Optimizing garlic growing in the Midwest

Guest post by Matthew, in which he geeks out on growing garlic in St. Louis, complete with a crazy-detailed spreadsheet 🙂

One of the challenges of gardening is that things that work well in one place, with one soil and climate, don’t work the same way in another climate.  While it isn’t perfect, the best data comes from places that are near where we’re wanting to garden.  I haven’t found a lot of detailed information and recommendations for my Midwestern climate with hot, humid summers, cold winters, and fast weather changes.  (If you have suggestions, I’d love to add to my reference library.)  Because of this, I do quite a bit of experimenting with different techniques, spacings, varieties, etc.  We’ve posted some of my results about carrots before, but today is all about garlic.  Onions will come in another post.

We did one garlic tasting last year.  We were unimpressed with the practical differences in taste when used as we normally use it, or really even in the roasted product.  Granted, my roasting protocol could use some work.  If you have a foolproof recipe for all different kinds of garlic, please let us know.  Normally we just add a bulb to a dish of other food, and I think as long as it’s pretty garlicky, it’ll do.  I do plan to try tasting again this year, but unless something impresses me, I think I’ll be weeding out a lot of my lower performers, or at least cutting them way back and trying to grow them from bulbils to see if they grow better with a fresh start free from soil disease.

That said, I grew 24 or 25 different kinds of garlic last year, and eliminated those that were most diseased or unsuited to my climate.  This year I grew 17 kinds, plus elephant garlic, and took data for comparison.  This is not a great study, as the sample sizes vary, and the growing conditions vary some, but it’s a decent set of data to start from, and much better than the information I’ve been able to find.

I asked myself what I’d need to compare garlic…

First I thought number of bulbs, total weight, and average weights for each variety.

But wait.  My “Main Crop” tends to have only 4-6 huge cloves, while Inchilium Red has 8-10 plantable cloves per bulb.*  For a fair comparison, I needed to know the number of bulbs, and the weight, that had to be devoted to replanting the same amount for next year.  I needed more data.

My, that’s a lot of data (see PDF linked below for full data table).  But hmm, this still doesn’t take into account the planting density.  I mostly used 6″ spacing between plants, but planted a few sub-plots at 4” spacing, and the elephant garlic had 12” spacing.

I realized the productivity was probably my best measure, and that I could capture that with lbs of eaters per square foot total needed to grow the variety, including the footage for replants.  To get that I added the sq feet total for variety including replant, lbs of eaters, and productivity (shaded in gray in the PDF linked below).

Garlic for blog Planning 9.15.2014

When I added that in, I also adjusted the elephant garlic for space, and it’s productivity came out as low middle of the pack.  The Broadleaf Czech at 4” was essentially just as productive as Broadleaf Czech at 6”, but no better.  I’ll repeat the experiment on a small scale, but it certainly suggests that for Broadleaf Czech, and possibly other softneck varieties, the 4” spacing is just too tight.  Why have smaller cloves if you can have the same total weight and larger cloves?

On the other hand, Main Crop at 4” was significantly more productive than Main Crop at 6”:  7.48 oz/sq foot vs. 4.85 oz/sq foot (possibly contaminated with Music or Russ Giant) or 3.86.  4” was between 1.5 and 2x as productive.  Since it only has 4-6 cloves generally, I’ll probably continue trying significant amounts of 4” Main Crop, and possibly other high yielding hardnecks too.

So, for St. Louis, from my data, German White (a.k.a. German Extra Hardy or many other names), Russian Giant, Silver Rose, Inchilium Red, Broadleaf Czech, Asian Tempest, Siberian, and Shantung Purple, Kettleriver Giant, and Elephant Garlic (in order of productivity).  I’ll grow a little of the others to check my data next year, and I may start growing some from bulbils to see if that increases the yield of the other cultivars . . . IF my taste test reveals that it makes a difference for our uses.  If not, I’ll just focus on the top ten producers, and once I have results from a few years, drop it down to the top three to five.

Other garlic resources:

*Our best guess is that our “Main Crop” is German White/Extra Hardy, but we’re not quite sure.



  1. EcoCatLady says:

    Holy Moly! That’s quite the detailed approach to garlic planting. I didn’t even know there were different varieties! I’ve been trying for 4-5 years to grow garlic without success. My problem is that the stalks all turn brown and die long before they ever send up any scapes or produce bulbs that are big enough to eat. I’ve been assuming that they just weren’t getting enough water, but maybe it’s something else. Any clues? 🙂

    1. Matthew says:

      How are you growing it? When are you planting? What spacing are you using? Where did you get the seed garlic? Planting is typically done after the first frost. Southern Exposure seed exchange has good detailed growing instructions on the link above. I’d suggest using either a beautiful large bulb from a local garlic grower, or buying from a respected grower online. Dave’s garden page has independent reviews of garden suppliers.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s