Plant garlic now for 2012 summer harvest

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By Jeneen Wiche

For centuries garlic has been enjoyed for its culinary, medicinal and spiritual qualities, including fending off evil spirits and vampires and acting as an anti-bacterial.  There was evidence of garlic in King Tut’s tomb when it was discovered so obviously the ancient Egyptians were growing it as far back as 2100 B.C. That’s some serious culinary history.

There are two categories of garlic to consider: Allium sativum, or softneck garlic and Allium ophioscordon, or hardneck garlic. Softneck garlic is the easiest and most widely cultivated because the bulbs are large and the cloves and skin are tight which prevent moisture loss and allows for longer storage.  Through centuries of selection softneck garlic has lost the ability to flower so it doesn’t expend energy on producing seed; instead, the energy goes toward developing bigger bulbs underground. The majority of garlic purchased in the grocery and grown in Kentuckiana gardens is of the softneck variety. 

While softneck is the recommendation for our climate I have to admit that I prefer growing hardneck varieties.  Hardneck garlic has the most intense flavor and is easier to peel; but the real bonus is that hardneck varieties produce a flower scape in June. Once the scape begins to unfurl its flower head I harvest them so all of the bulb’s energy goes to the bulb ... and the scape is sautéed, turned into pesto or roasted with every meal.  They are absolutely delicious!

The down side to hardneck garlic: it prefers cooler summers (and indeed my harvest was not as good this year) and generally has a shorter storage because of its loose-skinned cloves (although I have not found this to be a problem with my homegrown lot). Neither of these proves enough of a downside for me to give up the June scapes, however. 

It is most efficient to grow garlic from cloves if you are looking for size and yield.  Don’t use garlic purchased from the grocery store, instead purchase planting-varieties from a garden center or catalogue.  Dormant garlic should be stored at about 40 degrees for several months before planting; grocery store garlic has been stored at higher temperatures and may have been treated with an anti-sprouting agent. Consider, too, maintaining your own seed stock after you have grown garlic for the first time (save some of the largest cloves, refrigerate and replant in October or November.) Your own seed stock will develop an affinity to your garden and thus improve with each year. I do not even know what variety of hardneck garlic I grow because it is from so long ago; I suspect it is a white German variety, however.

Most garlic growers prefer a fall planting over a spring one because conditions are drier. The most important cultural factor is a planting bed with well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Prepare your bed by adding manure or other composted material. Plant the individual cloves 2-5 inches deep, depending on the size of the clove, and space them about 6-8 inches apart. Once we have had several hard freezes you can mulch the garlic bed with straw to provide some insulation and to prevent heaving from alternating freezing and thawing of the soil during the winter months but this is not critical.  In the spring remove the layer of mulch and add more composted material and a little corn gluten to manage weeds.  I rarely have insect problems but this year did experience some onion maggot problems:  easy solution for next year is to layer a little sand around the crown of the garlic to deter the adult fly from laying its eggs there; harvesting as soon as the tops begin to brown out helps, too.

Fall planted garlic is usually ready to harvest in August (once the tops begin to brown out); garlic is day-length sensitive and cloves begin to form around summer solstice so don’t harvest too early. After harvest let them air cure for two weeks in a warm, dry and well-ventilated space; once the garlic is cured store it somewhere cool.