how to grow garlic, a q&a with filaree farm

hardneck garlic growing in raised bedsMY FIRST EXPLORATION INTO growing garlic was also my first encounter with Filaree Farm. I hate to confess how long it has been since I first read “Growing Great Garlic,” the popular book by Filaree’s founding farmer, Ron Engeland (hint: publication date, 1991). Today, it’s Alley Swiss who farms the venerable Filaree acreage in Okanogan, Washington, where organically grown seed garlic has been produced for nearly 30 years.

In between his daunting chore list—Alley harvests more than 20,000 pounds of Allium sativum a season, representing a staggering 100-plus varieties from around the world—he made time to answer all my garlic-growing questions, from the best varieties for various regions, tastes from hot to mild, and more.

my q&a with alley swiss

Q. In my Zone 5B Northeastern location, I have done very well with hardneck varieties [detail above, and growing in my raised beds, top photo]. As a seller of garlic to customers all over the U.S., can you suggest the best variety choices for different regions?

A.  Many people don’t know that they can grow garlic where they live. At Filaree Farm, we have heard from customers who have grown both hardneck and softneck varieties in every state, including Hawaii and Alaska.

To clarify, garlic varieties are often divided into either softneck or hardneck, with different varietal groupings within those two categories that share common traits.  The key difference is that hardneck varieties send up a seed stalk (or scape–which is edible) from the center of the bulb that should be cut, whereas softneck varieties do not have a seed stalk. I suggest these varieties for the following regions:

  • Northeast: Both softneck and hardneck varieties do well in the Northeast.  ‘Polish White’ is in the Artichoke group and produces large bulbs with very good flavor.  Hardneck varieties in the Porcelain group also are favorites with Northeast growers such as ‘German White’ or ‘Romanian Red,’ which have huge cloves and great flavor.
  • Southeast: The Turban group (below, drying) includes many beautiful varieties that do well in warm climates.  For those who live in the sub-tropical coastal areas in this region, varieties in the Artichoke garlic and Turban groups are the best bet.
  • Southwest:  The creole variety ‘Ajo Rojo’ is well suited to the hot and arid regions of the country.  A Silverskin type named ‘Mild French’ is also a top recommendation.
  • Midwest and Northwest central:  Varieties that survive harsh winters and hot summers do well in this region.  Rocambole and Purple Stripe varieties are good options.
  • Northwest and Pacific Coast: A wide range of varieties perform well on the west coast.  Purple stripes such as ‘Chesnok Red’ are commonly grown as well as the Silverskin variety ‘Nootka Rose,’ which does well along the rainy NW coast.

Q. What if my soil is sandy (or clayey, or wet, or otherwise tricky)? Can you suggest the best varieties for my conditions?

A. Garlic does prefer a well-drained soil.  Amending your soil structure or planting into raised beds is a good idea for poorly draining soil types. The Artichoke garlic varieties are the most adaptable and easiest to grow in a variety of soil types and climates.  We do have some varieties that are well adapted to certain conditions; ‘Killarney Red,’ a hardneck type, does quite well in wet and clay soils.  Porcelain varieties are such vigorous plants that they do better than others with tight soils and wet conditions, just harvest them a little bit early to avoid deteriorated bulb wrappers.

Q. It’s almost garlic-planting time here. But when should gardeners plant in different regions—and what’s the best practice for bed preparation, planting, mulching, fertilizing?

A. The ideal time for planting garlic is three to five weeks before your ground freezes hard. If you are located in a southern region where the soil does not freeze you’ll want to plant late in November or December. Garlic prefers a well-worked soil with good drainage and lots of organic matter.  Don’t fear if your soil type is not perfect; garlic is a tough plant that can adjust to many soil types.

Garlic is a fairly heavy feeder that wants a good amount of Nitrogen available.  We recommend spreading an organic fertilizer or composted manure in the area where you will plant and mixing it into the soil well.

After you ‘”pop” your seed by separating the bulb into individual cloves, plant the cloves about 2-3 inches deep with about 5-8 inches between each clove.  Water deeply so that there is plenty of moisture for the cloves to start their root growth before the ground freezes. In climates with cold winters, mulch with several inches or more of leaves or hay.

Q. A related question: I’m always asked by readers: Can they plant garlic in spring? Are there any zones where spring planting will yield a harvest?

