How to Plant, Grow, Harvest and Store Garlic
We will do our best to give you as many answers and guidance to some of the scenarios we have had since we started. If we've missed anything, go to our contact page and ask anything you'd like! We will try to help and if we can't, we'll direct to someone who might. We want you to be successful...
Our opinions on what works best are just that, "our opinions". If any of this is different or contradicts what you do, please don't take offense. These are our practices and what we have found works best for us. We are not perfect and continue to learn new things all of the time! Thanks!
The key to having a successful garlic crop is all in the planning. Spend a little time reading the "how to's" and "what not to do's" on websites like ours or others. There are many great garlic farms across the country who share their techniques like us. Before we ever planted our first bulb, we researched several farms. Our favorite websites are Keene Organics, BJ's Garlic, and Rasa Farms, however we have viewed many others. We've also read several books about garlic and garlic planting; our favorite book is "Growing Great Garlic", by Rod Engeland. If you are internet savvy, find someone on YouTube that you enjoy and relate to, as this can be a great tool. We like Chris Stone, as he has come up with amazing methods to grow crops in an organic friendly manner, and if you are interested in making money, he can teach you that too!
You need to understand which cultivars are best suited for your area of the country as both softneck and hardneck garlic can be particular to climate and soil type. We chose the hardneck type as it is most conducive to Zone 4/5 and does pretty well in clay type soils. You will also need to make sure you have the necessary space for planting, cleaning and storing. And finally, set aside enough time for all of the above. Always give yourself additional time to allow for the unknown. (weather, equipment failure, etc.)
Plan your garden layout first. A few more minutes measuring and staking rows can save you time later. We like to plant our cloves 8" apart in rows that are also 8" apart. This makes it easy to remember. If you have limited space, you can plant the bulbs as close as 6" apart. Plant your garlic cloves 4 to 6 weeks before the 1st frost in the fall or winter. At OnPoint Garlic, we have planted our cloves as early as October 7th and as late as October 24th.
Know whether or not you plan to fertilize and how. We use Blood Meal prior to planting and then spray our garlic plants with Fish Emulsion in the spring.
Know how you plan to irrigate. Some areas of the country don't need to irrigate as Mother Nature is kind to them. We've used drip lines and overhead sprinklers. Both are good options that can be used based on your personal preference.
Weed Control, Weed Control, Weed Control
Yes, I said it 3 times. It's probably the most important section of this page, as it will take up as much or more of your time than everything else in your garlic growing process. We use straw for an over-winter mulch which doubles as a weed suppressor in the spring and summer months. It's NOT perfect, but works for us. Just make sure the farm you purchase your straw from uses good clean farming practices as some straw could contain pesticides and/or weeds. You may also consider using plastic mulch. It's a bit pricey, and slightly more difficult to plant and irrigate through, but will significantly suppress the weeds in your garden. If you use plastic mulch, you will also have to utilize a proper method of disposal.
Hardneck or Softneck?
We've chosen to focus on growing hardneck varieties in Northern New York as they grow best in our region. We have heavy clay soils, very cold winters and quite variable summer precipitation. Our research and history has confirmed that this variety is best for us.
Buying your Garlic
If purchasing garlic for seed, make sure to have a conversation via the phone or email with the farm you're buying from. Make sure they are well respected and utilize the type of organic practices you plan to use. It's imperative they know your plan is to plant garlic as they will make sure to give you their largest bulbs, hence calling it "seed" garlic.
Preparing your Garlic for Planting
Once you've received your garlic seed, if you cannot plant immediately, store in a cool dark area. The preferred temperature for storing garlic seed is between 45 and 60 degrees (F); most basements or cellars work perfectly. If you don't have access to either, a cooler in your garage, crawl space or shed will work as well.
If you're ready to plant, start by breaking, cracking, or separating your garlic bulbs into cloves. There can be anywhere from 4 to 12 cloves per bulb depending on the cultivar. Peel the outer layers of skin back as best you can from each bulb and break it apart using your hands or a dull tool. You don't want to damage the clove as it can lead to potential disease or contamination. This can be a time consuming process. It can take as long as an hour to break apart 10 lbs of garlic.
