Garlic will grow in a wide variety of locations and climates but.... it does best where it gets plenty of sunshine and adequate water. Growing garlic does not do well in locations that are too wet or where there may be standing water from runoff. If you can, plant where there will be adequate drainage to prevent the garlic from rotting in the ground, and if the area is wet consider planting in raised beds.
A south or west facing area would be ideal for garlic beds as the full benefit of the sun would be realized, but make the best of what you have.
In order to minimize soil-borne diseases, it is most important to rotate your crops such that garlic or other alliums are on at least a three to four year rotation and close attention is paid to removing all garlic waste (culled plants, scapes,etc) from the field. Ideally it's best to take the culls to the landfill, and it is not recommended that they be composted and returned to the garden or field,
At Norwegian Creek Farm, soil preparation for planting garlic is a lengthy process, that may begin two years before any garlic is planted in that area.
We begin by disking the future garlic field several times to kill out couch grass that competes with garlic for nutrients and can cause a lot of damage to the garlic bulbs. An added benefit of getting rid of the couch grass is a reduction in the wireworm population. The blackbirds help us here and pick up any wireworms that end up on the surface.
We also plant cover crops that are incorporated into the soil to add organic matter. We like to use buckwheat for fast growth and to smother weeds, and field peas are very useful for adding nitrogen as well as organic matter. Red clover is also very good for adding nitrogen, and fall rye has massive root systems that break down quickly once they are disked or plowed under. We try to keep weeds from going to seed in the time before the garlic crop is planted in order to reduce our work load later.
Garlic likes a rich loamy or clay loam soil, but it will grow in sandy soil as well if there is adequate water and nutrients provided.
Garlic roots can reach down a long ways, and it is best to till or spade your garlic bed at least a foot or more deep. Loose soil in your beds means less work for the garlic and bigger bulbs because it has to put less energy into growing. Also, a deeply tilled bed provides a water reservoir that the roots can easily reach below the level of the bulb, so less likelihood of rotting problems. Try not to compact the soil in the bed.
We generally incorporate some bone meal and some nitrogen into the soil before we plant garlic. A soil test may be advisable if you are not sure what is required.
Generally, it is thought that bigger cloves planted will result in a bigger bulb harvested. While this does have some merit, there are many factors involved in growing garlic to a larger size. We use the same fertilizer regimen on all our garlic varieties, and while we do not fertilize heavily most of our crop ends up producing large or extra-large bulbs.
There is a common misconception that only those cloves with intact clove wrappers should be planted. This is simply not the case. While we do not peel the cloves, there are always a few that do not have clove wrappers, usually because they were double or triple cloves in one wrapper that have been separated. The bare cloves do just as well when planted as the ones that have skins. Sometimes, we will take a knife and cut apart double or triple cloves that have no obvious cleavage plane, and these garlic grow well also.
If you hold the bulb upside down and give the stem a sharp rap on a hard surface, the stem will usually pop out and then it is a simple matter to separate the cloves and choose which ones you want for planting. Save the rest for eating.
Label. Label. Label. If it is important to you to know which varieties you have grown, then you need to keep field and written records as you go. We keep labels on everything. The crates of garlic or labeled as to variety and quantity, and the baskets of cloves for planting are labeled. Once the garlic is in the field, labeled variety sticks are placed at each end of the variety planted, notes are taken in a book and a map is constructed identifying the location of all garlic planted in the field.
When to plant is always a bit tricky. We like to plant a month or so ahead of the ground freezing in order to let the garlic develop some roots before it goes into dormancy for the winter. Some areas of the West Coast may not experience freezing conditions on a regular basis. so timing for planting there can be more variable.We a generally trying to plant in the first couple of weeks of October, although that may get extended depending on how much we have to plant and how many people are available to plant.
Garlic may also be planted in the spring or late winter depending on snow cover and whether or not the ground is frozen . This is particularly pertinent to those who live in mild coastal climates. I have found that if garlic is planted much after mid-April here, it will tend to produce single large rounds rather than a divided bulb.
