Garlic - The Stinking Rose
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
I often get asked the question: what vegetables should I grow? The answer, of course, is to grow vegetables that you love to eat. The other answer is to grow vegetables that do really well here in Calgary. For most of us, the vegetable that covers both is garlic! Garlic is not only easy to grow and one of the most eaten vegetables in North America, it is also has a wide array of health benefits and is a fantastic companion plant for your vegetable garden.
Let's start with the basics so that there is no confusion. Pictured below is a bulb of garlic that contains anywhere from 4 to 12 cloves. This bulb grows underground, with the stem and leaves growing out of the soil from the bulb's stem and the roots growing below the bulb from the basal plate. The garlic flowers grow from the stem on a stalk and are called the scape. We will look at those in detail in a minute.
Seed garlic are the cloves we plant in early fall. They are sold as an entire bulb that you break apart into cloves when planting. Each clove eventually grows into one large bulb.
Garlic seed is what is formed in the flowers or scapes when left to mature. There may be 20 to 150 of them in each flower head and they look like little tiny cloves. These can also be planted, but take 2 to 3 years to mature (instead of 1 year for seed garlic).
Now that we have the technical stuff done with, let's move on to the more fun parts.
Categories of Garlic
There are three major categories of garlic that are grown. Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon or Allium ophioscorodon), is by far, the most popular here as it is the hardiest, tastiest and produces garlic scapes (an added yummy bonus). There are tonnes of different varieties of hardneck varieties available to purchase and we will look at the 6 major types and some varieties of each a bit later. Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) is also commonly available and is sold as just Elephant Garlic. Treat it just as you would a hardneck garlic, but ensure you mulch well and give it a protected spot if you can. It is a bit less hardy than the hardneck types. You also need to give it a bit more room in the garden. It is called Elephant Garlic for a reason! You can very occasionally find softneck garlic (Allium sativum) here, but it is usually just called Regular Garlic. Sometimes you can find Asiatic, Artichoke, or Silverskin varieties available. That's okay though. You really want to buy the hardneck ones anyway!
Planting Seed Garlic (Cloves)
When to plant your garlic will depend a lot on the fall we are having. The ideal time is after a light frost with at least 3 weeks to go until hard freeze (when the ground freezes solid all the way down to where the clove is planted). This gives them time to establish a well developed root system before the soil freezes solid. We don't want our garlic to start to sprout above the soil before winter settles in, as this can result in increased winter kill. You are looking for cool, frosty nights and still kind of warm days. When this is can vary greatly. It can be anywhere from early September to mid-October depending on the year and the weather. I like to start checking the weather reports around our average first frost (approximately September 15th here in Calgary). Once we start getting consistent night time frost, that's when I get them in the ground. You can't predict for sure what our fall is going to look like, so just do your best!
The only soil requirement for garlic is that it cannot be poorly draining soil. Like all bulbs, standing water will lead to rot. Pull off individual cloves from your bulbs without disturbing the papery skins. Leave the basal plate as intact as possible. Choose large, clean, unblemished cloves for planting. The larger the clove, the larger the resulting bulb will be. Take any that have soft or moldy spots into the kitchen and eat them instead of planting them. Unless they are rotten looking of course, then toss them into the compost. Dig a hole for each clove 2-4” deep and 3” apart. If you are planting in rows, you want the rows a good 12" apart. If you are planting elephant garlic, plant them further apart. A dibbler that is used for planting bulbs is the perfect tool for making holes. Place a single clove in each hole with the pointy end up (the basal or root end down). Backfill your hole with soil, lightly tamp it down and give it a small drink of water. To help with root development, which is exactly what we want before winter settles in, sprinkle bonemeal on your soil surface directly after planting. The final step is the most important one: mulching! A good 3-4" of chopped leaves, straw, or grass clippings will prevent early sprouting in fall and will provide protection over the winter from desiccation as well as extreme cold temperatures. It will also reduce the occurrence of weeds, which compete with the bulbs and reduce overall bulb growth.
Like the entire allium family, garlic is great at deterring many insect pests in our gardens. It may deter carrot rust fly, cabbage moths, flea beetles, tomato hornworm, ants, and aphids. That's a lot of pests that are regular visitors to our veggie beds! You won't completely eliminate these pests from your garden by planting garlic, but you can definitely reduce their numbers. I plant garlic specifically with brassicas, like cabbage, in my garden because cabbage moths and their caterpillars are an issue for me. I find very few cabbage moths during the growing season, until I harvest that garlic. Then they seem to suddenly be all over the cabbages! That is enough proof for me to continue planting them together (and covering them with insect cloth after the garlic harvest). While garlic grows favourably with many plants, there are also a couple you want to make sure don't get planted together. Peas and beans interplanted with garlic may have stunted growth, so make sure these are not planted side by side.
