Tips on growing great garlic

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This week I’m at the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, California. Kelly is at home, tending to our herd of milk cats. Yesterday I learned a lot about garlic.

Garlic is one of those crops well worth growing if you’ve got the space. Why? unless you know an heirloom garlic farmer, the stuff you buy at the supermarket is one of just three bland varieties. According to garlic expert Jeffrey Nekola, who spoke yesterday, garlic has twelve times more information in its DNA than we humans do. Meaning, that garlic is a plant capable of vast biodiversity.

Cultural needs

When I asked a garlic farmer I met yesterday how to grow garlic he said, “It’s like giving a credit card to your wife . . . you’ve got to give her all she wants.” When I asked him to clarify, he told me that garlic requires as much compost, nutrients and water as you can spare. Nekola said he doesn’t even plant garlic unless he’s prepped his beds for at least two to three years and noted that one of the best heads of garlic he ever grew took root accidentally in a compost pile.

Pull the garlic cloves apart (leave the skins on) and plant them in the ground with the pointy end up. Nekola suggests planting them with a tablespoon of soybean meal (found at feed stores as animal feed). Nekola also recommended mulch. Let the garlic sprout first, but then pack down at least an inch of straw. Lay your drip tubing under the straw.

When to plant varies by location but it’s usually sometime in the fall. For us in Los Angeles the farmer I spoke to suggested October 1 as a planting date, but noted that he “usually screws up” and doesn’t get the garlic in until October 9. No doubt I will screw up even worse and not get the garlic in until November 1.

Thereafter, it’s a waiting game. Garlic takes a good six months to mature. You harvest most types of garlic when the stalk is nearly brown. And don’t forget to pick off the flowers if they appear. The flowers pull energy from the plant that is better spent making big cloves. The flowers are also edible: some farmers are actually making more money selling the flowers as culinary exotics.

Growing garlic in hot climates

I’ve had mixed success growing garlic in Los Angeles. It turns out I was growing the wrong varieties. Most garlics appreciate cold weather, including some time spent under a blanket of snow. For hot climates you need to grow Creole garlics that, come from the Iberian peninsula. Pictured above are some of the Creole garlics on display at the Expo.

One quirk with Creole garlics is that the cloves don’t develop until the last second. Nekola cautioned about picking them too soon. You have to really wait until the stalks are almost totally dead. And Creole varieties take a very long and sunny growing season.

For more information on garlic varieties, Nekola maintains an encyclopedic garlic website at:  http://sev.lternet.edu/~jnekola/Heirloom/garlicFAQ.htm

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8 Comments

  1. We clip the scapes when they’re grown but still on the youngish side, and cook them up like asparagus. My husband is especially fond of them done in the skillet with a bit of oil and served along side a steak or pork chop.

  2. Timely article! I kept thinking there was one more thing I had to get when I visited the nursery this Saturday but couldn’t remember. You jogged my memory! Thanks, friend.
    Garlic for me is such a satisfying plant – grows over the winter up here in Seattle. Appears first in the garden. I cut the scapes and eat fresh, sauteed or pickled. Dig out the heads and roast them or whatever. Every year I try a new variety. They are so fun.
    What I wouldn’t give to go to an heirloom plant exhibition without a toddler in tow. I would spend hours in rapt attention, nursing an iced coffee and soaking up heirloomy goodness.
    Oh, well. Your blog is the next best thing!

  3. Loved the milk cat comment. I was gonna complain about the credit card comment, but then I remember how much my friends and I complain about our husbands.

  4. I ordered garlic once from gourmet garlics, they sent me a warm weather sampler pack of 5 different varieties. The garlic didn’t do so great that year, many succumbed to rust.. I forgot about them, and to my surprise the following year a bunch of them started to come back up again. I separated the sprouted cloves (which came from whole forgotten heads), and that year I had a really beautiful and huge harvest of Ajo Rojo. Wonderful flavor, and big robust cloves. Out of the warm weather ones that variety pulled though and grew beautifully. The site is out of Ajo Rojo already, but maybe you can find it elsewhere.. I highly recommend it for growing in L.A. Sadly (or happily??) I am moving to Portland at the end of this month! I keep hearing about cold wet winters and how growing anything doesn’t happen between the months of October to June. June!! It’s totally bizarre to me after growing things year round in L.A, I’m not even sure if I should bring my seeds with me. I have a vintage dynamite chest packed full of them lol, and picked up even more yesterday at the heirloom expo. I know seeds lose viability over time, but I hope they’ll last long enough for me to either commandeer a lot of community garden space or my own acreage..

  5. Did he happen to mention how long it takes to sprout? I’m worried because I planted two heads of rare garlic four weeks ago and I haven’t seen a sprout. We’ve had really rainy weather in Houston this month, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s rotting in the ground.

  6. Pingback: Garlic harvest | Sustainable @ Lockyer Valley

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