Once your cloves are broken, they can be planted immediately. Some farms like to soak their cloves overnight in a variety of manners. At OnPoint Garlic, we've chosen not to soak ours. We prefer to place them in a labeled bucket, as we plant more than one variety of garlic.
Time to Plant
Once you have your garden planned with the number of beds and rows, be sure to identify each row to show each specific variety. Plant each clove 6-8" apart with the pointed end of each clove facing upward at a depth of 2-4". Once each row is planted, you can use a metal rake or your hands to cover the holes in each row with dirt. If you decide to fertilize this is a good time to do so. Once you determine which mulch you will be using, this will be your final step in the planting process. If using straw, be sure to put a 2-6" layer of chopped straw over each row.
When and How to Harvest
There are many conflicting and varying ideas you can read about that will express when your garlic is ready to harvest. All have some logic behind them. There will be variances depending on what variety of garlic is planted and in which hardiness zone you live. OnPoint Garlic uses a couple different methods to assist us in determining the optimum time to harvest. We leave some of our Scapes on our plants as they uncurl and will be pointed straight upward telling us the plants are ready to vacate the ground. Another identifier is when the bottom two thirds of our plants turn brown. If you're still not convinced, the final confirmation is to dig up one bulb of each variety. If the outer most layer of skin on the garlic bulb is dried, it is ready for harvest.
How you harvest your crop will be up to you depending on how large your garden is and how much help you have to harvest. You can simply use a spade and dig each up by hand or utilize a multitude of products on the market to reduce the amount of time spent harvesting as your garden increases in size. OnPoint Garlic uses a tractor implemented undercutting tool to harvest. To avoid mistakes, we recommend you work on one variety of garlic at a time. Once each cultivar is harvested, remove excess dirt from each bulb and divide into bundles of 10. We use zip ties to secure each of our bundles. Be careful not to bruise or damage your bulbs when removing excess dirt from the roots, and do not leave them lying on the ground or in the sun any longer than you have to.
The Drying Process
You will need to provide a dry, ventilated place to hang your garlic for the drying process. There are a variety of methods such as hanging each bundle on a hook and/or rope, to using chains or smooth wire horizontally. Some farms actually lay their garlic out of drying trays. No matter which method you choose, air circulation is the key. Be sure the area you choose provides not only the proper ventilation but is also shaded from the sun. We are on our 3rd method and may change again if the need presents itself.
Clipping, Cleaning, and Storing
After your garlic has been dried for 3-6 weeks, it will be ready to store, sell, or eat. Remove each bundle from the hanging structure and separate. Cut the stalks of each cultivar no more than 1" above the bulb. You can choose to trim the roots on your garlic. (Optional) Remove a layer or two of the dried outer shell of each bulb to thoroughly remove all dirt or discoloration. Plan on this process taking up to an hour per 20lbs of garlic to clean and clip.
Store in a cool, dark place; 45-60 degrees is optimal. Please keep in mind that each variety of garlic stores differently. You will need to research your garlic varieties.
If you are planning to grow garlic to sell, cover crops are a must. If you are growing garlic for yourself and family to eat, it's a good idea. Cover crops are planted in the off season immediately after harvest. Some examples of cover crops are buckwheat, clover, rye or mustard grass.
Your soil should be tested bi-annually. The results will help you determine which types of cover crops you may need. The most common are nitrogen enhancers as this mineral is absorbed by the plants. Cover crops are easy to plant by simply broadcasting them by hand or by machine. Not only can these crops help with nitrogen, they can aid in providing other minerals that may be lacking in your soil. Cover crops can also help with pest control and help deter garlic's biggest foe, Nematodes. Furthermore, certain cover crops can be very beneficial to bees or butterflies. Our suggestion is to read the following book: "Managing Profitability of Cover Crops", by SARE.