how to grow garlic (and 2 new ones i'm trying)
HAIL HAMMERED MY GARDEN in late May, and among the casualties: much of my garlic crop. Yes, even the narrow, strappy leaves of my favorite Allium were slashed to ribbons, with many plants hit squarely and decapitated altogether. About half of my 75 ‘German Extra Hardy’ plants failed to make the big, fat bulbs I have been growing for more than a decade. While I gradually build my stock back up, the loss presents an opportunity to try new varieties, both of which I’m planting this week, like this:
Timing: Sometime in the second half of October, ideally about five weeks before frost is in the ground, I plant the biggest cloves from the biggest heads of my July-harvested crop. (I eat the rest, whether while cooking up easy soups and tomato sauce to freeze in the late summer and fall, or through the winter from heads hung in net bags in my 45ish-degree barn loft, with some of the harvest peeled and frozen right now like this to use next spring and summer, when even the best-stored heads would have sprouted otherwise.)
- An expert 101 on how to plant garlic, and which type is best for your area.
How deep? I poke the cloves, pointy side up, so that the tip is about 2 inches below the surface of the soil in my raised beds. Mulching at planting time in areas with cold winters is recommended, so I simply layer on some leaf mold or composted stable bedding, which also helps come spring in weed control (it’s essential to keep garlic beds weed-free!).
How far apart? Spacing is easy, because the distance from the tip of my pinky finger to the tip of my thumb when I stretch my hand as wide as I can is 8 inches. Garlic likes about 5-9 inches between cloves in the row, and also between rows—and 8 (which falls in that range nicely) is my magic number, thanks to my built-in measuring stick.
How much to plant? Well, that depends not just on your usage, but also what variety you are growing. Yield can be from 4-12 times the amount you plant, says Alley Swiss at Filaree Farm in Oregon, a longtime organic garlic grower, with certain Artichoke types at the high end and some Porcelain types (the kind I grow) at the bottom. Because my beloved ‘German Extra Hardy’ (also called ‘German Stiffneck’) is a little stingy that way, despite its giant individual cloves, I plant about 75 cloves so I have plenty to eat, share, and use as seed for next year.
Yes, grow enough to share! The sharing part is important—and sometimes pays you back in unexpected ways. I had given a neighbor the strain of ‘German Extra Hardy’ I’d been selecting for many years (aiming for ever-bigger heads of big cloves, and gradually adapting it to my local soil and climate, too). Because the neighbor’s garden, maybe a mile away, only got small hail (not my whopper size) she was able to rescue me with a few big, fat bulbs to use as some of my “seed” this year, along with the best ones from my measly harvest.
Two new-to-me varieties: To fill in the gaps, I went shopping—specifically for two other hardneck porcelain types. I chose ‘Premium Northern White’ (very cold-hardy, and about four cloves per bulb) and ‘Polish Hardneck’ (which found its way into the catalog I bought it from via a grower in Idaho, who got it from another in Ontario…again, the sharing thing!)
Why my obsession with hardneck types like these? They do well in cold-winter zones, and then there’s the bonus round: scapes. Hardnecks send up a flowering stalk with a delicious twist, great for grilling, sautéing and tossing into pasta, or making pesto from. If not removed, the stalk will eventually get woody, hence the hardneck or stiffneck name. Two harvests in one plant (unless they get hammered to the ground, that is).
What if your garlic sprouts in late fall or early winter, and you see green shoots pop up? No worry. It always does, even here in Zone 5B. It’s tough stuff; only golf-ball-sized hail seems to be a match for garlic in my decades-long experience. Assuming that doesn’t happen, by summer it will look like this: