the cloves and bulb. Every green leaf on the top of the plant indicates one intact wrapper remaining to protect the bulb.
Most of our garlic is carefully hand-harvested using a garden fork. We step the fork into the ground six to eight inches away from the bulb and pry back to loosen the ground. Bulbs are then easily lifted out and the soil is brushed off of the bulb and roots. Take care not to bruise your bulbs or expose them to direct sunlight. Harvested bulbs should be placed in the shade until they can be taken inside.
Providing optimal curing conditions is equally important as providing suitable storage conditions; improperly cured garlic is more vulnerable to moulds and fungi, simplistic in flavour and unlikely to store for long. Leave the tops and roots on, bundle your garlic in groups of 5 and hang them in a warm, dry, covered location with adequate ventilation.
The length of the curing process will depend on your climate and may range between 2 and 4 weeks. When the bulbs are ready, the roots, stalks and inner clove wrappers will be dry. Cut the stalk about an inch above where it meets the bulb and trim the roots. We use secateurs for the former and kitchen scissors for the latter. Pack cured bulbs into mesh bags or boxes or crates with air holes.
How long and how well garlic bulbs store is dependent on the cultivar, growing conditions and storage conditions. Turban and Rocambole varieties are the shortest lived of the garlics lasting only a few months while Purple Stripe types can last as long as 8 months and Silverskin and Creole can last up to 12 months. Store your garlic in a mesh bag between 10 and 15°C and at a relative humidity of 50 to 60%.