Growing Organic Garlic

Recently Jon Belber, Education Director from Holly Hill Farm, joined us at the community garden to share some tips on growing garlic organically.

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Many of us in the community garden have already cleared our beds of summer debris and prepped them for winter and/or are still picking kale. But if you’d like to enjoy a garlic harvest next July,  now’s the time (late October through November) to get going on it.

Hardneck vs. Softneck Varieties of Garlic

Hardneck varieties of garlic grow stiff flower stalks known as scapes. They tend to be better suited for cold climates such as ours (Zone 6); in fact, like daffodils and tulips, they require a period of cold dormancy.

Without a stiff flower stalk, softneck varieties remain floppy and can be braided. In general they store for longer periods of time than hardnecks. More info on comparisons here and here.

How to Plant

  • Be choosy about what you plant! You’re more likely to have good results if you purchase garlic bulbs from a reliable source. Most of us don’t have much growing space, so make the most of it and save grocery store garlic for eating.
  • Carefully break the garlic head apart into its individual cloves, trying to keep as much of the papery coating intact. (The paper is its protective seed coat.)
  • Again, be choosy. Don’t plant any soft cloves and select the biggest cloves. The small ones will grow, but won’t be as robust as the garlic plants that start out with more stored resources. Save the little guys for cooking.

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  • Following crop rotation practices, it’s better to select a site where Alliums (leeks, shallots, onions, etc.) did not grow in the previous few years.
  • Prepare your garden bed by loosening the very top layer of soil and laying down some compost. There’s no need to do a lot of digging and disrupting of the soil structure in your garden unless it’s hard and compacted.
  • Where you are planting your garlic, run a shallow trough around twice the depth of your garlic cloves.
  • Tuck in the cloves with pointy tips up about 5 – 6 inches apart in the trough. Garlic cloves planted upside down will still grow, but they’ll have to spend extra energy orienting toward the soil surface, and you’ll end up with a garlic plant that looks like the one below.
  • Cover with soil.
  • Top with a generous few inches of mulching materials, such as shredded leaves or straw.

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    When using leaves as mulch, make sure they’re composted or shredded as above; otherwise, they can form a dense matted layer.
  • Green tips may emerge above ground around February. (Sometimes this growth appears in late autumn and then stalls; generally the plant will not be adversely affected, though the growth may whither and lose its green color in freezing temperatures.)

During the Growing Season

  • Around June, hardneck varieties of garlic produce curly flower stalks known as
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    If allowed to grow, garlic scapes curl, swoop, and flower. Too beautiful to cut? Enjoy them in a floral arrangement.

    scapes that should be removed to allow the plant to send more energy down to the bulb. Cut off this part when it starts to curl, but don’t throw them away–the scapes can be used to make a pesto, cooked and used for mild garlic flavoring, or even added to floral arrangements. More cooking ideas here.

  • Pull the garlic plants around July 15 . You can eat them right away if you enjoy assertive garlic flavor. Or cure them in a warm dry place with good air circulation, away from direct sun.  When the neck is dry and the skin papery (in about 2 – 3 weeks), they can be stored in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place (not the refrigerator). Different varieties of garlic will hold for varying lengths of time.
  • Make use of the space where you harvested your garlic by digging in some compost and planting a succession crop such as quickly-maturing carrots or green beans.

Mail-Order and Local Sources

Holly Hill Farm purchases their garlic from Fedco SeedsJohnny’s Selected Seeds is another reliable source for types that grow well in New England. At the end of October, it’s too late to purchase garlic bulbs from most mail-order sources; still, it’s worth checking out these sites now simply as a reference. Plan ahead for next fall; these sources can run out early, well before planting time.

But there are still options right now. I had good success last summer with the garlic I purchased from the organic grower at Braintree’s farmer’s market. (There’s one more market day scheduled on Nov. 17.) Hingham Farmer’s Market is still running weekly. And Holly Hill Farm is hosting a garlic festival on Nov. 3, 2018, where garlic will be available for sale and farmers will be on hand to run garlic-planting demonstrations.

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