Once you have decided which gourmet garlic cultivars you will grow, and how much, you can begin to reserve your planting stock. The same principles apply whether you grow garlic for sale or simply for your own use. The general rule is to save back the largest, most robust bulbs for your seed stock. You will not be guaranteed exclusively large bulbs next harvest, but there does appear to be a positive correlation between the relative size of the seed clove and the resulting plant, especially with hardneck varieties.
If you are curious about this relationship in regards to your particular cultivar, separate cloves based on size before planting. Plant the different size categories of cloves in clearly marked sections of your field or garden and when you harvest, compare the average size of the bulbs from each section to determine whether initial clove size made a significant difference. I have separated cloves for several of our hardneck cultivars this way, and have indeed noticed a difference in size at harvest.
When you have a limited amount of seed or you want to expand your stock significantly, plant every healthy clove you have. Even if clove size is a factor in producing large garlic bulbs, it is a single factor. Other factors, including irrigation, weeding, fertilizing, and mulching can also considerably increase your yield and are easier to control. Softneck varieties in particular contain a number of smaller cloves that are just as viable to plant as the larger ones, often producing bulbs of a respectable size at harvest. Planting every available clove is especially relevant if you are purchasing your seed, due to the limited number of bulbs you are likely to have available.
Bulbils, as mentioned in my previous blog (Gourmet Garlic Growing: Planting Part 1 – Where to Get Seed and How Much to Plant) are also a viable option for stock, although they require two to five years to produce full bulbs. The sizes and number of bulbils produced in the umbel varies between cultivars; this influences the time required to produce a full bulb. Asiatic varieties, for example, produce a small number of very large bulbils which often produce a fully differentiated bulb in two years. Conversely, Rocambole cultivars produce many tiny bulbils. Planting these bulbils is a great option to significantly increase your stock, but it will take three to five years before the bulbs are mature.
Whether you are planting bulbils or cloves, the matter of most importance in choosing which bulbs to plant is the overall health of the bulb. Although bulbs do not have to be perfect, the presence of mold and disease is unacceptable. Not only will mold and disease severely inhibit the normal growth of cloves, you also place your soil at risk for infection that may subsequently affect other bulbs. Examine each bulb carefully and remove any bulbs that display mold or abnormalities that may indicate disease. Do not compost; if possible, burn the affected bulbs to ensure they will not infect your good seed, and always wash your hands before touching healthy seed.
Bulbs must also not be heavily damaged by nicks, cuts, or bruising. The clove is the storage leaf for the sprouting portion of the new bulb, and damage to the flesh greatly increases the risk of infection and mold to the garlic. While compromising the health and growth of a few bulbs may minimally affect your overall yield, you risk destroying the integrity of the surrounding soil and spreading infection. Also examine the bottoms of the bulbs. If the bottom of the cloves have pulled away from the disc of roots and become brown and dry the basal plates, from which the roots and leaves will grow, are likely compromised and should be discarded.
This does not mean that there can be no damage to the bulb, only to the particular cloves to be planted. If a bulb has a number of healthy cloves and one or two cloves that are damaged, simply remove the spoiled cloves, and ensure the remainder are healthy. If so, they can be planted as usual. At Calling Quail Farm, we fondly call these injured bulbs “uglies” but they often provide us with a decent amount of healthy, viable cloves that produce robust bulbs at the next harvest.
There are several other ways to further refine your stock. Choose bulbs that are robust and firm with dry, relatively tight, smooth skins. Avoid those that are soft, spongy, and shriveled. Robustness is also indicated by heft; the bulbs should feel somewhat “weighty”, which usually indicates a healthy, hydrated bulb.
The skin of the bulbs should also be a healthy white, with or without purple stripes, marbling, or patches. Often skins will be stained from the soil, making the bulbs appear discolored. Remove the first layer or two of skin, and the bulb should be a brighter, healthy color underneath. If, however, the skins underneath are also yellowed or otherwise discolored down to the clove skins, you may want to discard these bulbs. The clove flesh is usually fine for eating, but planting these cloves can result in the discoloration being passed on, leaving you with a patch of unsightly bulbs. Benign discoloration may not matter if you are growing garlic for your own culinary use, but it will make the bulbs difficult to sell as gourmet garlic.
Until it is time to separate your cloves, store planting bulbs away from your culinary or sale garlic to guarantee there are no mix-ups. As mentioned in my first blog (Growing Gourmet Garlic: Planting Part 1 – Where to Get Seed and How Much to Plant) ensure your bulbs are stored somewhere cool (but not below 10°C), away from damp and sunlight, and with good air circulation. While choosing your planting stock, begin preparing your soil and settle on a likely planting date. Tips for this can be found in my next blog: Growing Gourmet Garlic: Planting Part 3 - When to Plant and Soil Preparation.
Andrea Cross grows gourmet garlic at her farm, Calling Quail, in British Columbia, Canada. She will shortly be publishing a personal blog at callinquailfarm.tumblr.com/. Join the farm website at www.callingquailgarlic.com and its Facebook page.
Want to read the other parts in this series? Check out:
Growing Gourmet Garlic, Part 1: Where to Get Seed and How Much to Plant