A. We do recommend planting in the fall to those growing garlic in all zones for the best harvests. That said, it is possible to grow beautiful full-sized bulbs of garlic from a spring planting. The key to all successful spring garlic plantings is planting very early in the spring, as soon as the soil and can be worked–or better yet, planting directly into an area of the garden that was worked the previous fall.

Q. I’m also always asked: What about growing garlic from seed? How long does it take if it’s possible, and which kinds do come from seed best if any?

A.  Garlic primarily reproduces vegetatively through cloning and will not produce true seed except in rare cases.  Even when garlic does produce true seed, the seed is generally sterile. You can grow garlic from bulbils.  Bulbils are small clones that appear at the top of the scape (above) of hardneck varieties and sometimes along the neck of softneck varieties. Some varieties have very small bulbils–smaller than a grain of rice–while other varieties produce bulbils that are nearly as big as a normal clove.  It often will take two or three years of replanting before reaching a normal bulb size.  We recommend saving bulbils from the Artichoke, Rocambole and Asiatic varieties since they are the largest.

Q. What if I don’t have much space—can I grow garlic in containers (and if so in which hardiness Zones)?

A.  We have found that many urban gardeners or those who prefer the ease of container gardening have begun growing garlic on back porches and patios.  It is important to find a deep container that has good drainage for growing garlic.  Zone 5b or warmer is preferred, but it can be done by insulating the container with mulch in colder climates.

Q. I store a portion of my crop as peeled, whole cloves in the freezer, so it doesn’t deteriorate in my cellar before I get to use it all, but I wish I could get it to last even longer “fresh.” What are the “ideal” conditions for storing garlic?

A.  Between 40-55 degrees is optimal with 60-70 percent humidity. If it is too humid you might have problems with mold, and very dry air will dehydrate garlic quicker. You do not want to store garlic in the refrigerator because there is too much moisture. We recommend a root cellar, basement or garage as the best options, but even a cupboard in a cool area of the house will work fine.

Q. Are some varieties better “keepers” that last well in storage all the way to next summer, and the next fresh harvest?

A.  Yes! Softneck varieties generally keep the longest, often remaining firm 10 months after harvest.  The Artichoke and Silverskin varieties are good choices for long storage.  If you prefer hardnecks, some store better than others with Porcelains like ‘Romanian Red’ among the best.  Rocamboles have very good flavor but often dehydrate within 3-4 months.  In my home we like to eat the shorter-storing varieties first and save mostly Artichoke and Silverskin varieties to eat in the spring and all the way up to the next harvest. “Green” garlic (harvested early, before the bulbs size up) is a fresh treat in the spring if your previous year’s garlic supply is dwindling.

Q. Taste-wise, can you suggest some varieties that are hot or mild, for instance, or are excellent roasted?

A.  ‘Silverwhite‘ and ‘Creole Red,’ and ‘Thai Fire’ are some of the hottest varieties we grow.  Some of the Artichoke varieties are quite mild, which makes them great for raw use or for those who don’t like a sharp bite; ‘Susanville’ and ‘California Early’ are among the mildest.  Purple Stripe varieties are revered by chefs for their sublime sweet flavor when roasted; ‘Metechi’ and ‘Khabar’ are two of the best baking garlics, with a creamy texture when done.

win a copy of ‘growing great garlic’

I’VE BOUGHT THREE COPIES of “Growing Great Garlic,” the book by Filaree Farm‘s founding farmer that got me started growing my favorite allium of all. [UPDATE: The giveaway is over, but your comments continue to be welcome.] To enter to win a copy, all you have to do is comment below, answering this question:

What kind of garlic you grow–hardneck, softneck, or maybe its particular varietal name?

(I’m a hardneck nut, and love ‘German Extra Hardy,’ also called ‘German Stiffneck.’)

Don’t worry if you don’t grow garlic yet, or know the name of the kind you do (or if you feel shy and don’t want to give any details). Just say “count me in” and your entry will be registered.

UPDATE: Winners were chosen at random after entries closed at midnight on Thursday, October 4, 2012.

Ready to grow your own garlic this year? Planting time is just ahead!

(Photos except top two images are copyright Phoebe Webb Photography; used with permission.)

  1. Ron Elbrader says:

    Count me in. I remember my Grandmother growing garlic in her garden when I was a child in the 60’s and I am going to plant some bulbs this Fall, not sure what type they are but will give it a try to see if any come up next Spring. Thank you for your blog.