Our bed preparation and marking are done using tractor mounted equipment, which means that our beds are designed around the size of our equipment and also to leave sufficient working space for the tractor. We plant our beds on a 8 inch x 8 inch spacing, with 5 rows of garlic per bed. This allows for about 750 plants per 100 foot bed. This spacing allows the garlic to grow without too much competition for nutrients and sunlight. We also have lots of land to rotate our crop, so spacing closely is not a concern here. Once the beds are marked we distribute the garlic cloves on the surface of the bed, then go back and push them 2-3 inches below the surface. Once all the garlic in a bed is pushed in, we place markers for varieties, count the number of cloves planted for each variety, and rake the surface of the bed with a leaf rake to cover each hole where the garlic cloves have been planted.
When planting garlic we used to mulch our beds quite heavily and hand weed whatever weeds made it up through the mulch. This was very labour intensive and we could never really get ahead of the weeds. Next we tried mulching the beds for the winter then pulling the mulch off as soon as the snow melted and placing the mulch in the walkways. Now we could hoe the weeds in the beds quickly, but the walkways were still problem as there was too much mulch for the rototiller to be effective and we had to pull weeds in the walkway or use a string trimmer, which could be hazardous to the garlic plants if you got too close.
Our preferred method now is to plant deep and not use any mulch at all. Now we hoe the weeds out of the beds as required and rototill the walkways to keep the weeds down there.
This method has eliminated any risk of mould developing on the garlic stems and because there is no mulch on the beds we don't have to be concerned about wheat leaf curl mites. Also, the soil on the beds can get warmer which helps the garlic grow larger bulbs.
If you live in a area with sporadic snow cover and experience a lot of cold temperatures, mulch will probably be necessary. Its really a matter of what works well for your particular area.
It is generally considered a good idea to avoid using straw from grain crops as garlic mulch because it may contain wheat leaf curl mites, which like to eat away at the garlic bulbs in storage.
Alfalfa can be used as a mulch as it adds a lot of nitrogen. The problem with alfalfa is the deer like to come and eat it , so they tend to make a big mess of your garlic beds in the process. Electric fencing can help deter the deer. If you can wait until the ground is somewhat frozen before applying the mulch, it will prevent mice from digging down and eating the planted cloves.
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We usually fertilize three times throughout the time when the garlic is growing, once in the fall when we plant, once in early spring when the garlic has just emerged, and once again in May when the growing garlic plants are getting large but before scape are produced. At this last application of fertilizer, we usually use a liquid fish fertilizer that provides mostly nitrogen.
Use your own judgement and/or data to determine what your fertilizer requirements are. Using excessive amounts is expensive and may not provide any benefit to your crop.
Spring is full of anticipation. As soon as the snow starts to melt off the beds you can expect to see new garlic shoots poking up. For us, the Turbans are usually poking their heads up around the end of February, followed by most everything else towards the middle of March. Tibetan is the last to put in an appearance, sometime in April.
Around the beginning of April we may fertilize the growing garlic lightly with nitrogen and sulphate of potash, which adds sulphur and potassium, both necessary for bulb development.
Because we live on a farm that has been cultivated for a very long time, and we are certified organic and do not use herbicides, weeds can quickly become a big problem if they are not kept in check. We typically hoe the entire field on a three week rotation to keep the weeds manageable. We try to keep the walkways fairly clean as well. Our favourite type of hoe no longer meets our requirements in durability, so we are making our own for the coming year. We'll see how that works out....
It's important to keep the weeds in check because they compete with the growing garlic for nutrients and sunlight. If your garlic beds are weed jungles don't expect the garlic to be too productive.
By late spring the growing garlic should be well developed and ready to start producing scapes. There is some colour variation between types of garlic. Asiatics and Turbans tend to be a lighter green colour but that is just part of their growth habit.
