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The Homeowners Column
Add Some Garlic to Your Garden
State Master Gardener Coordinator
I suspect no other legal herb has had as many faithful followers. Throughout history garlic has been reported to have magical, mystical, and medicinal properties. Garlic has been prescribed medicinally since pre-biblical times. Today great interest in the pungent properties of garlic continues.
Although garlic is easy to grow, it does take a little forethought for an abundant crop next summer. Mid-September through October is garlic planting time, at least six weeks before soil freezes is best. Spring planting is acceptable; however, bulbs will be smaller than fall planted bulbs. In spring cloves could be planted thickly then harvested and eaten similarly to green onions.
Garlic grows best in full sun in well-drained loam soils that are fertile and high in organic matter. Raised beds may be needed in poorly drained areas. Apply 3 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet at planting time or use organic fertilizer such as soybean meal. Also incorporate compost or other organic matter. Spade or till amendments into the soil.
Once soil is prepared, separate individual cloves from the main garlic bulb and plant cloves 3-5 inches apart with points up and cover to a depth of 1-2 inches. Allow 15 to 18 inches between rows or plant 5 inches apart in all directions if using raised beds. Do not divide the bulb into cloves until immediately before planting and leave the thin skin on the clove. Generally the larger the clove at planting time equals a larger sized bulb at harvest.
Water thoroughly after planting and then mulch with 4-6 inches of seed-free straw to moderate soil temperatures in winter and early spring, and to control weeds. Garlic does not compete well with weeds. Cloves will form roots in fall and may sprout through mulch in 4-6 weeks, but don't worry if the leaves get a frost nip.
Garlic resumes its growth in early spring. A couple liquid fertilizer applications are helpful before mid-May as well as an inch of water a week through early June. Leaf growth ceases and bulb formation begins in June.
Bulbs are ready for harvest when the tops start to yellow, usually in early July. Do not wait until all leaves are brown. Harvest when about five green leaves remain. Harvest by digging bulbs and not pulling.
Place bulbs on screen trays to dry in a cool, well-ventilated and dark place. Bulbs may be braided or bunched with twine and hung to complete drying. Mature bulbs will generally keep for months if stored in cool, dry and dark area. Garlic will reward you tenfold with plenty of garlic to share.
The many flavorful varieties of garlic are fun to try. Varieties fall into two main types: hardnecks and softnecks. Hardnecks as their name implies form a hard central scape that curls at the end with small bulbils attached. In summer the ends of the curly scapes should be removed and are often harvested for eating similarly to green onions. Hardnecks are known for their robust flavor. Softnecks do not form a central hard scape and are commonly the ones found in grocery stores. They are known for their long keeping qualities of up to one year.
Elephant garlic is not true garlic, but a type of leek that forms a pungent bulb that tastes similar and resembles a garlic bulb.
A few good varieties for Illinois include hardneck types: Spanish Roja, Carpathian, Georgian Crystal, Music, Metechi, and Persian Star. Softnecks include: Inchelium Red, Idaho Silverskin, and Persian Star. Garlic flavors are enhanced during storage. Check out farmers markets, local garden centers and internet specialty companies for garlic to plant. Start a tradition of growing garlic and be sure to save the best and the biggest bulbs to replant in fall.