Along with tulips, daffodils and crocuses I have always planted garlic in the fall. However, at a recent Master Gardener meeting a question was raised as to when to plant garlic? I thought to myself, the fall of course! Imagine my surprise when several members replied “in early spring”. Baffled, I decided to do a little research.
The “center of origin” (or “center of diversity”) from which garlic originated is believed to be in the area of China, India, Egypt and the Ukraine. Garlic is one of the oldest cultivated foods although it is uncertain as to when it was first discovered or used. Records dating back to the 4th millennium BC (4000-3001bc) mention the use of garlic for health and medicinal uses. Garlic made it way to the US in the 1700's, however, it was not widely accepted due to its pungent smell and “garlic breath”. It wasn’t until about the 1920's that garlic became more accepted in the US and by the 1990's its consumption has more then tripled with the average person eating 2.3 pounds (170 cloves) of garlic yearly. Today, the US is the fourth largest producer of garlic and the worlds largest importer!
Garlic is available in a variety of sizes, shapes, color, taste or pungency, cloves per head and shelf life. World wide there are at least 600 cultivated sub varieties and ten genetically distinct groups. True garlic (Allium sativum) is a member of the Liliacea (lily) family, along with chives, onions, leeks, and shallots. There are two sub species of Allium sativum, ophioscorodon or hardneck (aka stiffneck) garlic and sativum or softneck garlic. To complicate things just a bit more, softneck garlic has been cultivated from hardneck garlic over many, many, many years. Additionally, elephant garlic is not considered a true garlic, but instead is a variant of a leek.
Garlic reproduces by bulb division (asexual reproduction), bulbils (miniature cloves) harvested from mature scapes (hardnecks) and sexual reproduction by seed (hardnecks). Most garlic is asexually propagated by means of vegetative reproduction. Asexual reproduction is when a new plant is produced from a single parent with out fertilization or meiosis (cell division). Its a sterile clone of the parent with the same identical genetic make up. In vegetative reproduction, just one example of asexual propagation a new plant grows from a piece of the original plant. In the case of garlic, a clove.
There are four factors at play that influences the reproductive process in order for garlic to form bulbs, day length, soil and air temperature and vernalization or prolong period of cold. Garlic is day length sensitive with short day hours (long nights) contributing to more vegetative or top growth and long days (short nights) triggering bulb formation and the elongation of the flower stalk (scape) in hardnecks. Longer days also means warmer soil and air temperatures. A majority of garlic varieties have evolved and/or thrive in cooler climates. This is the reason why a chilling period of six to twelve weeks is needed in order to produce a bulb, especially when it comes to hardneck varieties. So, after a long vernalization period, fallowed by warming soil (60+) and air (68+) temperatures plus thirteen hours of daylight, bulb formation begins. (The challenge of growing large garlic bulbs in the south is to have plants with lots of leaves and good root system before bulbing begins.)
Another way to look at softneck vs hardneck is spring planting vs fall planting. As mentioned above hardneck variety’s need a cooling off period and is best planted in the fall. They also handle harsher weather conditions. Softnecks do well under a variety of weather conditions but are more ideal for the south or planted in early spring in the north. With that being said can you grow hardnecks in the south and softnecks in the fall?
By the time the autumn equinox arrives I have ordered/received my garlic and prepared my beds for planting. In the northern part of the county, Columbus day is the unofficial start of the garlic planting season with Halloween the unofficial end. However, over the pass few years I've have planted garlic well into November. The trick for fall planting is to get the cloves in the ground in enough time for good root growth (three to six weeks) but not to early that you get more then four inches of top growth. This is ideally two to three weeks after the first frost but about a month or so before the ground freezes. The soil temperature at four inches deep should be around fifty degrees Fahrenheit. (Raised beds are about eight to thirteen degrees warmer then planting in the ground). Any top growth will die back in the winter and then resume in the spring.
Garlic tolerates a variety of conditions but will do its best in loamy, nitrogen rich, weed free soil with good drainage, a pH between 6.0-7.5 and six plus hours of sun for good bulb development. If planting in the fall you will need to mulch unless you are guaranteed consistent snow coverage of six inches. When planting garlic I do not like to separate the cloves until I'm ready to place them in the ground. In my raised beds I plant each clove three to four inches deep and six inches apart in rows spaced one foot apart. In the spring I begin to pull back the mulch and feed with fish emulsion (or side dress with compost) when shoots appear. Garlic also likes a good bit of water, about one inch weekly. Rotate where you grow your garlic every three years.
Hardneck garlic produces a scape sometimes referred to as “serpent garlic” because of how it curls around. These scapes are edible and may be eaten raw or cooked. If left on, the energy is directed to the scape resulting in smaller garlic bulbs.
Fall planted garlic is ready for harvest in about nine months, typically June or July. The lower leaves of healthy plants begin to turn yellow and if the scapes are left on they will straighten out. The goal is for maximum size with out splitting. Carefully dig up your garlic and air dry away from sun to prevent scalding in a well ventilated location for two to three weeks. Once cured rub off any dirt and remove tops or braid. Garlic harvested early or used fresh is known as “green garlic”
Planting garlic in the spring gives you an opportunity for a second chance in case you missed the fall planting season. In the north, softneck varieties are better in spring since they do not require as much or any cold exposure. Plant as early as the ground can be worked, however, a delay in spring planting and/or less then ideal weather conditions may lead to week shoots and poor bulb development. If you wish to plant hardnecks in the spring you will need to store the bulbs at or below forty degrees (not in the freezer) for a minimum of forty days. If not the bulbs will not differentiate (divide). Even under the most ideal conditions you will still get better yields and larger bulbs with fall planted garlic.
“A nickel will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat” Yiddish proverb