You may overlook the display at first, hidden among the photos of bright red tulips and sunny daffodils. Bulb planting season is here, and garden centers have towers of cardboard boxes labeled with spring blooms, somewhat incongruous at this time of year. Go ahead and pick out those hyacinths and crocuses, but don’t forget the garlic!
Sure, you can buy garlic at the market, but it’s one of those crops that is much better when home-grown. In this case, it’s not so much the just-harvested freshness as it is the variety. Most grocery stores do not sell the Good Stuff.
Garlic comes in two main varieties. Softneck garlic is commercially grown. Bulbs are comparatively smaller and the cloves are arranged in layers like artichoke leaves, giving softneck garlic its pet name, “stinking rose.” Hardneck garlic is larger, and has 4 to 12 cloves arranged around a central stalk, or scape, that eventually bears a typical Allium flower. As a rule, hardneck garlic withstands lower winter temperatures, and is the type recommended for Colorado.
I prefer to grow hardneck garlic for another reason. I like to cook. The cloves of this variety are much easier to peel—sometimes the papery skin falls right off. They are significantly larger, meaning less peeling. And, they are much stronger in flavor. If you love garlic, you will adore these.
To add some garlic to your own garden, buy a bulb or two from either a garden center or online catalog. Avoid garlic marketed for food; it may have been treated with a growth inhibitor. There are lots of named cultivars. Research is ongoing to determine the genetic relationship between them all. My favorite variety is Music, which I purchased from Territorial Seeds in Oregon. It’s also available from Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, another company I’ve enjoyed doing business with, and Miller Nurseries. You may find other sources as well. I suggest you plant several varieties, and run your own trials to find what works best in your area.
Prepare your garlic bed as you would for any other vegetable—dig in three to four inches of compost, and any nutrients recommended by a soil test. Garlic does best in rich soil. Separate the heads into cloves and plant each clove root-end down in a grid, leaving about six inches between plants. Cover with two inches of soil. Then lay down a thick mulch layer. I use straw that has been “de-weed-seeded” by my hens, but anything relatively fluffy will work. The idea is to keep weeds from germinating, retain soil moisture, and maintain warm soil temperatures into the fall, allowing for rapid root growth. Don’t worry if a few green shoots sprout.
In the spring, the garlic bed will be one of the first signs of new life, with the strappy leaves protruding while snow lingers in the shade. Remove some mulch, but keep a layer about three to four inches deep. Garlic likes cool weather—it takes air temperatures lower than 20°F to damage the leaves.
Keep your bed evenly moist, be uncompromising about weeds, and feed your growing plants with compost tea, fish emulsion, or your favorite fertilizer (follow package directions). Garlic needs lots of nitrogen, and that is best added early in the growing season; adding it later than April or May might delay bulb formation.
Eventually, flower stalks will begin to extend from the center of the leafy clumps. Snap them off when they begin to curl, before buds form. This redirects the plants’ energy to the roots and results in larger bulbs. You can eat the immature stalks, cooking them like asparagus.
Around mid-summer, your plants will begin to wilt a bit, turning yellow and then brown. Don’t panic. Remember, they’re bulbs, and they’re doing the same thing your tulips and daffodils did a few months earlier. The best time to harvest is when the top growth is still about half green. Dig carefully—pulling by the stalks may result in a handful of dead stem and a buried bulb that’s hard to locate. Besides, it’s best to leave the tops on until after the bulbs have cured.
I typically select some of the largest cloves to plant for next year’s crop. You can store them a bit until space is available, or rotate your crop into a bed where a spring crop such as lettuce or spinach has finished. Renew the soil, and you can plant right away.
Let the bulbs air-dry for several weeks before trimming off the top growth. Bulbs last longest stored at low (but not freezing) temperatures and a relative humidity of 60 to 70%. Hardneck garlics don’t keep quite as well as the softneck, commercial varieties, but I’ve never found that to be a problem. We always eat them first!
Top photo courtesy of Wiki Commons