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Garlic 101 - 5 Easy Steps to Growing Big Garlic Bulbs

Garlic is a fundamental ingredient in everyone's kitchen. It is a root crop that has gained popularity with garden growers every season. Garlic can be an easy crop to grow, and it tends to look after itself without much effort. The planted cloves will send up vigorous shoots in early spring. It will be one of the earliest vegetables to grow into large plants when the temperature warms up. Garlic is hardly affected by pests or diseases, but they do exist. I will post another article on What are the most common pest and diseases that affect garlic? Overall, garlic can grow with little care.

Even though garlic can survive and grow without any fuss, this does not mean you will get a large garlic bulb. Most garlic growers are continually disappointed with their harvest because the bulbs are tiny. They have large beautiful, and healthy garlic plants growing, but they find very small bulbs when the garlic is dug up.

Small garlic bulbs can be very frustrating and disappointing for growers; that is why some garden growers have given up growing garlic. Growing large garlic bulbs is not that difficult. Just follow the five easy steps laid out for you.

#1 Choose High-Quality Large Garlic Cloves

The most crucial step to planting large garlic bulbs is choosing healthy seed stock. This means the cloves within the bulbs must be firm; it has not started to sprout and are disease-free. Any blemished cloves should not be used for planting; instead, use them for cooking.

The next step is to choose large cloves. Large bulbs do not always mean large cloves. Some large bulbs have numerous small cloves, and these planted cloves will produce small bulbs. Porcelain hardneck garlic usually develops large cloves even if the bulbs are not big. These are the cloves you want to choose for planting. These large cloves will tend to produce the largest bulbs when planted. So when you crack a bulb (break up) for planting, only choose the largest clove, set aside the small ones for cooking. Some gardeners or growers will plant everything for garlic greens (the bulbs have not developed yet) or let them mature to harvest as small garlic bulbs.

Garlic bulbs and cloves are determined by the garlic cultivar (variety). For example, Duganski (porcelain family) has huge cloves regardless of bulb size. The Silverskin family (softneck type) tends to have many small cloves in a large bulb. The success rate of producing large bulbs are very high; when large cloves are planted,

Check out our YouTube video on How to Choose Garlic Cloves for Planting.

#2 Plant in Good Soil and Use Organic Fertiliser

Garlic is a heavy feeder and requires fertile soil to grow healthy plants and large bulbs. Many garlic growers, especially new growers, do not realize how vital soil fertility is to growing garlic. Most growers overestimate the fertility of their soil by assuming it has all the nutrients and minerals to grow large garlic bulbs.

The scope of this blog is too short to cover details of using appropriate fertilizer. I am not going into detail about Nitrogen and nutrients in the soil - this will be discussed in detail at a later date with my subscribers. I will only make a general statement that most soils are low in Nitrogen, and depending on the area or region, other soil minerals may be missing.

Adding a few inches of compost or composted manure is excellent. Still, it is not going to be enough for garlic - the compost will improve the soil's tilth. Compost also adds some nutrients, i.e. phosphorous, potash and other micronutrients, but they tend to be low in Nitrogen (N). I will explain the Soil Food Web Cycle in another blog. Briefly, billions of beneficial microbes live by consuming the organic matter, then converting it as a byproduct (their excrement - poop) for plants to use. The soil microbes consuming the organic matter are not converting enough Nitrogen for the garlic to use - it was low to begin. Adding extra organic fertilizer high in Nitrogen helps the microbes to convert it for the garlic to use. The organic fertilizer high in Nitrogen (N) is the key for garlic bulbs to reach maximum growth.

Watch the YouTube Video for How to Plant Garlic in Raised Beds. This video covers information on how to fertilize garlic cloves.

#3. Water Is Critical

The garlic plant may have 8 to 12 leaves depending on the cultivars, but they require a large amount of water throughout the growing season. Water is critical for garlic to develop large bulbs. Moisture level in the soil is a crucial step for growing large bulbs.

Garlic plants can survive drought conditions, but the bulbs will perform poorly, and you will end up with small bulbs during harvest. This is why new growers are so disappointed at harvest time because they forgot or ignored the soil moisture level throughout the growing season. Just a week or two of dry weather conditions during the bulking up of the bulbs can cause the bulb size to be reduced by 50%.

If your soil is clay loam, you should receive at least 1 inch of rain per week. Sandy soil requires 2 inches per week. Clay soils need heavy watering spaced out over a more extended period, while sandy soils require a more frequent and shorter watering time.

Watering should stop about two weeks before harvesting. It prevents moulds from developing on the leaves when the plants are drying, and the bulbs cure quicker with no issues. Usually, this is right after the garlic scapes are harvested/removed. The bulbs tend to be ready about 10 to 14 days after removing the scapes.

#4 Weed, Weed and Weed

Garlic is a weak competitor with weeds. Any weed growth (while the garlic plants are small) will steal sunlight, nutrients and moisture from the garlic plant. The competition from weeds will result in smaller bulbs.

Start weeding when the garlic starts sprouting in spring. Even though the weeds are tiny, remove them as they will speed up in growth and overtake the garlic plant.

Weeding must be consistent. It is common to have growers start weeding too late, i.e. the weeds are well established (myself included from time to time). Late weeding creates a poor growing condition for the garlic, especially if the weeds are Lambs Quarters or Pigweeds. Weeds do play an important role; it is an indicator of the state of your soil. I will have a post about What Does Weed Tell You About Your Soil.

Mulching helps in reducing weed growth, but weeds can still emerge from mulched soil. Remove them as well. Mulch can be straw, leaves or landscape cloth. Any weeds not removed will compete with the garlic plant.

Be very careful that the garlic leaves are not damaged during weeding. Especially when the plants are larger, damaged leaves can reduce the bulb size by about 20%.

Garlic roots can vary between 2 to 24 inches. So be very careful when weeding. The roots can be damaged when pulling large weeds growing close to the garlic plant. The roots of the garlic plant do not recover from being damaged; the plants may be stunted and will not develop large bulbs.

#5 Remove the Scape, It's a Seasonal Delicacy

Hardneck varieties always have a scape - flower stalk with bulbils. Removing the scape is vital as it encourages larger bulbs. The plant's energy is conserved and redirected into the bulbs instead of growing the flower stalk. Many studies have proven that the scape can reduce the size of the bulb by 30% when not removed.

The scapes are easily snapped off by hand or trimmed off by shears. Do scape on a dry, sunny day, as the snapped/cut part needs to dry quickly to prevent any infection or disease.

The scapes themselves are lovely to eat. They can be sautéed as side vegetables or pickled. Either way, it is a delicacy to be enjoyed. Scapes can store for up to 3 months if kept correctly in the fridge.

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