You may notice some bowling of the leaf tips. This is usually due to insufficient water or too much wind. Garlic needs about an inch of water per week to thrive.
If the tips of the leaves turn pale yellow, it is usually a sign of too much water.
Garlic mosaic virus will turn the leaves a lighter colour with yellow splotchy stripes. If any of your plants exhibit this, it is a very good idea to dig them up and dispose of them. Do not compost them as this will just perpetuate the problem.
Around late May or early June,those garlic varieties that are going to produce scapes will suddenly push up a stalk through the centre of the leaves. The scape will be tipped with an umbel, which is where the bulbils grow.
Scapes come in a variety of shapes and growth habits, but at some point they should be removed so that the growing garlic plant can put energy into making a bulb rather that trying to grow a scape as well. Usually scapes are removed after they have made a curl or two but before they become woody and stand up straight. Some varieties produce a U-shaped scape and others only make a 3/4 curl, so it is important to keep an eye on your garlic and remove the scapes at the right time.
If you are collecting bulbils for replanting, then scapes can be left on the plant until the stalk is woody and at this point the umbel usually cracks open. The garlic bulb on the plant will likely be over mature and smaller, but these bulbs can be kept for replanting.
It is also possible to harvest scapes for bulbil collection at the usual time and hang them in bunches in a shady place. The bulbils will continue to mature as they draw energy from the stalk of the scape and will be viable for planting. Once the umbels start to open up bulbils will be ready to be cut off the stalks and stored in paper bags in a dry shady place until planting time.
After the scapes are removed, the top of the growing garlic plant changes from a vibrant dark green to a more dull green colour as the bulbs start to size up. It takes about 3-4 weeks for the bulb to fully mature, so it is important to keep adequate water to the plants. For the last couple of weeks before harvest, we taper off then stop irrigating to encourage the plants to start drying down.
The pre-harvest period is critical, as you want the plants to have a few dead leaves, but still be green at harvest time. The oldest leaves at the bottom of the stalk are the first to die. Each green leaf remains represents one bulb wrapper on the bulb, so ideally you want to have 5-6 intact bulb wrappers at harvest time. If you leave the garlic in the ground too long and the top are dried out sticks, it is likely that the bulb wrappers will have broken down and the garlic will not keep in storage.
Harvest usually begins around the end of June here. First to mature are the Turbans and Asiatics, which are both Weakly Bolting Hardnecks. Because they are Weakly Bolting Hardnecks , some plants may not produce a scape. The plants without a scape will mature first and they will need to harvested in advance of the plants with scapes as they will be overmature if left to be harvested at the same time as those with scapes. Once a few of these soft necked plants start to fall over it is time to dig. Ideally you want to harvest while there are still some green leaves on the plant. For this type of harvest we use a shovel so that we can dig out individual plants as they are ready.
Our main harvest begins around the end of July. At this point we are able to harvest mechanically, using a tractor and an undercutter, which is much faster and easier on the body.
When the garlic is pulled from the ground, be careful to not beat it on the ground or your boot to knock the dirt off, as garlic is easily bruised and this will adversely affect selling quality and storage life.
We gather the garlic in baskets, take it to our drying shed and hang it in bundles on long strings holding many bundles.
Keep direct sun off the garlic as much as possible. Garlic needs a shady place with good ventilation to cure.
After hanging for about two weeks, it is time clean and grade the garlic. First we cut it off the strings, trim the roots to about a half inch in length, and then trim the stalks at about two inches long. If you are tempted to trim the stalks shorter, don't.
The tips of clove wrappers may extend an inch or more up the stalk, and if they are snipped off the cloves may be subject to premature desiccation and also it may allow diseases to enter.
We remove the outer wrapper or two, and brush the roots thoroughly to remove dirt, and then store the garlic in perforated crates that allow air movement. We store our garlic in a cool shady building with no direct sunlight on the bulbs.
Next comes the job of sorting and grading for size and quality. Now is a good time to choose your own seed stock for replanting.