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It is nearing the time of year when people begin asking me about the best way to plant and grow gourmet garlic. In the following series of blogs, I will address various issues involved with growing the best garlic you can. I will also share what we do at Calling Quail Farm, where we have been successfully cultivating and selling gourmet garlic for three seasons. Each season we have experimented with different aspects of garlic cultivation and processing; some of these trials have been a success, some less so. The basic requirements of each season remain constant, however, and each season begins with planting.
Gourmet Garlic Seed Stock
Whether you are a seasoned or beginner grower of garlic, the first issue at hand for planting is your seed stock. The ideal source of seed stock for growing gourmet garlic is your own seed. If you are already growing garlic it is a straightforward process to "save back" a quantity of your own bulbs. Replanting your own healthy stock is your best option because you can be assured both that a particular cultivar is adapted to your growing area, and that your seed is free of disease. If you want to significantly increase your planting stock for free, or you have a great bolting (scape-producing) garlic that you want to proliferate, you can save back and plant the bulbils. It will take between 2-5 years (depending on the strain) to receive full-sized bulbs with this method, but you should eventually be rewarded with sizeable amounts of robust, healthy stock.
If this is your first time planting garlic, or you want to add new strains of stock to those you already have, there are several options for obtaining seed. The first decision to make, however, before acquiring gourmet garlic seed is what cultivar of garlic you wish to grow. There are hundreds of cultivars, most of which are grouped into 10 main types; Artichoke, Asiatic, Creole, Purple Stripe, Marbled Purple Stripe, Glazed Purple Stripe, Porcelain, Rocambole, Silverskin, and Turban. Each group has its own unique characteristics, and each cultivar within the group, its own unique flavor. Like other plants, different types of garlic perform better in particular growing conditions.
Since growing conditions will in large part dictate how successful your crop will be, your best chance for growing gourmet garlic is to source seed locally. Garlic that is already grown in soil and in a climate similar to that in which you will be planting will be more adapted to those conditions and more likely to produce good results. If there is one particular strain that you have your heart set on, but which cannot be locally sourced, go ahead and plant it. You likely won't get the best results in the first couple of years, but the cultivar should improve (within limits) as future generations will adapt to your local conditions.
Acquiring Locally Grown Garlic
Locally-sourced garlic is often readily obtained from local growers, via farmers markets and directly from the farm. Buying first-hand this way gives you the opportunity to evaluate the available seed. You will also be able to question the grower about the performance of a particular strain, and ask for advice in getting the best results from the seed. Chances are, if a grower local to your area is getting good results with that particular type of garlic, you should be able to get gourmet results too.
Another option for acquiring seed is through seed companies. Seed companies, whether regional or national, usually have an online catalogue and sales system, giving you a convenient option if local garlic is unavailable. These organizations should be able to recommend which of their seed stock would be best-suited to your area. Buying from a reputable, recognized seed company also provides a measure of security since you can usually be assured that the stock will be both viable and disease free.
In terms of viability, unless your supermarket carries verified locally grown garlic, I would not recommend it as a source from which to purchase seed stock. Much of this garlic, such as the commonly named white "Chinese" garlic, has been irradiated and treated with preservatives to help prolong transportation and storage capabilities. Although some of the cloves may indeed sprout when planted, any bulbs produced from them will be of poor quality.
Once you know which cultivars are available and practical for you to grow, you can narrow down your choice of seed based on desired taste, storage capability, and ease of use (for those of us who hate peeling many small cloves!). When you have decided which strain to grow, you can then calculate how much seed you will need to save back or purchase. How much gourmet garlic you plant will depend on the amount of yield you desire and the growing area you have available.
To calculate, decide how many bulbs of garlic you wish to produce. One clove will produce one plant, so the number of bulbs you wish to grow equals the number of cloves you need to plant. Then, determine the average number of cloves in a bulb of your particular strain. This number can vary from approximately four cloves (as in large Porcelain types such as "Music") up to 20 or even more (as in Artichoke types such as "Lorz Italian"). If you are buying or saving seed by the pound rather than by the bulb, you will also have to determine the average number of bulbs in a pound.
For example, one of our most popular cultivars is the 'Rocambole Russian Red,' which has an average of six cloves per bulb. There are approximately six bulbs, with 36 cloves total, per pound. Therefore, if I want to plant 180 plants I need to purchase or save back 30 bulbs, which would equate to five pounds of Russian Red. It is a good idea to acquire slightly more stock than you think you will need, since some cloves may be damaged either before or during the cracking process (Growing Gourmet Garlic: Planting Part 4 - Bulb Cracking and Clove Selection).
When purchasing seed check each bulb carefully before you buy, if possible, or as soon as you have received it in order to confirm that the bulbs are free of mold and any obvious discoloration or disease (Growing Gourmet Garlic: Planting Part 2 - Choosing Which Bulbs to Plant). These factors, if present, will negatively impact the health and production of both your crop and field. Seed bulbs should be left whole and stored, as all garlic, in a space with good air circulation that is cool (but not below 10°), dry, and out of direct sunlight.
There are numerous online sources from which to buy garlic seed. The examples listed here are reputable, however, I have not personally bought seed from these companies and so I cannot guarantee seed quality.
Garlic Growing Resources
Photos by Andrea Cross