As most of you know, fall is the time to plant your spring flowering bulbs. This year I am going to try planting a bulb that I have not tried before – garlic! Garlic is a member of the Allium (onion) family and is closely related to onions, chives, shallots and leeks. It is desired for its culinary and medicinal qualities. It is used in a variety of dishes around the world because of its strong smell and delicious taste but it has also been used throughout history for its medicinal qualities. Hippocrates, long considered the father of western medicine, used to prescribe it for a number of medical conditions and many of the medicinal benefits have been confirmed by modern science. And don’t forget that garlic can ward off vampires! (This is not scientifically proven however, due to the lack of vampires on which to test.)
Garlic, like spring flowering bulbs, requires a cold treatment in order to grow, so is best planted in the fall. There are two types of garlic–hardneck and softneck. Most of the garlic we purchase in the market is of the softneck variety grown in California. These are best adapted to growing in warm climates – although there a few that can be grown in Minnesota such as New York Whites and Susanville. In Minnesota garlic of the hardneck variety, such as German Red, Spanish Raja or Asian Tempest, grows best. If you would like to try planting garlic, purchase a seed garlic bulb from a garden center – you will probably be disappointed if you try to plant grocery store garlic. A garlic bulb has many cloves and since each clove is planted separately, one bulb can yield 15-20 plants.
Garlic should be planted 1-2 weeks after a killing frost but before a hard freeze. In Minnesota that is generally in the first weeks of October – but this year is proving to be an exception. Separate the cloves a couple of days before planting but don’t let them dry out completely. Garlic will do best in well drained, moisture-holding and organically rich soil. Till your soil well before planting so it will be loose enough for the new bulb to grow and work in some compost or rotted manure to provide the needed nitrogen. Plant each clove pointed side up, so that the tip is 2-3” from the surface, in double rows about 6” apart. Roots and shoots should develop before a hard freeze. Cover the bed with 3-4” of leaf or straw mulch to prevent soil temperature fluctuations over the winter.
In the spring remove the mulch after danger of frost has passed; generally the second week of April. Garlic can tolerate temperatures of 20° F but temperatures below 10° F could result in plant death, multiple shoots or poor bulb development. Shoots should emerge in late March or early April. Once the shoots appear add more compost to the topsoil around the plants.
Hardscape garlic has the added bonus of producing scapes. (You may have heard of local restaurants promoting scapes on their menus in early spring.) Scapes are the flowering stalk of the plant, which are a culinary delicacy. Remove the scape right after it begins to curl. Besides being edible removing the scape produces bigger garlic bulbs. Keep the garlic watered during the spring; soak the soil to one inch per week if there is not sufficient rain. This is crucial during bulb development, but you should stop watering two weeks before harvesting. Garlic does not compete well with weeds so keep the garlic bed well weeded. Use the winter mulch in the bed between the garlic plants to keep the weeds down.
Harvest time for garlic is between late June and late July. It is ready when the lower leaves are brown and the upper leaves are half green and half brown. If you harvest too early you may have small bulbs where the cloves do not fill out the skins. Harvest too late and the cloves may be popping out of the bulbs. To harvest pull the shoots and bulbs attached and cure in a warm, dry, airy space for 3-4 weeks. Then cut the shoots 1/2-1” above the bulb and trim the roots. You can store for four to six months at 32°-40°, but not in the refrigerator. And if you want to plant more garlic you can keep one of your bulbs to plant next fall.
This will be my first attempt at growing garlic so I will let you know how it goes.