Gardens: Grow your own garlic
Grow your own garlic
The garden offers more flavorful varieties than the grocery store.
Story: Sarah Lohman
Photos: Robin Scholz
At Tomahnous Farms, they don’t grow your grandmother’s garlic. Unless your grandma loved Korean tempest or Transylvanian garlic. Here’s how to grow your favorite variety of garlic:
Getting seed garlic
At Tomahnous Farm in rural Mahomet, they save their own garlic from year to year. If they need to replace some lost varieties or want to try new ones, they buy seed garlic from Filaree Farm, which sells 500 varieties of garlic on its website. Tomahnous Farm owner Lisa Haynes also buys from Territorial Seed Company and locally from Blue Moon Farm in rural Urbana. She said local seed stock has already made it through the winter in this climate, so it has a better chance of doing well.
Haynes said not to plant garlic from the grocery store, because those varieties are boring. Instead, she suggests browsing catalog descriptions for something a little different, more interesting and more flavorful.
Softneck varieties, which are typically sold at grocery stores, stay fresh for a long time, but the hardneck varieties are more flavorful.
Haynes said one probably wouldn’t notice subtle differences if using the garlic in something like chili, but would definitely notice in garlic bread or pesto.
Tomahnous Farm doesn’t sell garlic specifically for seed, but some people buy garlic from them at the Urbana Market at the Square or the Mahomet Farmer’s Market and save it to plant.
Planting your garlic
Haynes said the biggest bulbs of garlic produce larger bulbs.
She usually plants in mid-October, but has had to plant as late as mid-November because of warm weather. Root growth before the first frost is important, Haynes said, but plant growth isn’t. However, a little growth before the first freeze isn’t reason to panic.
Garlic needs fertile soil, so she ranges her chickens over the area where she’ll be planting, tills the soil underneath and then plants a week or two later.
Haynes uses raised beds because they drain better, preventing the garlic from sitting in wet ground. Before planting, pull the cloves apart, but leave the paper casing on. Plant the cloves’ point side up with the root side down. Plant the clove 3 or 4 inches below the surface. If the soil is pretty soft, she plants it a little deeper to account for settling.
Plant the cloves of garlic on an 8-inch grid.
“We plant pretty close,” Haynes said. “Some people plant farther apart, but we haven’t seen any size problems.”
She mulches with straw or leaves when the ground begins to freeze.
“When the freeze and thaw happens over the winter, the ground will heave if it isn’t mulched really well,” Haynes said. Heavy mulch can also keep weeds away until late in the season.
At Tomahnous, they hand plant about 20 varieties of garlic.
Haynes said she doesn’t usually have a problem with pests attacking garlic in central Illinois, but onion flies can sometimes cause trouble.
“Garlic doesn’t really get hit by anything for us,” she said. “It’s just keeping it fertilized, keeping it watered, just like you would any other garden plant.”
Caring for garlic
Garlic begins growing in the spring. Haynes said they start having fresh garlic in May, and when it’s really small, the papers haven’t formed yet, so you can chop up and eat the whole bulb.
In the summer, the garlic needs to be watered, but not too much. When it starts to grow, a curled flower called a scape will come out of the top.
“As it just starts to uncurl, we pull it off and they’re really delicious,” Haynes said. “The later you pull it off, I think, the better your garlic stores, but the earlier you pull it off, the bigger the bulbs get.”
Haynes walks through her garlic garden several times to pull the scapes off since different varieties of garlic are ready at different times.
Harvest your garlic when there are three to five green leaves left, around mid-June. The more green leaves there are, the more paper there is around the cloves of garlic. Wait until the leaves are all gone, and the garlic will lose its protective wrapper and it won’t store well.
They can pull up the garlic if the ground is soft enough, but sometimes they have to dig it up. When digging, be careful not to pierce the bulb.
To dry the garlic, last year Haynes put it in crates that allowed air flow around the garlic. She said if there was more room, she would hang the garlic. They cover the garlic to keep it from getting sunburnt, and store it in a well-ventilated area.
Dry the garlic quickly to prevent it from molding and to keep away onion flies.
Haynes said to never store garlic in the refrigerator unless planning to use the whole thing immediately because it will start to sprout when you take it out. They store their garlic in their unheated garage, which stays above freezing, and cover it to keep it from drying out.
Haynes said you can also plant garlic in the spring, but the bulbs won’t get as big.
“It’s really neat, because it goes the whole year,” Haynes said. “It’s always alive until you eat it. It’s always got that plant in there ready to grow.”