Another method of companion planting is to group together vegetables that take up space on different levels. This way you can plant far more compactly and get more plants per square foot than traditional gardening. For example, garlic is a root vegetable and the majority of its biomass is below ground in the soil. The leaves and stems above ground are relatively sparse. So it makes sense to plant garlic with a crop that has the majority of its biomass above ground in the form of leaves and stems. A classic example of this is garlic and strawberries. The strawberries have lots of leaves, berries, and stems and quite small root systems. The garlic has large underground bulbs and few above ground greenery. This allows for dense planting of the two together and results in an increased number of plants for both.
How Garlic Grows
Sprouts usually appear at the beginning of April (depending on the year of course). Once you see those green guys poking up, you need to pull your mulch away from the stems. Still keep it around the plants, as it will reduce water evaporation, weeds, and temperature fluctuations in the soil. You just don't want it touching the stems, as that will increase the incidence of mold, mildew, and fungal issues. A good quality compost added in May will be enough additional nutrition for the rest of the growing season.
You want even soil moisture for the majority of garlic's growing season. Not too much, remember they are still bulbs and are prone to rotting in water logged soils. Even moisture is the key here. That mulch you still have around your plants will help with retaining moisture in the soil. There is an exception to regular watering though. You want to completely stop watering about 2-3 weeks after you cut off those scapes (see below to learn about scapes) or about 1-2 weeks before you harvest the bulbs. This allows the bulb to dry out a bit before it is harvested. Pulling up muddy, soaked bulbs is not fun either.
Pests and Diseases
Garlic is almost never bothered by pests here. In fact, they deter many insect pests (see companion planting above). As for diseases, all of them (rot, mildew, and rust) can be prevented by ensuring that you do not overwater, practice crop rotation and use high quality, unblemished seed garlic. I have occasionally seen onion root maggot on garlic, but it is not common. Signs include wilting or yellowing stems and leaves that fall over. To tell for sure, lift the bulb and check for holes and maggots inside. Crop rotation, row covers and well spaces bulbs will go a long way in prevention. Dispose of any plants immediately that are infested. Don't put them on your compost pile.
All About Garlic Scapes
Why We Harvest Them
Garlic scapes are the flower and its associated stalk of the garlic plant. Note that these are not "true" flowers, as they produce genetic clones of the plant (no sexual reproduction here). Only hard neck garlic produces scapes (and elephant garlic too), not soft neck varieties. Most people remove the scapes to prevent the plant from expending energy into flower and seed production. Botanists have shown that bulb sizes are larger at harvest time if the scapes are removed. You can do this experiment if you want to test out the difference yourself. Some people like to leave the scapes on and harvest the seeds. When left to mature, the scape becomes a flower and then goes to seed. These seeds grow into bulbils. See the section on growing garlic from seed below for more details.
When to Harvest
Scapes appear around the end of June. As soon as the flower bulb begins to thicken is the best time to remove it, as the stalk is still young and tender at this point. Cut the entire scape off the plant, right to where the flower stem meets the top set of leaves. Even if you don't believe that removing the scapes increases the bulb size, there is another reason to harvest them: scapes taste delicious! They are much milder than the cloves, and taste kind of like a garlicy green bean. Great for pickles, pesto, chopped into salads, grilled on the barbeque, dehydrated, turned into garlic butter, etc. The list goes on and on. Try them. You absolutely will not be disappointed.
Harvesting The Bulbs
When to Harvest
Garlic is ready to harvest in late summer to early fall (sometime around mid to late August in Calgary), when 1/3 to 1/2 of the leaves have turned brown. Garlic is kind of cool in that each set of leaves on the garlic stem corresponds to one layer of papery wrapper on the bulb. So you can tell exactly how many layers are protecting your bulb without actually seeing it! We ideally want to have just a couple of dried layers when we harvest (enough to protect the cloves) and then have the remaining layers dry out and become papery during the curing process. We want as many papery layers as possible when storing our garlic, as the more layers, the longer they will store. If you leave your bulbs in the ground until all of the leaves are brown, you will end up with dry cloves that are pulling away from the stem and little to no papery wrapper at all (see photo below). These do not store well at all, so use these right away instead of storing them.
Use a pitchfork or spade to loosen the soil around the bulb (not too close or you will end up impaling it) and carefully lift the bulb out from the base if you can. Getting your hands in the soil is the best way. Carefully brush or shake off the majority of the dirt. Try really hard not to disturb those papery wrappers! You can use your garlic directly after harvesting them, but to keep them for more than a couple of weeks you need to cure them before storage.