    1. patrick lusko says:

      i am in zone 2 in north western que. can.. and music varity does very well. nothing special to overwinter a bit of mulch.

  2. Sharon Davis says:

    My husband and I planted our hard neck garlic today–zone 5B. Going to the Garlic Festival tomorrow in Saugerties, NY–garlic, garlic everywhere!

    1. ruth rogers clausen says:

      Hope you enjoy the Garlic Festival at Saugerties. You can thank Pat Reppert for that. She started it many years ago and wrote “Mad for Garlic”. She is in poor health now I understand but has left a great legacy behind her with the annual Garlic Festival.

  3. Edie says:

    Just rec’d my first order from Filaree Farms and delighted with the size and quality of the garlic. After reading your comments, I am even more eager to get it in the ground, but my Pacific Northwest weather is being its unpredictable self with temperatures in the 60’s and 70’s in October. How cool will it need to be before I plant and what is the best way to store it while I’m waiting?
    Thanks for your great site with all the detailed info and pictures. I’ve bookmarked as a great gardening resource.

    1. margaret says:

      Keep them in a cool, dry place (dark is good, too) — I have mine waiting in the back of the garage. You want to get them in the ground about a month ahead of the ground freezing, or sometime late October-mid-November I think. Glad that Filaree pleased you (and I am not surprised — good people, good farmers).

  4. Dorothy Clark says:

    Yup! I know the contest ended, however I didn’t see any mention of Elephant Garlic. Can you enlighten me? And secondly, I recently read an article about a potato garlic soup that sounded great and it stated the antibiotic qualities of Garlic, and that garlic is actually more effective and works better than antibiotics. What is your take on this? Please. :) ~ Singer Dorothy

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Dorothy. It’s a different species than true garlic (Allium sativum); elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) is actually a leek cousin that produces bulbs. As far as health claims, I am not qualified to give medical advice (but I eat a lot of it).

  5. Margaret says:

    Thanks Margaret. I was just about to plant my seeds, now now I’ll wait a till next week. They are saying we should expect cooler temps. then.

  6. Tim says:

    I planted garlic in November and now its April and my garlic is still green. I live in southern Georgia I’m not sure if I should pull them out

    1. margaret says:

      This other story explains in detail that fall-planted garlic overwinters and grows mos of the next spring and summer, too, before some of the leaves start to brown around July. You can tell it’s ready when maybe half the leaves have browned. Not yet! Click on that link for the specifics.

  7. Alex says:

    Hi I live in the central coast ca what would be the most profitable garlic to grow and is there a good book you can recommend for learning to grow garlic thanks alex

    1. margaret says:

      You’d have to ask the experts at Filaree, Alex, but as for a book, try the one mentioned in the article, “Growing Great Garlic.”

  8. Darlene says:

    This year I’m growing hardneck, I have grown softneck and both do equally well here in my Michigan garden.

  9. Karen says:

    So I’m a newbie to growing garlic. I planted some bulbs that had already been started in a nursery last summer. They didn’t do really much of anything last summer. I forgot to pull them out and they re-grew this spring! A couple of questions, I have heard that scapes are good in salads or sautéed, does it hurt the growth process of the bulb to cut the scape off? How much of the scape and top should you take off? Is it time to harvest the garlic when the leaves die? Thanks!

  10. John Ricci says:

    I planted my Italian garlic last October and I have just picked them up. They are a little bigger than golf balls. I planted cloves from almost base ball size Italian garlic My soil is kind of hard and I think I must do some thing to make it softer..like put in some compost… or peat moss. Am I right ?? what is a raised bed and what reason. I have no problem with water drainage.

    Hope to hear form you experts
    John Ricci

    1. margaret says:

      The story gives details on how to grow, John, which I hope will help. I don’t know where you garden, but mine aren’t ready yet (another week or two). You are correct that bulbing crops like this (and many plants) will refer a soil with good “tilth” or texture — adding compost is helpful. But insufficient watering during key growth times, poor soil, or lifting the bulbs too soon could all have had an impact.

  11. Leslie Kellman says:

    I am trying to grow garlic for the first time. I just planted a hard neck and a soft neck variety. We’ll see how they compare next Summer

  12. Lois says:

    I’m in a new location this year and will be planting my first garlic bulbs tomorrow. I had clay soil for over 25 years and now have a fine, almost sandy soil. My small veggie garden did so well this summer I can’t wait to see what happens next year. Really looking forward to garlic grown right outside the door.

