John Boy Farms
 

Garlic

Growing Garlic

Canada is one of the best places in the world for growing garlic. This is especially the case when growing hardneck garlic varieties that thrive in cold climates. Some of the most vigorous and best tasting garlics are grown all across Canada.

Below is a basic guide developed by John Boy Farms, on growing garlic in Canada from start to finish. 


Garlic "Seed" - What is it really?

When talking about garlic seed, most gardeners are actually referring to the bulbs or bulbils they plan on planting to grow their crop. This is not truly garlic seed and is the vegetative propagation (or clone) of a sister plant (the same as when planting potatoes). It is possible to grow true garlic seed, however it is very difficult and precise steps have to be taken to create specialized conditions for this to happen.


Garlic Varieties

There are many different garlic varieties to grow in the world, but depending on where you live and what you goals are for growing garlic, you will need to pick the best suited to your environment. All garlic can be broken down into two main groups called hardneck and softneck.

Hardneck garlic lends its name to the flowering stock it shoots up (or bolts) during the growing season and subsequently becomes hard. This hard stock starts at the base of the bulb and goes up through the neck, causing it to be a "hardneck". Softneck garlic on the other hand does not generally send up any flowering stocks, unless they are grown in very cold climates. Hardneck varieties tend to be suited to colder climates (although they can often be grown in warmer regions as well), whereas softneck tend to do better in warmer environments.

Within the softneck and hardneck groups, there are several families or subgroups which in turn have their own varieties within. Below are the main family groupings that link to detailed descriptions and lists of varieties:

HARDNECK: Purple StripeMarbled Purple Stripe, Glazed Purple Stripe, Porcelain, Rocambole, Asiatic (weakly bolting), Turban (weakly bolting)

SOFTNECK: Artichoke, Silverskin

Our farm grows and sells varieties in most of these garlic families through our online garlic store.

Garlic Seed Quality

When growing garlic, you want to inspect every garlic bulb before planting to ensure that none are damaged, diseased or have any other problems. Small cuts and bruises can end up molding and causing decay once in the ground. Any bulbs or cloves with mold or other problems, should be kept separate from the rest of the garlic and thrown out.

It is also important to have a trustworthy garlic seed source that you know is reputable and knows how to grow healthy garlic. Getting disease and pest free bulbs in the first place is very important.


Shape and Size

Garlic bulbs and cloves can both come in an array of sizes and you always want to plant the larger cloves that come from the larger bulbs first. Most small cloves will produce a bulb as well if the conditions are right, however the bulb and cloves will usually be smaller. Cloves also come in different shapes such as short and plump or tall and square. This does not usually affect the final size or shape of the bulb at harvest time.


Quantity

How much garlic seed you should plant is an important question that every gardener or farmer has to ask each year. The first step is to figure out how many bulbs you want to harvest the next season.

When growing large garlic varieties like porcelain varieties, you can expect anywhere from 4 to 6 cloves from each bulb. When growing garlic that have a large number of smaller or medium sized cloves like the artichoke family, there are usually 10 or more good sized cloves to plant.

So take the number of plants you want to harvest and divide by the average number of cloves per bulb. For example, if you want to have 1000 porcelain garlic plants to harvest you would need about 250 bulbs (1000 plants/4 seed cloves = 250 bulbs).


Garlic Soils

Perfect Soil

Generally, the best soil for growing garlic is a light loamy soil that drains very well during wet periods, yet is able to hold moisture during dry weather. As well, garlic prefers soil with ample amounts of organic matter with good fertility.

Although most people are not fortunate enough to have this exact type of soil, it is possible to still grow garlic in other soils. In order to this there are a few things to keep in mind. Garlic does not perform well in wet conditions and can rot easily if the soil remains saturated. It also does not like to be in dry conditions found in sandy soils.

Low fertility, moisture deficiencies or excesses can all cause the plants to be weak and form small bulbs. That being said, garlic is a tough plant that can still be grown in most soils if fertility is added when necessary and moisture conditions are managed properly.


Clay Soil

In clay soils that drain poorly, adding large amounts of organic matter such as compost or manure, and growing the garlic on raised beds can result in large improvements. Growing cover crops with deep roots before growing the garlic crop can help with internal drainage of the soil. Garlic does not perform well in wet conditions, so it is important to plan before you start growing the garlic. Garlic can do very well on clay soil if excess moisture conditions are prevented.