How to Cure Your Garlic
Garlic is stored with their stems, leaves, and roots still on. And don't worry if there is still some dirt on the bulb too. We will take care of that after it is cured. Where you cure your garlic will largely be determined by the weather. Check your forecast. If there is any chance of precipitation, find a spot inside. You want a spot that is out of direct sunlight with lots of airflow, like in a pantry or garage. If it is going to be nice, a screened porch is perfect. Ensure that air can easily travel around each bulb. You can accomplish this by tying the stems together in small bunches (5-10 bulbs each) and hanging them from shelves or rafters. Or you can hang them individually, upside down with their stalks between slats or a rack of some kind. Those wire closet shelves work great (as long as you don't have anything else on them). Let your bulbs dry for a good14 days until all the leaves are completely dried. Leave them longer if you need to. Remember how each set of leaves is a layer of papery wrapper? When all the leaves are completely brown and dry, all the wrappers are completely dry too. Dry wrappers will protect our bulbs from damage and desiccation during storage.
Once the bulbs are fully cured, we can clean them up a bit. Trim the stems to about 1” and trim off the roots with scissors. Make sure you don't damage the basal plate while doing this, as that will affect how long they can store for. Rub the dirt off as best you can with your hands, leaving as much papery skin as humanly possible. Store your garlic bulbs in a cool, dry spot with good air circulation. I like to use baskets so that air can get around all the bulbs, even the ones in the bottom. A nylon mesh bag works really well too. Use up any damaged or blemished bulbs first, as they will not store as long as perfect bulbs. And don't forget to label your different varieties! That way you can continue to grow the types that you really enjoy (and discontinue the ones you don't).
Growing Garlic From Seed
If you leave your garlic scapes on the plant and allow them to flower and go to seed, you end up with bulbils. Bulbils look like little baby garlic cloves. These are also called garlic seeds. You can absolutely plant bulbils if you like, but be aware that they will take two to three years to grow into full size bulbs (versus one year if you plant a regular clove). While it takes longer to grow from bulbils, it is more economical, as each scape produces 20-100 of the garlic seeds. Compare that to a maximum of 10-12 cloves from one bulb. The exact number and size of bulbils are determined by the garlic variety.
The bulbils are ready to harvest around the same time as the bulbs are. They should look dry, just like the plant leaves. To harvest, break them apart, and allow them to dry further in a well ventilated area for a few days. They cure much faster than full sized cloves as they are much smaller! Once cured, store them like any other seed (a cool, dry place) until ready to plant. The seeds can be planted at the same time as your regular seed garlic (the full sized cloves). It will overwinter and then grow a stem and leaves in the spring, just like your typical garlic but smaller. The first year of growth will give you a very small bulb with only one chamber, about the size of a single clove. Don't touch them! Leave them in the garden. They will stay there after you harvest your typical garlic in late summer and after you replant new garlic cloves in early fall. After a second winter and growing a second season, it's time to take a peek at their size. At the typical garlic harvesting time (when 1/3 of the leaves have browned), very carefully loosen the soil around the bulb and feel around with your hands. If the size feels good to you, go ahead and harvest. If it is still too small or hasn't produced separate cloves within a bulb, leave it in the ground for one more season. Check again the following year.
I always tend to miss cutting off a few garlic scapes every year, so I like to experiment with growing from the bulbils just for fun. If you don't want to commit the growing space to them, there is always the option to eat them! Just rub them between two tea towels to remove the peels and add them anywhere you want a garlic kick.
There is a huge variety of garlic available to growers in the Calgary area, and all of them have their own unique taste, spice level, size, colour, and growing style. So try as many as you can! Find your favourites (don't forget to make notes about which ones those are) and save your own cloves to plant again that year. There are 6 major types of hardneck garlic with numerous varieties available of each.
