Growing Gourmet Garlic, Part 5: Spacing, Planting and Mulching

Reader Contribution by Andrea Cross
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Once your soil is prepared, the timing is right and your cloves are popped – it is finally time to plant! Spacing your planting holes must be a balance between how many plants you want to grow and the space you have available. If you are planting different cultivars, maximize the space you have available by planting naturally smaller strains closer together than the larger ones. Spacing is important with gourmet garlic, because your goal is produce the largest, healthiest bulbs you can.

Our garlic is planted in sections that are divided into beds, which then contain rows. You can make the rows as long and wide as you like, but I recommend that, in terms of width, you should be able to comfortably reach the middle of the row from each side. Being able to reach at least halfway into the row without significant stretching will make the forthcoming weeding and scape removal much easier.

We plant four rows per bed, the rows 8 in. apart, with approximately 6 in. between the planted cloves. Spacing in this manner allows the bulbs plenty of space to grow while maximizing our use of the ground we have available. You can space your rows differently, but in my experience, most gourmet garlic growers plant their rows 6-8 in. apart, with a 6-8 in. distance between the cloves. We also stagger our rows of holes, with the second and fourth rows beginning approximately 3 in. down from the first and third. This planting method yields us eight plants per ft.

As we plant thousands of pounds of gourmet garlic every year, we constructed a dedicated roller with blunt spikes set to our desired measurements and we roll it down the rows behind our tractor. For smaller numbers of cloves, however, a spiked hand-roller, a pegged jig, or even a thick stick is sufficient to create holes. It does not need to be fancy, just effective! Regarding depth, we plant all of our cultivars at a depth of approximately 2 in., and we recommend this as a starting point for new growers. If your region has very warm temperatures you can decrease this depth to 1-1 ½ in, and likewise, if your region has particularly severe winters you can increase the depth to 3-4 in. to provide the cloves with greater insulation and protection.

I recommend cracking and planting a single cultivar at a time, especially if you are planting several varieties. This will help prevent mix-up of strains. Also ensure that your rows are clearly labeled with a medium that will survive the winter weather; we use painted wooden stakes with the names of each cultivar carefully written in indelible ink marker. Even though this system works well, we still refresh the writing in the spring as a precautionary measure. It is also helpful to create a paper or electronic database outlining your field plan, just in case your outdoor marking system goes awry.

Once you have marked your holes and you are ready to plant, place a single clove in each hole with the basal plate down and the tip pointing upwards. This sounds like common sense and is easily controlled when you are doing your own planting, but I have seen occasions where improper supervision of workers resulted in entire sections planted upside down. The garlic will still grow when planted this way, but it will be malformed and more difficult to market as gourmet. If you wish for more precise orientation of your plants, planting the cloves with their backs facing either the inside or the outside of the row will result in a high number of plants with their leaves growing along the axis of the rows.

Correct orientation aside, how you plant your cloves is a personal choice. There are mechanized methods of planting, but these can be somewhat risky and create even more work if the equipment doesn’t function with the exact precision required. We try different techniques when planting, both to determine which methods are most effective for us, and also to help liven up what can be quite a monotonous chore – especially after a few days in!

The year before last we planted our cloves while riding on a tractor-pulled contraption that allowed us to sit a few inches above and to either side of the bed. A roller in front marked the holes, and we frantically tried to stuff the cloves inside correctly before we glided too far past the hole. This method, while mostly efficient, required a number of stops and starts as we tried to keep up, and ultimately resulted in clove spacing that we were unhappy with. Last year we marked the holes first with the roller, then crawled on our hands and knees along the beds carrying our little buckets of cloves. Although slower, the increased precision this method gave us was well worth the extra effort, and ultimately, more effective because we achieved the spacing we desired.

Once the cloves are in the ground, you need to cover them with soil. We rake over the beds to fill the holes and also to provide a smooth, even surface. You can achieve this using whichever method is the easiest and most effective for you; it is the result that is important.

Mulching is the next step after the soil has been distributed. The type of mulch you use and how thick you lay it depends on the climate where you are growing your garlic. You may choose not to mulch at all, especially if you live in a particularly wet region, since this can cause complications with rot and mold. Ask other local growers if and how they use mulch.

Covering your garlic with mulch is beneficial for several reasons. It forms a shell over your seedlings, protecting them and helping the beds to retain moisture and maintain a more consistent temperature. Mulch also helps to inhibit weeds. We normally use barley straw for our mulch, but you can use a variety of organic matter including hay, grass, or leaves. I do not recommend using wood chips as they can leach nitrogen from the soil. Whatever you do use, make sure it is as free of weed seed as possible, or else you will find your garlic being hijacked by volunteer plants in the spring.

 Generally, your layer of mulch should range from 2-6 in. thick, and be evenly spread. We usually put down a layer of 2-3 in. Once the layer is spread, leave it alone. It is tempting to tamp the mulch down, but don’t. The pockets of air will provide the beds with a good source of insulation.

We spread our mulch by hand because we find this gives us better control over thickness, although we do know growers who drop their mulch initially by machine and then spread by hand. If you live in a windy area as we do, you can spray water over the mulch. When the wet mulch freezes, it will form a hard protective shell over the plants during the winter, melting in the spring when your garlic finally begins to break through.

Want to read the previous parts in this series? Check out: 

Growing Gourmet Garlic, Part 1: Where to Get Seed and How Much to Plant

Growing Gourmet Garlic, Part 2: Choosing Which Bulbs to Plant

Growing Gourmet Garlic, Part 3: When to Plant and Soil Preparation

Growing Gourmet Garlic, Part 4: Bulb Cracking and Clove Selection

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