I haven’t bought garlic since 1996. That’s because I grow enough to eat a bulb of garlic every day, year ’round. While most of my garden adventures are hobby-level attempts at self-sufficiency, my garlic crop is for real.
Garlic is an overwintering crop, planted in fall and harvested mid-summer. So if you want to have a crop next year, it’s time to think about planting.
A year’s supply of garlic hanging in your garage hints at many great meals to come, but by the time you reach that milestone, the rewards have already been flowing for months. Your first return arrives in early spring, when your garlic races out of the ground. It’s a foot tall when your neighbors’ gardens are still empty brown patches.
As spring continues, your plants will continue to skyrocket, and in late May — if you planted a flowering variety — you’ll be treated to a funky display of garlic blossoms curling from the plant tops. These should be harvested and enjoyed, both because they’re tasty and because not harvesting the flowers will result in smaller bulbs.
The flowering varieties of garlic are collectively called hardnecks, so named because of their woody flowering stalks. Most large producers grow softneck garlic, which is what you’re more likely to find at the store. It’s also the variety you’re most likely to have success growing in South Texas.
The first step in growing your own garlic stash is getting your paws on some good garlic for planting. Seed garlic, marketed expressly for planting, is available from nurseries, seed catalogs, and online, but there’s negligible difference between that and any other garlic you’ll find. The only advantage to buying seed garlic, which is considerably more expensive, is that you can choose your variety, and efforts have been made to ensure it’s disease-free.
While commercial growers have good financial reason to be wary of crop diseases, the chances of backyard garlic getting sick are low enough, and the consequences non-dire enough, that paying for certified disease-free seed isn’t worth it. Planting the right variety, on the other hand, is extremely important. Characteristics I look for include large bulb size, peelability, and a minimum of cloves per bulb. Fewer cloves means bigger cloves, and there’s nothing more annoying than dinky little hard-to-peel cloves.
You need a variety suited to your home region, and the obvious way to acquire such a variety is to buy high-grade locally grown garlic — which obviously grows well where you live. A great option is the farmers market, where growers will be able to tell you the conditions in which their garlic grew, and will probably be able to tell you what kind it is. Another good option for southern garlic growers is the central Texas based Gourmet Garlic Gardens (gourmetgarlicgardens.com/growsouth.htm).
The website sells many varieties of garlic suited to southern climes, and gives loads of good advice on growing good crops in the South. Winter temperatures and rainfalls can have a big effect on the success of the crop, with hardnecks generally doing better with cold and wet winters, and softnecks preferring hot and dry. So you might want to consider growing several varieties, and thus be assured a good crop no matter the weather.
In addition to determining which garlic you want to grow, you’ll need to calculate how much you need to plant to get the size crop you want — enough to eat, plus enough to plant next fall.
My high-school algebra finally came in handy when it came to figuring how many bulbs to plant in order to generate a self-sustaining garlic crop. I devised an equation in which “x” is the number of bulbs one needs to plant.
To solve for x, you need the following values:
y = the average number of cloves per bulb of the variety of garlic you’re planting. In my case, Romanian Red averages five cloves per bulb, so
y = 5.
z = the number of bulbs you want for eating (in my case, z = 365, or one bulb per day)
The equation is: x = z/(y-1).
In my case, x = 365/(5-1), or 91.25, which I round up to 92. Working backwards to check my math: 92 bulbs contain 460 cloves, each of which will grow into a bulb. If I harvest 460 bulbs, and subtract the 365 bulbs I intend to eat, I’m left with 95 bulbs for planting next year.
Now for the easy part: planting the garlic.
Garlic is generally planted in October or November. It’s a heavy feeder, so you want good dirt with plenty of organic material and nitrogen. Carefully break the bulbs into individual cloves, leaving the peel on and making sure the little scabby plate at the bottom of each clove remains intact. Plant the cloves with the scabby side down, an inch deep, six inches apart, in rows. Then mulch your patch with straw — not hay — about an inch deep. The mulch will keep your garlic warm in the winter and help the soil retain moisture. Come spring, the young garlic will poke through the mulch, and then it’s off to the races. Make sure to keep it well-watered. When the leaves start turning brown, despite your dedicated watering, it’s time to harvest.
Entire books have been written on this subject, so if you’re serious about investing your time, money, and land in a big garlic crop, you might want to consult a more in-depth source. I recommend Growing Great Garlic by Ron Engeland.
And while the opportunity for nuance is great in garlic growing, and there will always be ways to improve your crop, it remains at heart a simple act of sticking a clove in the ground. So however much or little time you have to devote to garlic growing, if you like garlic, it’s worth doing, even if you still have to buy it once in a while.
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