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Growing Garlic

Fall is coming, and now is the perfect time to think about cool weather planting.  One of the hardy mainstays in the garden is garlic.  Garlic is a member of the Allium (onion) family, and as such, it is a perennial.  It is a popular seasoning in food, has beneficial health properties to help fend off illness and infection, and has a reputation for helping to ward off unwanted insects in the garden—all the more reason to add it to your gardening repertoire.

Types Of Garlic

There are two main types of garlic: soft-neck varieties and hard-neck varieties.

Soft-neck varieties die back all the way to the bulb, leaving dead greenery that can be easily braided.  Soft-neck garlic tends to keep longer in storage than hard-neck varieties, but it is not as hardy; when put under stress, they are more likely to produce smaller, more potent cloves.

Hard-neck varieties die back leaving a rigid stem that cannot be braided.  They do not keep as well as soft-neck varieties; however, they can handle colder winters far better than soft-necks.  They tend to like cooler weather; if temperatures get too warm, especially for an extended period of time, they are prone to splitting or simply not reproducing.

Keep these two types of garlic in mind as you decide what type is the best for your situation.

What To Plant

Garlic bulbs can be purchased and used for your first planting.  You may simply use fresh garlic bulbs purchased for culinary use (these are typically soft-neck variety), or go to a gardening center and purchase garlic bulbs marketed for planting. You will get far more choices to choose from if you go to a gardening center or get your hands on a catalog or online website selling garlic cloves.  Farmer’s markets are another option and a good bet since what the farmers are selling is (usually) what they have been growing in the area.

It is recommended that you try a few different varieties and keep and propagate the largest bulbs of the variety that does best in your particular soil.  In addition, how soon you plan to use your garlic will have some bearing on what garlic variety you will choose and how much of it you will plant.  Generally, pure white varieties will produce more garlic that does not have a long keeping time, whereas varieties with a pinkish skin tend to mature later and be of better keeping quality.

Garlic grows up to two feet high, and if allowed to grow from year to year, it will grow sets at the tops of the leaves called “top sets.”  You may choose to remove these top sets and use them to propagate your garlic bed from year to year.

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Once you have your garlic bulbs or sets, you will want to separate them into the individual cloves of garlic. Leave the skin on. These cloves are what you will be planting.

When To Plant

The most common time to plant garlic is in the fall, usually mid-October, or four weeks before your area’s typical first frost.  An alternative time to plant (especially if you live in the northern states and have particularly bad winters) is in the spring, but the plants do not yield quite as well.

Where And How To Plant

Since it is a bulbing plant, garlic benefits from loose soil with plenty of organic matter incorporated into it.  Since it is a perennial, you may choose to put it alongside other perennials and simply harvest as it is needed, or you may choose to plant it with your annual garden crops, harvest, and have the option of planting elsewhere for the next season.

Choose an area that receives full sun.  Plant each clove two inches deep and approximately three to six inches apart, being sure to plant root end down.  Mulching around the plants once they begin to show green tips peeking out of the soil is beneficial, helping both to protect the plants from harsh weather and to ensure a consistent amount of moisture to the plants.

When And How To Harvest

The typical time to harvest fall-planted garlic is around mid-June.  By this time, the long leaves of the garlic plants should have fallen over and begun to dry. If your garlic seems to be growing well past this time, you may need to bend them over yourself, as their falling over helps to tell the plant it is time to slow down on the growth of the greenery and to focus on maturation of the bulbs.

Once the tops are dry (or nearly so), your garlic should be ready to pull.  You don’t have to wait for the tops to be completely dried—pull one when you think it might be time, and check out the bulbs and see if they appear to be ready.  You can eat the garlic at any point of growth, but if you are planning on storing it, you will want the foliage to be on the drier side.  You may need a digging fork or trowel to help loosen and pull the matured garlic cloves from the soil, especially if you wish to keep the garlic bulbs connected to the foliage.

If you have a large quantity of garlic, you will want to cure the bulbs before storing them.  Stack the pulled garlic cloves with the tops covering the cloves, protecting them from direct sunlight, or place them in an airy place out of direct sun.  Once the bulbs are sufficiently dry, the tops and roots may be cut to about 1/2 inch and stored in a cool, dry place. Optimal conditions for storing garlic long-term are 32 degrees F and a humidity level of 65 percent.

Alternatively, if your garlic is of a soft-neck variety, garlic with tops still attached can be braided or simply gathered and tied, and then hung in a cool, well-ventilated room to dry and store.

Garlic is easy to grow, it can add a lot of flavor to your cooking, and it has many health benefits.  Consider adding it to your garden this fall, and enjoy the fact that you grew it yourself and this is one less thing you need to purchase from a store! Happy planting!

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