  13. Kim says:

    Count me in! I bought two varieties at the Common Ground Fair here in Maine and play to plant this Saturday, mulching with straw.

  14. Andrea says:

    Inspired by your posts on garlic, I planted it for the first time this fall. I am in WI in zone 5a, and with the unseasonably warm weather we have had this Nov. and Dec., my garlic is sprouting 2-4 inches above the 4-5 inches of leaf mulch I covered it with when I planted at the end of October. Do you have any advice about what I should do? Winter is set to finally hit in a couple of days…

    1. margaret says:

      Though in a “normal” year it will sprout a couple of inches, I’m hearing from gardeners in many locations that theirs is way up, like yours. I say let it be; it’s tough stuff. what you don’t want to do is add more mulch when the ground isn’t frozen and sort of insulate it and keep it “warm”/active. I think we all just have to go with the unpleasant flow this “winter” and surrender most of our control. A wild ride here, too. Never seen anything even remotely like it.

  15. Judy Svendsen says:

    This is my first attempt at growing garlic: Moise, MT, Starbrite, Musik and Inchelieum Red Garlic….about 50 in all. I planted last October. Now (May 31s) the plants are quite tall and I have been cutting the curled tops off and freezing them. They are delicious eaten raw. I’m anxious to try some frozen ones in stews or salads, etc. The Moise garlic is one that was “produced” here in the town of Moise. I’m anxious and nervous about curing, harvesting and storing or freezing when the garlic is ready to be harvested. Would love to get to win the book, Growing Great Garlic”. Thank you for the info on the internet.

  16. Rose m. Ravenrcamidge@ says:

    I am 85 and still enjoy gardening. Just harvested my garlic. Planted about 60. Have some really nice garlic. Love it. I live in North Carolina so I harvest at least a month or two before my northern NY relatives. I like to grow it as it doesnt take much labor and I love it even if my friends don’t. Will keep growing it as long as I can walk. Lol. Rose Raven

    1. margaret says:

      An inspiration, Rose. I love growing my garlic, too, and I love eating it as well. In fact, I sometimes just roast a whole head and have it spread on toasted Italian bread with extra olive oil! : )

    2. Nancy Burke says:

      God Bless you. I am 75 and some people think I am crazy to go into my fields with a cutlass and actually use it. Ha! We only grow old when we stop wanting to do things. Loved reading your post!! Thanks!!!!

  17. Lois Carlisle says:

    I have never been able to grow garlic. I grow everything else except English Peas. I would love a copy of the book and a coupon would be nice.

  18. Mickey morales says:

    I have been planting garlic in the past few years. My daughter attended master gardener training and I am learning from her. I ordered Hard neck red chesnok and soft neck pioneer. I am going to explore the Filaree Farm.

  19. Susan Loveland says:

    I started growing garlic last fall (don’t remember the name) was so excited to see it come up in the spring! This year I am going to plant Nootka Rose in the fall and Romanian Red in the spring.

  20. Ellette says:

    Try as I may I have not been able to grow garlic in my raised beds! Thankfully my dear friend that lives down the road grows beautiful garlic and shares her bounty with me. I am going to try the tips suggested and amend my beds -again!- maybe next year I’ll be successful.

  21. Donna Arold says:

    I recently became a Master Gardener and have not yet grown my own garlic…but plan to tomorrow! As a Community Outreach project, our ‘Giving Garden’ Team through the Hunterdon County Master Gardeners created a garden, and grew veggies this Summer for the local food pantry. Tomorrow morning we are meeting to pull the last of the veggies and plant garlic in the raised beds…SO this article is wonderfully timely! This morning I am heading to our local farmers market to buy the garlic cloves we will plant. We are in New Jersey, so I hope the grower has some Polish White, German White and/or Romanian Red…I’ll also take his suggestion on which varieties would work best. We have 4 beds, so I’de love to do four different types. Thanks for this article Margaret…you are always right-on for me when I need a little gardening help!

  22. Windfall Cottage says:

    Count me in! We love garlic. We’ve been growing garlic for years but have been having problems with rust. Didn’t grow any last year. Will be growing this year. Love to make garlic braids.

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