As the garlic crop dries on bread racks, ready to be shared with fellow garlic enthusiasts at the market, it's a perfect time to reflect on the journey of growing garlic in central Illinois. Here, we'll walk through the steps of cultivating this flavorful bulb, from planting it in the fall to harvesting it in the summer. Growing garlic might be simpler than you think, as long as you follow a few key guidelines.
Fall Planting for Garlic
The garlic growing process in central Illinois begins in the fall. While some gardeners opt for spring planting, it's advisable to give your garlic a head start by exposing it to winter elements, which it thrives on, resulting in larger and stronger bulbs.
Start by preparing your soil. Garlic prefers well-drained soil enriched with organic matter and a sunny location. Adequate drainage is essential because garlic dislikes soggy conditions.
October is an excellent month for planting garlic, but you can gauge the timing based on your local climate. The general rule is to plant garlic about 6 to 8 weeks before the first anticipated frost. Be cautious not to plant too early, as you don't want emerging shoots before winter. Timing is crucial; no green shoots should appear before winter arrives.
Choosing Garlic Cloves for Planting
Assuming you have separated the garlic bulbs into individual cloves, select the largest cloves for planting, reserving the smaller ones for culinary use. Plant the cloves about two inches deep, with the broader end facing downward and the pointed end upward, similar to planting onion sets. Depending on your available space, spacing can range from four to eight inches apart. In your rows, aim to keep them approximately a foot apart. While the layout can vary, I prefer compact beds of three or four rows, both for practicality and aesthetics.
It's important to plant enough garlic for your consumption and to save some for the following year's crop. Don't let the decision of what to keep for planting overwhelm you. Store the larger bulbs labeled as "new crop" in a cool, dry place, while the smaller ones can go into your kitchen for immediate use.
Mulching and Winter Preparation
Once your garlic cloves are in the ground, apply a layer of mulch, such as straw, leaves, or hay, to protect them from harsh winter conditions. In warmer climates, you might postpone mulching until spring to aid in weed control.
At this stage, you've successfully planted your garlic for the fall season. Now, all that's left is to wait for spring to tend to your garlic and ensure a fruitful summer harvest.
Spring Care for Growing Garlic
With early spring's arrival, the threat of a hard frost is behind you. Now, you can gently pull back the mulch to allow the emerging green shoots room to grow. Ensure the mulch isn't too heavy, as it might smother the new growth. There's no need to remove all the mulch; simply lighten it around the garlic rows. Mulch is still essential to protect against weeds. As the shoots reach five or six inches in height, you can add more mulch between the rows. Garlic can tolerate some weeds but not an abundance, and a well-kept garlic bed is more appealing.
You can water your garlic lightly in the early stages of growth. Garlic prefers a slightly dry environment, but some watering during initial growth is acceptable, thanks to the well-drained soil.
Once your garlic plants develop a central stalk called a scape (common in hardneck varieties), it's time to think about harvest preparation.
Summer Harvesting of Garlic
With the garlic scape now forming a delightful central stalk, it's important to note that scapes are not only edible but also rich in garlic flavor. You can incorporate them into various dishes or enjoy them on their own.
When the scape begins to curl at the top, consider cutting it where it connects to the top set of leaves. Trimming the scape redirects more energy into bulb growth, contributing to larger garlic bulbs. Although some suggest leaving the scape intact, my experience suggests that cutting it off yields better results in terms of bulb size.
As the summer progresses, the leaves of your garlic plants will begin to brown at the top, indicating that harvest time is approaching. When the tops turn completely brown but still retain a hint of green on the stem (don't wait until they're entirely brown), your garlic is ready to be harvested. Typically, this occurs in mid to late July, particularly in Illinois.
Harvest your garlic by gently lifting it from the ground with a potato fork or spade. Insert your tool about four or five inches away from the plant, slightly lift the soil, and then pull the garlic from the base. There's no need to dig up the entire plant. Try to harvest your garlic during dry weather to avoid muddy conditions.
After pulling the plant from the ground, gently shake off excess soil from the bulb and roots. Garlic is particularly delicate at this stage and can be easily bruised.
Curing Your Garlic
Once harvested, garlic requires a curing period of approximately two weeks. To achieve the best taste and optimal storage potential, certain conditions must be met. Curing should take place in a well-ventilated area with proper airflow, and the garlic must remain dry. There are various ways to achieve this:
- Layer the garlic bulbs on old plastic bread racks, ensuring they have enough space to breathe. Place them under an awning or on a covered porch.
- Alternatively, construct wire mesh baskets to hang from rafters, ensuring there's an overhang for protection.
- Bundle garlic bulbs together and hang them for curing.
After about two weeks, your garlic will develop a papery outer layer or wrapper, and the bulbs will become firm to the touch. At this point, they are ready for the next steps. Trim the main stem of hardneck garlic about an inch ahead of the bulb, remove any excess root stems and dirt, and your garlic is prepared for sale or storage.
Garlic stores best in conditions around 40 degrees Fahrenheit with low humidity, although these ideal conditions can be challenging to maintain. A simple method is to keep a few bulbs in a bowl on your kitchen counter, away from direct sunlight. Garlic crocks designed for storage are also a popular choice. Refrigeration can be suitable for short-term storage, but it's usually too cold for extended periods unless your fridge is set to around 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Varieties of Garlic
There are several garlic varieties available, but choosing the right one depends on your preferences and local climate:
- Features a stiff central stem known as the scape, which is edible and has a delightful garlic flavor.
- Thrives in colder climates.
- Offers a stronger garlic flavor.
- Has a shelf life of four to six months.
- Produces larger bulbs that are easy to peel.
- Suited for warmer climates.
- Lacks the central stem or scape.
- Has a milder garlic flavor.
- Typically contains more cloves per bulb, despite smaller bulb size.
- Cloves can be harder to peel individually, but this characteristic contributes to longer storage times.
In conclusion, growing garlic in central Illinois or similar regions is a straightforward process if you follow these guidelines. Pests and diseases are not typically a concern if you adhere to these simple rules. Whether you choose hardneck or softneck garlic varieties, you can enjoy the satisfaction of cultivating your own flavorful bulbs, enhancing your culinary creations