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Garden Q&A: Variety is key to growing garlic

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Jessica Walliser
Hardneck garlic plant with scape

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Saturday, Aug. 9, 2014, 8:21 p.m.

Question: My garlic did not produce as big of bulbs as it has in the past. I did it the same as I always do. Was the hard winter the difference, or do I need to do something else?

Answer: As you already know, there is no comparison between “fresh from the garden” and “supermarket” garlic. Growing your own is the only way to go, even in years when bulb-set isn't as good as we'd like it to be.

I've heard from other area gardeners who say they've also had a less-than-perfect garlic harvest this summer. While I'm not sure it can be wholly attributed to the harsh winter, it certainly may have played a role.

Here are tips that may help next year's harvest.

Garlic is always planted in the fall and harvested the following summer. Around here, gardeners tend to plant the bulbs in October and harvest in mid-July. Be sure to purchase garlic for planting from a specialty garlic farm or at your local farmer's market (I buy my bulbs from Enon Valley Garlic Farm at the Sewickley Farmer's Market from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays in the parking lot at St. James Church). Grocery store garlic is often treated with a sprouting inhibitor and often will not grow, and it may be a variety that isn't appropriate for our climate.

It's important to grow a few varieties each year, as some will always be more successful than others. This also helps prevent a total crop loss should a pathogen strike.

To plant garlic, crack open the heads to reveal the inner cloves; separate them and plant, pointy end up, 3 inches deep and 4 inches apart. Keep in mind that larger cloves will develop into larger heads, so you may want to plant only the largest cloves and save the smaller ones for kitchen use. Be sure to amend the soil with a few shovels full of compost before planting.

After planting, the area should be mulched with a 2- to 4-inch layer of straw, hay, grass clippings or compost to suppress competition from weeds and conserve soil moisture. An annual application of an organic fertilizer slightly higher in phosphorus and potassium to encourage optimum bulb growth is a good idea. I use a light application of BulbTone (available at local garden centers) just after planting and again in the spring.

Two main types of garlic exist: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck varieties do best in colder climates like ours and peel easier. They also develop a flowering stem called a scape in the summer. It looks a bit like a green curlicue coming out of the foliage. This scape should be cut off as soon as it develops (they're delicious in stirfries and pesto!). If you don't remove the scape, the head will be significantly smaller upon maturity. Hardnecks are thought to have more flavor than softnecks. There are hundreds of named varieties of hardneck garlic, including my favorites, Spanish Roja, Russian Giant, Chesnok Red and German White.

Softneck varieties are best for warmer climates and are the most common varieties for mass production because they store very well. Softnecks have many cloves in each head, including lots of smaller inner cloves. There are only a dozen or so named softneck varieties, including Silver Rose, Inchelium Red, Symphony and Red Torch.

Garlic is ready to harvest in mid-summer when the leaves are about 50 percent yellow. The bulbs are dug and cured in a warm and airy place for two to three weeks.

Store harvested garlic bulbs in a cool, dry place. I recommend keeping it at 55 degrees and 50 percent humidity. Good air circulation is critical. Hardnecks will generally store for up to six months, while softnecks keep for up to nine.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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