Ms Mar here. As promised, here is my guest blog on growing garlic. I hope it is helpful and inspires you to consider planting your own garlic patch.
I think I can honestly say that I have become obsessed with garlic. I began with 12 heads that came with the garden in our new home four summers ago. I harvested 27 heads the following year and a whoping 416 the year after that. I did a summer farmers market to sell the garlic that year, which was great fun. Last year I harvested about 230 heads (scaled it down a bit; no market, just lots of recipients to provide garlic to) and this fall I planted about 248 cloves, in 13 different varieties, including elephant garlic, which is actually not a garlic but a member of the leek family. I have a raised bed in my back yard approximately 8 feet by 14 feet that easily accomidates up to 500 heads. See? Obsessed.
Growing garlic is incredibly easy and the fruits of my minimal labors are well worth the time and effort I put into my obsession. I clear, till, fertilize and plant in the fall, mulch (very, VERY important), leave the bed through the winter, fertilize in the spring and harvest in the summer. Voila! Easy really. The growing season is long but not too labor intensive.
Garlic comes in hard neck and soft neck varieties. The soft neck varieties are what you would use to create garlic braids, which make great gifts. Hard neck and soft neck pretty much mean what they say; the hard neck have a stiff stem, the soft neck have more pliable stems, good for braiding. Different varieties harvest at different times of the year and have varying shelf lives so be sure to check out the information on the varieties you choose to grow. Some are hot, some are mild, some are great for baking and spreading on bread, some are great for cooking and others are great for using raw as in hummus or tubule and salad dressings. Be adventurous and try a few different varieties if you have the space or just one or two of your favorite.
The three most important aspects of growing garlic are soils, fertilizer and weeding.
Your soils need to be very loose, loamy and fertile. The more loose and fertile your soils the bigger and tastier your garlic will be. I till the bed in the fall and work in copious amounts of organic worm castings (worm poop actually). I break up any clumps I encounter and loosen the soils with a spade as I plant.
The cloves need space to grow into nice big heads of garlic so be sure to plant the cloves 4 to 6 inches apart at least, about 1 to 2 inches deep depending on the variety. Elephant garlic should be planted at 2 inches. Also very important; be sure not to plant any other plants near your garlic. The roots from other plants will compact the soils around the garlic and as I said before, garlic needs room and loose soils to grow.
Which is why weeding is VERY important. Once your bed is planted, be sure to mulch heavily. This will keep weeds down over the winter and into the spring and make what weeding you do have to do quick and easy. I mulch with straw that I get at the feed store but it’s not completely seed freed, which means that I have to keep an eye on the straw sprouts. If you know of a source for seed free straw I’d be very grateful for the information.
Keep the bed weeded and weed free always so as not to compact the soils.
Your cloves will set roots through the winter and begin setting heads in the spring.
I’ll be back in the spring to talk about fertilizing. In the mean time, if you have any questions about growing garlic, just leave a comment and you’ll get as good a response as I can give.
If you need to know a good place for garlic seed, check out Big John’s Garden at http://www.bigjohnsgarden.com He sells organic garlic in several varieties and his prices are pretty good too.