Garden Views: Growing your own garlic is worth the wait

by Lynne Forbragd

Nothing is more satisfying than “eating the fruits of your labor” especially in the fall as the garden season winds down. As the weather turns a little cooler I like to make salsas and red sauces for pasta, pizza and lasagna from the tomatoes and herbs I’ve grown.

A great way to add more flavors to these dishes is freshly grown garlic. By planting garlic this fall, you will enjoy cooking with your own fresh garlic this time next year with an extra bonus waiting for you in early summer.

Growing garlic begins with selecting the right variety that will grow in your garden. There are two different types of garlic, hard-neck and soft-neck. Hard-neck varieties are grown in northern regions and are well suited for a home garden. It is well adapted to colder climates but has a shorter shelf life and typically produces fewer cloves per head. The three main varieties are rocambole, porcelain and purple stripe. The best place to purchase garlic for planting is through catalogs or local farmers markets.

Soft-neck varieties are grown in more southern regions by commercial growers. These are the varieties that are found in grocery stores, are more easily planted and harvested mechanically and have a longer shelf life. Soft-neck varieties have white papery skin with an abundance of cloves. The two main types of varieties are silverskin and artichoke.

The process of growing garlic begins in the fall and can be planted six weeks before a major frost. This is around the same time that spring blooming bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, crocus and hyacinths can be planted in this area. Choose a sunny spot in your garden that will receive a minimum of six hours of direct sun and has rich composted soil. Break up the head of garlic, plant the larger cloves pointed side down and cover with two inches of soil six to eight inches apart. Water the soil and mulch with straw or shredded leaves and wait for spring to arrive.

In early spring, after the snow has melted and the days are getting warmer, thin the mulch around the garlic. You will start to see the garlic beginning to grow. Make sure that the garlic receives one inch of water each week as much as you would typically water the vegetables in your garden.

In mid-June you will start to see the garlic beginning to produce a long thin stem with a knob about one third from the end of the stem.

This is called the garlic scape. Scapes are the flower stalks found on members of the allium family which also includes onions, leeks and chives. The garlic scape is found only in the hard-neck varieties. Once the scape starts to curl, cut it off at the point where the two thin leaves are growing.

By cutting off the scape, this allows the garlic plant to use its energy to produce a bigger bulb. This is the extra bonus. The garlic scape can be saved and used in your cooking to give a mild garlic flavor. They are delicious in omelets, soups, salads and stir-fry and are considered a delicacy in some Asian cuisines. Garlic scapes can also be purchased at some local farmers markets.

After the garlic scape is removed, continue to water your garlic weekly. In early to mid-July, you will start to see the remaining stems start to whither and brown. This is the sign that the garlic is two to three weeks from harvest. Stop watering the garlic at this point.

At the time of harvest, use a garden tool with a forked end to gently loosen the soil being careful not to damage the garlic head. Shake and brush off any dirt and hang to dry in a dark cool place for approximately four to six weeks. After the garlic has dried, cut the dry roots and stem off with a scissor and peel the first layer of papery skin off the garlic bulb. Store the garlic in a cool dry place. Hard-neck varieties can be stored and used up to around mid-winter.

You may want to keep some of the heads of garlic you just harvested to plant for the next year. By doing this, you won’t need to purchase garlic unless you want to try different varieties. While planting garlic may seem like a long process, it is definitely well worth the wait.

Lynne Forbragd is an Anoka County Master Gardener.

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