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.


Sowing garlic or warding off vampires?

As Matthew noted in a previous guest post on growing garlic, recommendations for planting next year’s garlic crop in our region range from August through October (i.e., plant in fall of 2012 for June 2013 harvest).   October feels appropriate, with vampires on the prowl for Halloween.

He planted this past Saturday (October 13th), just a few days after last year’s planting date.  The previous weekend, he prepared the soil and set up a twine grid as a guide — neat and precise.

He saved the biggest cloves from the biggest, healthiest bulbs (we eat the “rejects”).  These, in turn, should generate mores bulbs with large cloves, so that eventually all the garlic we grow will have nice, big cloves.

I peeled the very outer layer of papery skin off of the bulbs and gently separated the cloves.  Matthew and his mom planted over 100 cloves of garlic (which means we should harvest more than 100 bulbs come June), and we still have a nice amount for eating, though I imagine we’ll run out before we harvest the 2013 crop.

The little gardener came out (sans pants) after his nap to make sure they followed proper planting protocol, and he declared the garden a vampire-free zone, adding that we could leave the biting and sucking to him.

Planting garlic: Excitement and agony

A guest post by Farmer Matt

Who doesn’t get excited by growing gorgeous, flavorful bulbs of garlic with names like Music, Cherokee Red, Broadleaf Czech, Tochliavri, Inchelium Red, and Elephant Garlic?  Some people advocate planting around here in August, others in October after the first frost.  Last year I planted in August with good results, this year, due to the little one, I’m finally got it in on October 8 (no frost here yet), so we’ll see how it does.  For seed stock, I saved garlic from this year’s crop to replant and bought new varieties from Seed  Savers.  Time and conditions permitting, I may buy some Elephant garlic from Whole Foods and try to get that in as well.

Soil Prep
I definitely recommend planting garlic sometime in the fall for harvest early the following summer.  I plant it in well worked soil with good drainage and plant it in beds to avoid compacting the roots; this also makes it easier to apply a heavy layer of mulch.

Gently separate cloves, leaving as much of the paper wrapper on them as possible; plant 6-8” apart, or 12” apart for Elephant garlic.  Plant cloves pointed-end up, cover with ½-1” of soil, and then mulch with leaves, ideally chopped.

I cut off scapes in the spring when they’re about 12” long, and harvest when the plant’s leaves start to yellow, checking the bulbs for the cloves bulging through the wrappers to confirm that it’s time to harvest by gently digging the plants up from below.

The agonizing part is that with garlic the “seed” is exactly the same clove you want to eat.  Even worse, it’s one of the few plants where planting the largest cloves makes a big difference in the size of the bulb you’ll harvest next year, so you have to plant your most beautiful, gorgeous garlic to keep your quality high.  As I’m working on increasing my planting stock and my harvest, I had to plant most of my garlic.  I planted about 175 cloves, roughtly 30 bulbs.  My mother and my family have eaten maybe 8 bulbs each so far, and we both have 8 bulbs left, so we’ve used 32 of the smallest bulbs, and I’ve replanted half of this year’s harvest.