How Barbara grows garlic

Barbara & her German White garlic in April

Have you ever thought you might try growing garlic? Now’s the time to think seriously about that possibility, because you have three months to read up on the subject, research suppliers, and order the seed bulbs of the variety you select.

Barbara Billek, who gardens at the Westside Community Garden site of Columbia Gardeners, Inc., has been growing garlic—German White, a “hardneck” variety—for five years.

“Most of the garlic you find in grocery stores is softneck garlic,” Barbara explained. “Softneck has multiple rows of cloves in a circle. The outer circle has large cloves, and the cloves get smaller toward the middle of the bulb.”

Barbara said hardneck garlic—like the German White she grows—has only one circle of cloves around a central stem. “Each plants sends up a scape, which would contain its flower and then seeds if I didn’t cut it off,” Barbara continued. “German White has large cloves, about eight around a central stem. They are easy to peel and have excellent flavor. You can tell how many cloves each plant will produce by counting the number of leaves the plant has during its growing cycle. Each leaf equals one clove—roughly.”

Barbara planted this year’s crop last November 1. “The University of Maryland Extension’s ‘Planting Dates’ guide for Central Maryland recommends planting garlic from October 15 to November 15, so I planted at the mid-point.” Some growers plant in the spring, between March 15 and April 15, but garlic planted then tends to produce smaller bulbs with smaller cloves.

An organic gardener, Barbara explained how she does it: “I first rake in one inch of compost—about 40 pounds per 10 square feet of my raised garden. I then incorporate about one pound of organic 10-10-10 fertilizer per 50 square feet of garden. I then set out the cloves, root side down, pointy side up, about an inch and a half deep and six inches apart in each direction. I then sprinkle some kelp along the rows and water them in.”

Barbara said that by late fall, after a few frosts, the young plants are about six inches high. “I then mulch them with about four inches of straw. In mid-March I remove the mulch and fertilize again with the 10-10-10 and kelp. I add some cottonseed meal in early April and again two weeks later.”

Scapes curl like pigs’ tails

Barbara said the scapes emerge about the end of May. “Scapes curl as they grow and ultimately straighten and grow little seed-like bulbils, but its best to remove them so the plants will use their energy to form bulbs rather than seeds. It’s best to harvest scapes when they’re curled like pigs’ tails, before they straighten, cutting them off about an inch above where they emerge from the plants.”

Barbara stops watering June 1 because garlic doesn’t like much water during its last month of growing.  She harvests her garlic when half of the leaves on each plant have turned brown, sometime in July in Zone 7.

“Don’t pull the plants with your hands,” she advised. “Use a fork or small shovel to left the plants. Brush off most of the soil and then let the plants dry in a well ventilated and dry area. I lay them out on a table in our basement. When all the leaves have turned brown—in about two to three weeks—they are cured and will keep for months. I then cut off the roots and the stalk near the head of the bulb.

“By the way,” Barbara added, you don’t have to wait for the garlic to cure before you use it. Curing is necessary only if you want to store it.”

What does she do with the scapes that she cuts off in the spring?

Barbara began harvesting June 30

“I use scapes in recipes instead of spring onions,” Barbara said. “I use just the part of the scape from where it emerges from the plant up to the bulbil. I discard the rest. I use it in stir fries, on pizza and pasta, and in soups and scrambled eggs. I’ve found good scape recipes at the Mariquita Farms (California) website.

Where does Barbara get the cloves she plants each fall?

“Like most garlic growers, I use the cloves from the biggest, best bulbs from the previous growing year as sets for the next crop. That means I don’t buy new seed bulbs to plant each year.”

Would she buy seed bulbs from the same company if you had to start with new sets?

“I bought originally from Cayuga Farms in New York State,” Barbara said, “but the smallest order they accept now is for 50 pounds. I could never grow and use that much garlic. I think I might be tempted to buy from the Two Sisters Garlic website.”  

I asked Howard County Master Gardeners who grow garlic where they buy their seed bulbs. Here are their answers, starting with the supplier with the most varieties: Jerry B., Territorial Seed Co. (35 varieties); Paul K., Burpee (24 varieties); Barbara W., Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (21 varieties); Jane H. and Jerry B., Seed Savers Exchange (13 varieties); Mary S., Seeds of Change (9 varieties); Jerry B., Johnny’s Selected Seeds (3 varieties); and Deborah P., Le Jardin du Gourmet Seeds (2 varieties).

Most seed companies ship garlic bulbs in September or October for fall planting, so if you’re interested in growing garlic, you have plenty of time to read up on the subject, check out seed suppliers, and order.

Finally, to read the University of Maryland Extension’s “Vegetable Profile” on garlic—which contains additional information about how to grow garlic, CLICK HERE.

4 Comments on “How Barbara grows garlic

  1. Thank you, Joe. Gardeners interested in planting garlic will get lots of insights and info by looking at the sites.


  2. Thanks for all the details in the post. I think I am inspired to try my first overwinter crop.


  3. I buy my from Filaree Farm, and have for nearly 10 years. They have great variety and ship HUGE bulbs on-time. I plant my garlic just before Halloween so I have time to get the extra pumpkins and use them as compost on my beds (a hint from Michael, originally from Russia).
    Joanne, West Side Gardens, Columbia


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