8-12 cloves per bulb
Stores for 4-6 months
Great for Calgary
Don’t like wet conditions so ensure you have very well drained soils
Shorter, stockier plants
Very tasty with deep and complex flavours
Great for roasting and baking whole
Easy to peel as papery wrappers are loose on the cloves (which also means they dry out quicker, giving them a shorter storage life)
Scapes make tight double coils (they make 2 full loops)
Varieties: Belarus, Carpathian German Red, Crème de la Rasa, French Rocambole, French Red, German Brown, Hungarian, Italian, Italian Purple, Killarney Red, Korean Purple, Legacy, Marino, Ontario Purple Trillium, Puslinch, Spanish Roja, Ukrainian, Salt Spring, Whitecap
4-6 large cloves per bulb
Stores for 6 months
Great for extra cold areas (this is the cold hardiest type)
Larger plants with super tall scapes
White skin and smooth papery wrappers with brownish clove skins
Mature scapes produce hundreds of tiny bulbils (a good choice if you want to try growing from bulbils instead of cloves)
Varieties: Armenian, Duende, Eureka Allen, Fish Lake #3, German, German White, Georgian Fire, Great Northern, Kazakhstan, Leningrad, Majestic, Music, Northern Quebec, Romanian Red, Rosewood, Russian, Susan Delafield, Tibetan, Yugoslavian, Zemo
Purple Stripe Type
8-12 cloves per bulb
Stores for 4-8 months
Great for Calgary (and my personal favourite)
Flavour, complexity, and heat intensifies as it ages
Best variety for roasting/baking whole
The oldest known variety of garlic
Bright purple streaks on both papery wrappers and cloves
Varieties: Chesnok Red, Italian Purple, Mexican Purple, Milo's Organic, Persian Star
Glazed Purple Stripe Type
8-10 cloves per bulb
Stores for 5-8 months
Papery skins are delicate and may have a metallic sheen to them
Tend to be the mildest type in spiciness
Varieties: Purple Glazer, Vekak
Marbled Purple Stripe Type
4-7 cloves per bulb
Stores 5-8 months
The best variety for damper soils
Purple papery wrappers
Cloves are generally easy to peel
Tend to be very hot/spicy
Varieties: Bogatyr, Metechi, Russian Red, Siberian, Duganski
Originally from Spain
Better for warmer climates than ours (it's what people in the southern US plant when they want garlic scapes and therefore need a hardneck variety)
Not often available here as it is difficult to grow in colder climates
Supposedly the best tasting garlic
Varieties: Moroccan Red
Where Can I Get Seed Garlic?
It pays to purchase seed garlic from reputable sources. You know the quality will be high, there will not be any genetic disease issues and your finished bulbs will be true to name. Organically grown bulbs are worth getting if you can find them. I don't recommend growing the garlic you buy at the grocery store. It is usually a softneck variety from California, which means it won't be hardy here, will be way less flavourful and you won't get garlic scapes. Plus, much of the garlic at grocery stores has been irradiated or treated with a sprout inhibitor, and it won't sprout in the garden at all. You can pick up seed garlic (and sometimes even bulbils) at numerous places in the Calgary area:
at Garlic Fairs and Festivals
at Granary Road in late August
some years Golden Acre also has one
some years Black Diamond's farmers market also has one
Seed and Plant Exchanges
Calgary Horticulture Society has one in early September
Online Seed Stores (see references below)
Big Box Stores
Don't forget, you can also plant the cloves you just harvested! Just make sure you plant enough for eating/storing and enough for planting that year too.
Homemade Pesto (found in the recipe for Speedy Pesto Chicken Soup)
Spanish Garlic Soup (recipe coming soon)
Roasted Vegetable Pasta Sauce (recipe coming soon)
Greek Souvlaki Salad (recipe coming soon)
Asian Ground Pork and Spinach (recipe coming soon)
Shrimp Scampi with Zucchini Noodles (recipe coming soon)
Carrot Top Pesto (recipe coming soon)
Pork with Chimichuri (recipe coming soon)
Cilantro Lime Grilled Chicken (recipe coming soon)
Tomato Zucchini Salsa (recipe coming soon)
Korean Chicken and Cucumbers (recipe coming soon)
and many, many more
Yummy gardening everyone!
References and Further Reading
The Calgary Horticultural Society (https://www.calhort.org/) for Calgary gardening specific information, events and classes.
University of Saskatchewan (gardening.usask.ca) for information on absolutely everything gardening in the Canadian prairies.
West Coast Seeds (www.westcoastseeds.com) for everything seed starting, seed sales (including seed garlic), growing information and timing charts, etc.
Veseys Seeds (https://www.veseys.com/ca/) for seed garlic sales.
T & T Seeds (https://ttseeds.com/) a longstanding Manitoba company that sells seed garlic and gardening accessories.
Canadian Prairie Garlic (saskgarlic.ca) for seed garlic sales and growing information.
Forage and Farm (forageandfarm.com) for seed garlic sales, a variety of garlic products and growing information.
Jabour, Niki “Year-Round Vegetable Gardener “ 2011, Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA, USA
Fortier, Jean-Martin “The Market Gardener” 2014, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada
Green, Douglas “Guide to Canadian Vegetable Gardening” 2009, Quarto Publishing Group, Beverly, MA, USA
Your local garden centre