Garlic is a perennial plant that is grown as a winter annual, planted in fall and harvested in early summer. Garlic spends all winter developing a big, healthy root system and develops a tall green top and underground bulb in the spring.
Garlic is an easy vegetable to grow organically. All you need is some planning, good seed garlic and patience: garlic takes about nine months from planting to harvesting. Since garlic has very few insect pests, it will be right at home in your organic garden.
Hardneck and Softneck Organic Garlic
There are two main types of garlic: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck types are very cold hardy, and are flavorful and easy to peel when it comes time to cook them. They are often preferred by chefs and "foodies" because they are reputed to have a richer, more complex flavor than many of the softneck varieties. Softneck types are the kind of garlic that is usually sold in the grocery store. They are not as cold hardy as hardneck garlic but are well suited for growing in the South, Southwestern and Northwestern US. They store much longer than hardneck garlic and are the kind of garlic that can be made into garlic braids.
Varieties of Organic Garlic
There are many varieties or "strains" of both garlic types. These strains vary in size, "heat", flavor, color, number of cloves per bulb, etc. There are several mail order sources that sell seed garlic of many strains. These include Filaree Farm in Washington State and The Garlic Store in California. You can also buy garlic from your local organic grocery store or food coop and use it as seed garlic. Make sure that any seed garlic that you plant is free of mold, disease and insect damage and that it has not been sprayed with any sprouting inhibitors.
Tips for Growing Great Organic Garlic
When preparing your garden bed for the garlic, make sure to till it to at least several inches of depth. You may want to make raised beds so that the soil will be better drained and will warm up more quickly in spring. You will need to add lots of compost, aged manure or other soil amendments to your garden bed because garlic needs a lot of nutrition and prefers a soil with a fairly large percentage of organic matter (about 5%).
Once you have made your garden beds, make a furrow about 1 inch deep, divide your garlic bulbs into cloves (leave the "skin" on the cloves), and plant the cloves about 6 inches apart. Make sure that you plant the fatter (or basal) side down. That is the part of the clove that the roots will sprout from. Once they are planted, cover them with about 2 inches of mulch. The mulch can be made from shredded leaves, hay, or any other nitrogen-rich material that you have used successfully in your garden.
During the growing season, your garlic will need to be watered regularly and weeded as necessary. After the garlic sprouts emerge in the spring, you can mulch your garden again to help keep any weeds in check. Other than that, garlic is relatively low-maintenance. It's an organic vegetable gardener's dream come true!
You can harvest your garlic as "green" garlic when it is fully grown but hasn't started to die back and dry out--it will be delicious in stir fries! As a rule of thumb, your mature garlic bulbs will be ready to harvest when all but about five leaves have died back and turned brown. To harvest, use a digging fork to lift the bulbs right out of the ground.
After harvesting, allow your garlic to dry in a shady place with plenty of air circulation. Once the garlic has cured, or dried out, a bit, it will be ready to store. Most hardneck garlic can be stored for about four months before it shows too much wear and tear. Softneck garlic can be stored for up to ten months and still be firm, fresh and delightful to admire and to eat.
Your organic garden can be productive year-round if you want it to. Garlic is a great vegetable that will thrive all winter long and will rarely disappoint you when summer rolls around!