Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Growing Great Garlic
I won’t fake modesty here. I grew some great garlic. You can, too. It’s easy.
The garlic heads pictured here were harvested over the July 4th weekend… just a bit earlier than normal in this hot growing season.
I grow hard neck garlic, Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon, also known as ophio garlic, serpent garlic, top setting garlic, and echte Rokkenbolle or Schlangenknoblauch (to my German friends).
Hard necks produce a reproductive structure called a “scape”, a firm stalk ending in a swollen capsule which contains bulbils, not flowers. The scapes are quite tasty themselves, if harvested when they snap easily from the plant in mid spring.
Hard necks are different from the soft neck garlic you get in the grocery store. Hard necks have a shorter shelf life, fewer (but larger cloves) and for many people, have better, bolder flavor. As the name indicates, soft necks have no hard stem. They braid nicely. Most of what you see in the grocery store are softnecks, grown in China.
Oh, it gets even more complicated than this with different types of both hard neck and soft necks. And the names given to local selections of each type muddies the water even further. Recently, USDA researchers have concluded that there are actually many fewer garlic varieties than the common names would imply. Local adaptations and response to environment account for the perceived differences. For a great read on garlic, consider the text, Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland. It sorts out a lot of the terminology, history and origins of this unique food and provides excellent advice on growing all types of garlic. Penn State’s Growing Bulb Crops publication also has enough info to get you started.
Back to the basics. So, if harvest time is about the 4th of July, when is planting time? Columbus Day…more or less. That’s a good general guide for planting garlic in Pennsylvania. You simply stick a clove, (root end down) an inch or two deep into well prepared, rich garden ground, spaced about every 7 inches. It often makes sense to make a bed and plant three rows together, about 10 inches away from adjacent rows. Cloves will root well and make a few leaves before the soil freezes up. Then mulch with straw or leaves and wait for them poke thru in the spring. Keep the planting weed free. A shot of rich compost or fertilizer in early spring is a good idea.
That’s about it. Garlic has few pest problems besides weeds. A few hand weedings, as the mulch deteriorates, is necessary. When to harvest is an important consideration. Too early and clove size and maturity is reduced. Too late and cloves separate within the head and quality and shelf live diminish. I have followed Engeland’s advice and harvest my Ophios when 40 % of the lower leaves have died, leaving about 6 green leaves at the top of the plant at the time of harvest. Your goal it to have well segmented cloves that have not begun to separate within the head. This is usually about mid-July for the varieties I grow.
Post harvest care is important. I move my harvested garlic immediately to a shaded, well ventilated area to “cure”. Although many folks seem inclined to let it lay out in the hot sun, this is not the best approach. Since most of it is consumed by Christmas, no special storage is required. Most references say to store garlic at 55-65 degrees F and 50 % humidity. So a cool cellar, or similar space, will work very well.
Note that you’ll likely be saving some of you own crop as “seed”. Not literally. You’ll save some heads that will be broken into separate cloves for planting in October. So if you happen to harvest some over mature heads, they make good planting stock. Or, just eat them first.
Of course you have to get started somehow. Where do you get planting stock? Your best bet may be a local farmers market that is selling their own, farm grown garlic. This will obviously be well adapted to your area. If this doesn’t work, the internet is full of sellers in the Northeast US. Don’t plant store bought garlic. It is unlikely to be well adapted to our growing conditions.
I still have a lot to learn about garlic. I’d like to try some soft necks. Add a few more hard necks. But the important things I have learned are that hard neck garlic is easy to grow, it’s better tasting than store bought and it keeps well until Christmas (and beyond). Give it a try this fall.