Want something easy to grow that will impress your friends? Then grow garlic!
A lot of folks in Colorado (including myself) love garlic. And fortunately for us, garlic loves Colorado!
One of my favorite parts about gardening is giving things away. That’s especially true with garlic. Friends and family enjoy receiving tomatoes or herbs, but there’s just something about a big beautiful head of garlic… It’s like a special surprise treat!
So if you love garlic…. or know people who do…. then read on!
Be fussy. Grow only gourmet garlic!
The garlic we sell at Tagawa Gardens every fall is not what you can buy at the grocery store. This is gourmet garlic, and it’s in a league of its own.
We’re starting out this short planting season by offering more than 40 different varieties, some of them in limited supply. The garlic strains have names as beautiful as the bulbs. “Corsican” is a milder-tasting garlic with beautiful purple stripes. “Asian Tempest” is “breathtaking raw… but sweet when baked.” And “Music” is described as “cold hardy, slightly spicy and incredibly flavorful.”
The challenge with this garlic isn’t planting it. That’s easy. The tough part is deciding which ones to grow. But we at Tagawa’s are here to help. All of our bins of garlic have excellent pictures and detailed information about each strain. So come see us, prepared to do a bit of reading before you make your choices.
This time to plant garlic in Colorado is now!
One reason garlic loves Colorado is because our climate gives it the cold period it needs before it starts to grow in earnest next spring. Planting in early fall, while the soil is still warm and daytime temperatures encourage root growth, gives your garlic plants a chance to establish themselves before winter sets in. You’ll usually see a few leafy shoots emerge before the plants go dormant for the winter. Not to worry! That’s perfectly normal. The plants will kick in again when temperatures start to climb in May.
Plant your garlic in September or October, in a sunny spot. At least six hours of full sun is ideal. A little bit of light shade during the hottest part of the afternoon will be fine, and may actually produce slightly larger bulbs.
Work some compost into the bed. Garlic likes a rich, loose soil with excellent drainage. I grow my garlic in raised beds to help overcome the challenges of Colorado’s clay soil. I till a few inches of additional compost into the beds every season just before I plant. It’s also a good time to lightly rake in a good quality bulb fertilizer.
Remember how I said choosing the variety was the toughest part?
I wasn’t kidding. To make your choice easier, let’s look at the two basic types of garlic you can choose from.
“Softneck” garlic is what you see in garlic braids. The neck or stem of softnecks is pliable, allowing the leaves to be braided before they dry. Very mild forms of softneck are what you usually find in the grocery stores.
Softnecks have thicker skins and can be a bit more difficult to peel. But those heavier skins also give the softnecks a longer shelf life, averaging around five months is stored properly.
The “hardneck” varieties of garlic tend to have more intense, complicated flavor. Their stem is woody, and usually, produces a flower stalk called a “scape.” This wonderful tall spike will often turn into a complete curley-cue after it emerges in the spring. The experts advise that removing the scape before it starts to straighten will concentrate the plant’s energy and make bigger bulbs. Sometimes I leave a few just because they make me laugh. The harvested scapes are full of nice garlic flavor and make good additions to dishes like stir-fry and soup.
The hardnecks have thinner skin, which makes them easier to peel when you’re cooking but also gives them a shorter shelf life than the softnecks. Hardnecks will keep for an average of three, may four months, if properly stored.
Plant the lovely cloves pointing up to the sky
When it’s time to plant (late September or early October along the Front Range), break the bulbs apart gently. Don’t separate them too long before you plant or the individual cloves may begin to dry out and be less vigorous.
Plant only the largest, plumpest cloves. Bigger cloves will grow into bigger bulbs. Tuck the cloves into your prepared site with the flat side down and the pointy side up. The top of each clove should be about three inches below the soil surface.
Plant the cloves about six inches apart. If you’re interested in keeping track of your different varieties, be sure to mark the rows as you plant with something sturdy that will still be there next spring.
Water the bed well once you’re done. I give my garlic a few weeks of growing while the weather stays warm, then I mulch them heavily as the air temperature begins to drop. Mulching is important. I use a six-inch layer of pine needles. They’re light and won’t pack down, which is critical. And they’re free!
You can also use loose straw. The point is to mulch the beds with something that won’t compress, so moisture can get through to the plants. You also want to keep the bed insulated over the winter.
If the winter weather goes dry, I’ll drag a hose down to my garlic beds and give them a good drink. The top growth may be taking a break, but I still don’t want those lovely little plants below ground to go too dry.
Need some help planting? Here is our garlic planting video featuring Kris, from Peaceful Desert Homestead!
Spring and early-summer care
Once the garlic begins to grow in the spring, you can remove the mulch and gently spread some compost between the plants. Be sure to replace the mulch to suppress weeds which can compete with the garlic for water and nutrients.
Proper watering during spring and early summer is critical. The best way to check on soil moisture is to pull back some of the mulch in the center of the bed. Grab some of the soil and see if it holds together when gently compressed in your fist. If you get a mud ball, definitely hold back on the watering. If the fistful of soil just crumbles and won’t hold its shape, your plants need your help. Water deeply! Check to make sure the moisture is getting down several inches where the garlic roots can use it. Don’t just be watering the mulch or the top inch or two of soil. Your bulbs will suffer in both size and taste.
Bring on the harvest!
First-time garlic growers can do everything just right and then drop the ball when it comes to harvesting. So here’s the scoop on when and how to bring in your crop.
Most garlic grown along the Front Range will be maturing in mid-July to early August. Some varieties will ripen sooner. Others a week or two later. But you don’t want to leave any of them in the ground too long or they’ll mature so much that they split open into separate cloves and be much harder to harvest and store.
Ideally, start cutting back on your watering a few weeks before harvest. Garlic plants, like most other plants, “talk” to us. We just have to listen. When the lower leaves just begin to turn yellow, and then brown, the plant is winding down. The watering should wind down, too, and then stop, so the bulbs can begin to harden off.
When the plants’ leaves are about 40% brown (and 60% still green), it’s time to harvest. In our heavier soils, pulling the garlic by the stalk usually doesn’t work. The stalk will break off, leaving our crop right where it grew.
We need to use a garden fork to gently pry up the bulbs and then lift them out of any soil clumped around them. Go slow. Be careful not to skewer the bulbs themselves. Don’t leave the harvested bulbs in direct sun, even for a few minutes. They’re very tender at this stage and can burn easily. As I harvest my garlic, I set the bulbs into a large tray or tub and cover the whole thing with a towel until I have a good “haul.”
The last step…
Working out of the sun, gently brush off any loose soil, trying not to disturb the outer papery skin of each bulb. Resist the urge to wash the bulbs. This is a time for slow, careful drying.
Leave the leaves and roots on the bulb and let them cure, tied together and hanging in bundles or laid out flat, in a shady, airy place. Proper curing improves the flavor and increases shelf life significantly. In three to four weeks, all of the leaves should be dry and brittle. That’s when you can cut the stem down to within an inch of the bulb and trim the roots.
Store your lovely garlic in mesh bags in a cool place…. never in the refrigerator! Or start giving them away and earn the love and devotion of friends and family!
Remember to save the bulbs with the biggest, fattest cloves to use as seed garlic for the next crop. Or feel free to eat it all up, give it away and come see us again at Tagawa’s each September to start this garlic adventure all over again! Good luck, and let all vampires beware!