View of David Peterson's Maplewood Gardens in Wisconsin.
Preparing the Garlic for Planting and Planting the Garlic
Garlic is subject to fungal diseases and pest infestations that can be virtually undetectable until they strike. Prevention is the best way to deal with them. In our experience, garlic that is soaked in certain solutions and with the clove covers peeled off have a better chance of growing free of pathogen or pest.
When your soil is fully ready to be planted, take the bulbs you want to plant and break them apart into their individual cloves (Being sure to keep each variety separate from others. Soak each varieties' cloves in water containing one heaping tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) and liquid seaweed per gallon to protect them from fungus as well as give them an energy boost. Leave the cloves in the soda water overnight or long enough for the clove covers to loosen so the liquid comes into contact with the surfaces of the cloves. Garlics clove covers can contain fungal spores, or conidia or the eggs of pests such as mites and are best discarded rather than planted since the first thing the cloves do is to shed them, anyway. The baking soda helps neutralize the fungi. Commercial growers don't have time to peel cloves bare but gardeners do. Peeling the cloves has another advantage in that you can see if they have any problems and if they do, discard them and plant only the best cloves in order to harvest the best garlic. If you can't see what the cloves really look like it is easy to plant bad cloves thinking they are good and wind up with a bad harvest the following year.
The cloves should then be soaked in rubbing alcohol or 100 proof vodka for three or four minutes and then planted immediately. The alcohol kills pests and pest eggs and any pathogens the first soaking missed. Every time I have done this, the treated garlic turned out better than the untreated control group. Alcohols are on the National Organic Program accepted list and baking soda is accepted under part 205.605.
Here in central Texas, we plant about 2 to 3 inches deep, with larger varieties going a little deeper in the ground than the smaller varieties. We put them in by hand so we can be sure each clove is properly bedded down. It's a lot of work on our hands and knees, but it's the best way to get the best results. Garlic does not lend itself well to automated planting technology due to the irregular size and shape differences in the cloves. Our beds are 6 in. high and 24 in. wide, we drip irrigate with T-Tapes and cover all with a 3 inch deep mulch to protect from weeds and to hold in the soil moisture, more to act as a barrier to direct sunlight on the soil than for temperature protection. Garlic survives cold quite well as it was designed by nature to grow in the fall, rest in the winter and bulb out in the late spring or early to mid-summer.
Across the northern tier of states garlics leaves do not usually emerge from the ground until spring, although in a warm winter, they will emerge an grow in the winter just as they do in the South or in California. Garlic loves the cold weather but it can be frozen out if the temp drops 10 or 20 below zero-F and stays there for a couple of weeks, but it is rare. During those times when we actually get snow down here, it's a beautiful sight to see all those lush deep green spearlike leaves shooting up abruptly out out of the stark white snow. When you walk out to make sure they're OK, you can almost hear them laughing and frolicking in the snow and singing their song of joy. The garlics allow the grower to join the party, but no one else - it's a private family affair.
Tending the Growing Garlic
Garlic is naturally very resourceful and will find a way to get what it needs out of the soil it grows in. You don't need a lot of NPK, just a good well balanced soil that is loose enough for the bulb to grow and expand when it is the time for it to do so. Ordinary garden soil with a little composted manure added a couple of months before planting is great. It doesn't much care for dry, hard packed clayey or thin rocky soils that may restrict its expansion, oh, it will still grow, it just won't get as big. It may; however, have a more intense flavor and store a little longer than the big beautiful ones. Like its cousins, the onions, garlic doesn't like to dry out completely during its growing season as that tends to make it stronger in flavor. A good thing to remember if you like strong garlic.
Professional growers know that size is what sells in this country, no matter what they grow. In a supermarket, most people will buy a larger fruit or garlic rather than a small one and would be surprised to learn that the small one might even taste better. Size in a garlic is determined first by the variety and then by the growing conditions. Some varieties are naturally larger than others - please see our section on Varieties of Garlic for an explanation. After varietal type, the next consideration is soil fertility and the amount and frequency of watering, mostly the watering.
Some growers recommend fertilizing garlic in the early spring to give it a boost just as the foliage gets a good start but before the plant begins to form a bulb, and I think that's usually a good idea. Others say that if your soil is naturally fertile enough you don't even have to fertilize at all during the growing season. If you're not going to do a spring fertilization, we think a foliar spray with a tablespoon each of seaweed, molasses and baking soda in a gallon of water two or three times during the spring helps the garlic finish out its growth, nicely - but do not foliar feed it within a month of harvest. It is a good idea to make sure the garlic is not real dry when you spray as that may not be beneficial to the plants. Foliar spraying should only be done on healthy, well watered plants. Garlic will build a good stand of lush foilage before it begins to swell at its base and form a bulb. Discontinue all fertilization at the first sign of the bulb beginning to swell. If you continue to fertilize beyond the bulbing point, especially with nitrogen, it can cause the leaves to become extra lush at the expense of bulb size.
Garlic likes a slightly moist but not wet soil. If the moisture content of the soil at the root level is below 50%, it is time to water the garlic. If it stays too wet, diseases such as fungus and blight can set in and moist conditions also favor nematodes. Few things in nature prey upon garlic as garlic kills or repels most insects, fungi and other things that are problems for most other plants, but the things that bother garlic don't seem to bother much else (except grasshoppers). Garlic needs to be protected from those diseases by giving it the growing conditions it likes and avoiding those conditions that lead to problems.
Overwatering garlic can lead to some of those problems as can underwatering because any plant that becomes stressed is more likely to develop problems than a plant that is not stressed. If it gets too dry, water it; if it gets too wet and stays that way for a bit too long, pull back some of the mulch and let the soil dry out some before replacing the mulch. One way to determine the moisture content is to stick your hand down into the root zone feel the soil. If your hand comes out dry, it's time to water; If it is muddy and sticks to your hand, it's too wet. If it stays that way for too long, pull back the mulch and let the ground dry out a bit. Do not water during the last week or so before harvesting your garlic as it is easier to pull or dig garlic out of fairly dry soil than mud, and the garlic will store better.