Sandy Soil

When growing garlic in soils that are high in sand, drain quickly and have poor fertility, adding large amounts of organic matter will help drastically with water retention and fertility. This can improve the garlic plants growth tremendously. Garlic can do very well on sandy soils as long as it there is enough fertility and the soil is never allowed to dry excessively.


Soil Fertility

Garlic is not generally a demanding crop when it comes to fertility requirements, however it will perform best when nutrients are at optimum levels. Taking soil tests is always recommended no matter how much or little garlic you are growing. Often garlic growers who use organic or natural methods don't believe that they need to take soil tests. This is not a good philosophy and can often lead to deficiencies in certain nutrients or even over fertilization without realizing it.

The following are guidelines we use on our farm, however they could be lower or higher for you depending on where you live and the type of soil you are growing in. It is important to resource the fertility recommendations for your region.

The following amounts are recommended levels of nutrients in the 0 to 24 inch depth portion of the soil:

Nitrogen - 120 lbs/ac
Phosphorus - 160 lbs/ac
Potassium - 150 lbs/ac
Sulfur - 30 lbs/ac

Soils that have low nutrient levels can have their fertility increased by adding either organic materials such as manure and compost or commercial fertilizer (although it is best to use natural sources if possible). When using organic sources to correct fertility deficiencies, they should be added in the late summer or early fall before planting the garlic cloves. This will ensure that the organic materials will have a chance to be incorporated into the soil and begin releasing their nutrients before the garlic starts growing.

It's important to note that all soils, regardless of fertility levels, benefit from adding large amounts of organic matter, especially when growing garlic. Organic matter holds onto excess nutrients and slowly releases them over a number of growing seasons. As well, the organic matter is extremely effective at improving soil structure and tilth. Garlic tends to respond to high organic levels in soil better than most vegetable crops.


Planting Garlic

Planting Date

In Canada, garlic is generally planted in the fall to ensures that the garlic is exposed to the cold temperatures that many types of garlic require. Planting garlic in the spring planted often results in bulbs not forming or having smaller than usual bulbs. In warm climates like the southern United States, garlic can be planted in late winter or very early spring, however this is only possible because of their mild weather.

When you should plant your garlic depends on where you live. When planting garlic in the fall, your goal is for the garlic cloves to develop a health root mass before winter, without putting on top growth. This means that planting can range from mid-September to as late as the end of November depending on where you live in Canada and how long you want your cloves to settle in before winter. Remember that delayed planting in fall in cold regions can increase the risk of winter kill, if the bulbs have not had enough time to develop roots.

In colder area like Manitoba where winter comes early, garlic planting can start as early as September 15 and go as late as the end of October. In warmer regions like southern Ontario, the planting can start in early October and last until the end of November. Sometimes garlic planted early in the season ends up with some green top growth before freeze up, however new leaves will emerge in spring should these be killed over the winter.


Planting Depth

Garlic should be planted anywhere from 1" to 3" deep. Generally deeper than 3" is excessive and will force the garlic cloves to use valuable energy to try and emerge from the soil. This can ultimately hurt the size of the bulbs when harvested.

How deep you choose to plant your garlic cloves depends on the type of soil you have and the climate you live in. Generally, the sandier the soil the deeper you should plant and soils with high clay should be planted shallower. As well, the colder the winters you have, the deeper you want to plant to protect from winter kill.


Plant Spacing

There is a wide range of choices when it comes to planting space. Generally, planting anywhere from 4" to 8" in row and 6" to 12" between rows (and sometimes even wider) is ideal. How close or how far apart you end up planting the garlic will depend on how you plan to weed the garden or field, how much space you have to grow the garlic and the type of garlic you are planting.


Growing Garlic

Once spring arrives and the planted garlic cloves start to grow, there are three main tasks that always need to be taken care over the growing season. These include weeding, watering and scape removal (if necessary).

Weeding

You always want to start off planting your garlic in a field that is as weed free as possible. A patch of garden that has been left alone to fend for itself for a few years is not usually a great spot to plant garlic. This is especially the case for areas that have perennial weeds like thistles or quack grasses and they should be avoided whenever possible.

Garlic is an extremely poor competitor when it comes to weeds. If garlic is left to fight the weeds itself, the weeds will always win. This means that vigilant weeding for the entire growing season is necessary if you want to grow great garlic that have good bulb size.

When weeding garlic, it is very important to be careful not to damage the roots as they are shallow growing and fragile. Weeding when the weeds are still small is always a good idea. Weed early and weed often! This will save you a whole bunch of head aches when it comes to weeding.


