Garlic is one of those magical flavors that give foods depth of flavor and the richness of another world. Italian food, French food, Indian food – these all include liberal use of garlic. Why the English decided on fish and chips and boiled dinners as their staples is a mystery to me. Maybe they can’t grow garlic. But I’ve been growing garlic for my kitchen for decades. It’s easy to grow and now is the time to plant it for next year.
Your first task is to find some garlic suitable for planting. You can’t just go the grocery store and buy some. Most commercial (non-organic) garlic has been treated with chemicals to keep it from sprouting. Instead, go to your garden center to buy some – or get a few heads of garlic from a farm stand or a friend who grows it.
Here in New England the recommended type of garlic is called ‘hard neck garlic’ and it survives our cold weather nicely. Soft neck garlic, commonly grown in California, is less cold tolerant. It is the type that can be braided and hung in the kitchen. Hard neck garlic sends up a stiff stalk, called a scape, which grows out of the middle of the bulb – a stiff neck, if you will.
Hard neck garlic generally has a stronger, richer flavor with more bite. It also comes in a wide range of flavors – just as different varieties of tomatoes and sweet corn have distinct flavors. Hardneck garlic is often classified as either rocambole, porcelain or purple stripe. Rocambole garlic has a tan outer covering and usually produces up to a dozen cloves per bulb. Porcelain garlic has a satiny white wrapper and tend to produce larger cloves with as few as four per bulb. Purple stripe garlic is one of my favorites – it is productive, tasty and generally a nice, plump size.
I like to say that everyone would be a gardener if growing all vegetables were as easy as growing garlic. There are just three steps to growing garlic: planting it, mulching it, and harvesting it. That’s right, if you mulch well it will grow well and you will never – or rarely – need to weed.
I grow garlic (and all my vegetables) in wide, mounded beds. Each bed is 30 to 36 inches wide, and mounded up 4 to 6 inches above the walkways. A short-tined garden rake or hoe is useful for shaping the beds, and to gather up loose soil from the walkways.
The first step when planting garlic is to remove any weeds from the soil. Then I enrich the soil by adding 3 or 4 inches of compost on top of the bed I am planting it in. I use a garden fork or my CobraHead hand weeder to loosen the soil and stir the compost into the top few inches of soil. Rototilling would mix the compost in deeper – good for drainage in a clay soil if you have it, but away from the roots of my garlic.
Rows of garlic need to be spaced 6 to 8 inches apart. Most years I plant short rows across my wide beds, but sometimes I will plant rows down the length of the beds – it really doesn’t matter which way you do it. I create furrows with a hand tool in the fluffy soil of my bed and sprinkle on some bagged organic fertilizer, then mix that in.
It is important to plant your garlic right side up. If you look at a bulb of garlic, you should be able to see roots, or where the roots have been cut off. The top of each clove has a slightly pointy tip, and the bottom has a small, flat scar. And of course, when looking at a bulb of hard neck garlic you can see where the scape grew. If you plant the cloves upside down, they use up a lot of energy trying to get started and grow toward the sun.
To plant, just push each clove into the prepared soil about 4 inches away from its nearest neighbor. The top of the clove should be 2 to 3 inches beneath the soil after you cover it up. Pat the soil with your hands to firm it up.
The last step is to mulch. I use mulch hay because it is inexpensive, but straw is fine, and should have fewer seeds. I put a thick, fluffy layer of hay over the entire bed – and about a foot deep. Fall rains and winter snows will compact the mulch to a 3 to 4 inch thick layer of mulch that should keep out all weeds – while allowing the garlic scapes to push through in the spring.
Garlic is ready to pick in July or August. The scapes will curl and dance as they grow, and are wonderful in a vase with flowers. The scapes are also tasty – you can chop them and add to stir fries or omelets. Store your garlic crop in a cool dark place for best storage. And don’t eat it all! Save some for planting your next crop.
I’ve been told that garlic has cancer-fighting compounds, and that it’s best to chop or press you garlic 10 minutes before cooking it to preserve the best effects. And it’s supposed to be good for keeping away vampires, not just cancer. Me? I find it necessary for a good spaghetti sauce!
Henry Homeyer is a garden designer, coach and the author of 4 gardening books. His web site is www.Gardening-Guy.com.