Garlic is a great flavor to add to many dishes. You can easily grow garlic in your own garden in the fall. In Kentucky, it is best to plant garlic in October and early November. If planted in the fall, the amount of garlic produced will be more compared to spring-planted garlic because it needs cool temperatures and short day length for leaf growth.
Garlic bulbs can be purchased from catalogs at this time of year. They should be disease-free for the best production potential. When selecting garlic for your garden, Allium sativum, you will see that it is usually divided into two subspecies, ophioscordon, hardneck or top set garlic, andsativum, softneck garlic. Hardneck garlic produces flower stalks, called scapes, and bulbils at the top of the stalk. Softneck garlic usually does not produce bulbils but develops larger bulbs with more cloves per bulb. The cloves, which make up the mature garlic bulb, are used for propagation. Propagation from bulbils is more difficult and requires two years to produce mature bulbs. Hardneck garlic cultivars usually do better in Kentucky and produce larger cloves that are easier to peel. Softneck garlic keeps longer in storage than hardneck garlic.
Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) is not a true garlic, but more of a pungent leek, which has a milder flavor compared to garlic. The bulb resembles garlic with very large cloves.
Planting and care of garlic is similar to onions, but garlic is more exacting in its requirements. An open, sunny location with a fertile, well-drained soil that is high in organic matter is desirable. With good air circulation, garlic is relatively carefree in this type of site. Thrips and onion maggots are insects to watch for while the bulbs are growing. Bulb rot may be a problem if the soil is not well-drained. Plant individual cloves from a bulb, root end down, and cover with 2 to 3 inches of well-drained soil. Allow 6 inches between sets. They can also be planted in a raised bed which promotes good soil drainage, reduces soil compaction, and increases the ease of harvest.
Apply a mulch, such as straw, over the bulbs or cloves to help provide winter protection and conserve moisture during the summer. Check the mulch to make sure it is not holding too much water during periods of wet, cool weather. If it is, then pull the mulch back to let the soil dry and warm, as long as freezing temperatures are not predicted.
Fertilizer is usually applied beginning in the spring as side dressing every two weeks until bulbs begin to form. Garlic is sensitive to the day length and begins to bulb around the summer solstice. During the growing season, garlic needs 1 inch of water per week. Stop watering about two weeks before harvest. On hardneck garlic, remove any flowering stalk that forms to increase bulb size. For using and harvesting, many gardeners enjoy eating the green shoots and leaves of garlic plants. However, cutting them continuously inhibits bulb formation.
By early June, flower stalks may appear and should be cut back and discarded so the plant's energies can be directed toward root and bulb formation. Bulbs begin to mature or ripen in mid-July and early August. When the leaves become yellow and the leaf tips turn brown and bend toward the ground, the garlic is ready to harvest. The presence of three to five wrapper leaves is the best indication of maturity.
Lift the plants out of the soil and dry the bulbs in a partly shaded storage area for about two weeks. Rain during harvest causes serious problems because wet soil stains the bulbs and can increase the possibility of decay. After drying, the tops may be removed, braided, or tied and then hung in a cool, well-ventilated spot. Dampness invites rotting. Properly dried garlic should last for 6-7 months at 32 degrees F and 70 percent relative humidity.
For more information, contact the Laurel County Cooperative Extension Service at 606-864-4167. Other tips for growing garlic may be found in the publication, Home Vegetable Gardening in Kentucky, which is available at the extension office and online at www.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/id/id128/id128.pdf. Enjoy your garlic!