Watering

To grow the biggest garlic bulbs, consistent water supply and soil moisture is important. Generally this means that the garlic should receive about 1 inch of rain or watering every week. This can go up to 2 inches a week for sandy soils and/or during the warmer parts of the growing season. It is also important not to over water the garlic as this can lead to more disease issues and poor storage after the bulbs have been harvested.

At about 2 to 3 weeks before the garlic is planned to be harvested, watering should be discontinued as it helps with drying of the plants and bulbs.


Scape Removal

When growing hardneck garlic, removal of the scapes is generally recommended unless you are wanting to harvest bulbil capsules. In almost all cases, scape removal will encourage larger bulb development because the energy diverts to the bulb rather than the flowering structure.

Every garlic family and variety responds a bit differently to scape removal. Porcelain and Purple Stripe garlic tends to be the most affected. Rocamboles tend to be moderately affected, while Asiatics and Turbans have a minor response.

Generally scapes can be removed once they begin to uncoil, but before the capsules begin to swell. Scapes are also wonderful to eat and can be cooked by themselves or in any recipes that garlic is called for.


Harvesting Garlic

Drying soil conditions is a natural signal to garlic that it's growth and bulb filling period is coming to a close and that it needs to start preparing for the next phase in its life cycle as a storage bulb. This means that you should stop watering the garlic crop two to three weeks before harvesting the bulbs. In regions where you get more rain and the garlic continues to get moisture right up until harvest, maturity may just take a little longer and the garlic may need more drying post harvest while curing. Too much moisture at the time of harvest can increase the chances of root or bulb rot and can expose the cloves if the bulb wrappers have broken down. This is worse on heavy or saturated soils and not as much of a problem in sandy soils.


Timing

The key to harvesting garlic at the right time, is balancing how long to leave the bulbs in the ground. You want to leave them long enough to fully develop in size, but not so long that the wrappers begin to deteriorate. Generally this means harvesting when about half the plant leaves have turned brown. Some garlic growers like to harvest when there are more or less leaves turned brown, but we find that half is usually the right balance.


Digging & Harvesting

How you harvest your garlic depends on how much garlic you are planning on digging up. In gardens and small areas, a pitchfork or broadfork can be used to loosen the soil under the garlic before pulling. In market gardens or large gardens, an undercutter bar is pulled behind a tractor and run under the garlic bulbs to loosen the roots and make harvesting easy. It is important to be cautious when digging and harvesting as any damage to the bulbs can be a route for pathogens like rot or mold. 


Drying & Curing

Once the garlic has been removed from the garden or field, the bulbs should be kept away from direct sun. Sun exposure can literally cook the garlic and cause deterioration of the bulbs. They should be tied into bundles of between five and ten plants. The bundles should then be hung in a well ventilated area with good air movement and out of the rain. The leaves and roots should be left on until the drying process is finished. 

In regions that have high humidity, fans are sometimes need to help with the drying process. In dry regions, the garlic should be fully dried and cured after three to four weeks. Locations that are humid can take up to five weeks or even longer in some cases.


Cleaning

Once the garlic has been dried and cured, the roots and tops can be cut off. About half an inch to one inch should be left above the height of the cloves (you want to be careful not to trim too close to the cloves as this can expose them to infection and premature deterioration).

Depending on how dirty the bulbs were at harvest time, you can also clean off any dirt or loose bulb wrappers at this time. Cleaning makes the bulbs look nice and prepares them for selling or storage.

 
Storage

Hanging the garlic in mesh bags in a basement works usually works best for storage. The trick is to keep them in a cool dark place with good air circulation. The temperature needs to remain above 10⁰C (to prevent sprouting) and below 20⁰C (to prevent premature dehydration) with an ideal range of 13⁰C or 14⁰C. This means that you should never store your garlic in a refrigerator as it will begin to sprout (not to mention loose it's flavour). A humidity between 45% to 50% is also best in order to minimize dehydration.


Length of Storage

Garlic can store for as little as a couple months to as long as over a year. How long the garlic will stay in good conditions depends a few factors. This includes the conditions at harvest, varieties being grown, the size of the garlic bulbs and how they are being stored. Softneck garlic tends to store better than hardneck garlic and medium to small bulbs tend to store the longest.

Within the hardneck family, Asiatic and Turbans have the shortest storage ability at only a few months, while the Rocamboles and Purple Stripes are usually ok for about four to six months. Porcelains are the longest and can generally be stored for between six and eight months.

Within the softneck family, Artichoke varieties store for eight to ten months, while Silverskin and Creole garlic can often store for up to a year.