At 4000ft elevation, Seismic Gardens is located on the far western edge of the Great Basin desert. The massive Sierra Nevada mountain range blocks most of the moisture that arrives during the winter storm season. Our average annual rainfall is approx. 6-7 inches of water!
We are in USDA plant hardiness zone 8A, with occasional winter temperatures into the low single digits and summer temperature above 100F common. Our soil is naturally alkaline and calcareous. Our dry environment and low winter temperatures create an excellent environment for fungal and virus free conditions. A perfect situation for seed garlic production.
Seismic Gardens is of micro farm size with under an acre in production. That small size means most of the labor is accomplished with people power. Largely because of this we adopted a permanent bed, minimal till growing system. Our beds are roughly 50’ x3’, usually with 3 drip tapes running the length of the bed for irrigation. As we also grow fresh vegetables for local sale only ⅓ of available beds are used for garlic.
Rotation is a very important part of our garlic program. From year to year the garlic moves about the farm ensuring that no garlic is grown in any bed more than once every three years. This rotation works very well for us, allowing for vegetable production and cover cropping in the non garlic years. No shortcuts when it comes to rotation!
Garlic can be grown using a wide variety of agricultural practices. What I hope to accomplish with this tutorial is to explain how Seismic Gardens goes about producing seed garlic. It is always good to start at the beginning but growing garlic is really a cycle that repeats itself annually and moves around from one location to another. Finding a beginning to a circle can be difficult but you have to start somewhere.
Let’s assume it is early September. We are looking at a bed that has had a cover crop of oat, vetch, peas, daikon, and bok choi growing on it since early summer. The first thing I do is pull up the 3 lengths of drip tape (for irrigation) and lay them off to the side. It is now time to mow down the cover crop. A weed wacker/string trimmer is used to cut the crop as close to ground as possible. A little bit of stubble can be advantageous. With all the cover crop material laying on the bed the drip tape is replaced back on the bed. Next the bed is covered with a large black silage tarp. River rocks are used to anchor the tarp. By using these tarps light is omitted and humidity is greatly increased. This process is called occultation. It is gentle on soil biology but very effective at terminating the cover crop. Occultation can be a game changer for small scale, minimal till, chemical free growers.
The bed is then left alone for 3 to 4 weeks. Around the first week of October the tarp is removed. At this point there is beautiful mulch left on the bed from the dead mowed down cover crop. The drip lines and mulched are moved and raked aside temporarily and amendments are spread across the surface. For our soils here at Seismic Gardens these amendments are feather meal, gypsum and tiger sulfur. Then a 1 inch layer of farm made compost is added atop the amendments. This compost has had soft rock phosphate, azomite and charcoal incorporated into the pile during the pile construction. Once the amendment, compost and drip tape are in place on the surface of the bed, the mulch is evenly raked over the bed and the tarp is laid back on the bed. I like to let the bed rest for a couple more weeks before planting the seed garlic.
Here at Seismic Gardens the cloves are planted between the last 2 weeks of October and first 2 weeks of November. The first step of actual planting of garlic is separating the bulbs into individual cloves. The cloves are then soaked overnight in a solution of water, worm casting, liquid kelp and baking soda. After the overnight soak the cloves are drained and then dunked in isopropyl alcohol for 10 minutes. This whole process is about eliminating any problems from fungal, viral and insect issues being transmitted from one location to the next. The cloves are now ready for planting. This is done by hand. A simple wooden tool called a dibble is used to poke a hole down through the mulch and 3 inches into the soil. A garlic clove is placed in the hole and some soil is scraped in on top of the clove. This process is repeated every 6 inches in a row down the length of the bed. Three rows to a bed. Each row containing 100 cloves. I like to water the bed after planting to help settle in the cloves for the winter. At this point with winter just around the corner and the nice mulch layer on the bed due to the occultation there is not much now for the person to do. The garlic gets busy putting down roots. Lots of them. We may see a little top growth. If we have warm spells over winter the garlic beds will get an occasional watering, depending if we have had rain or snow.
March is when the garlic appears to come alive. The top growth really will take off with increasing light and warmth.
Between mid March through May as things start growing, I like to fertilize the crop. I use a simple Mazeii Venturi injector to deliver fertilizer through the drip tape. This is a dilute amount of humic acid, molasses, and fish hydrolysate to help kick start the soil biology. I do this every 2 weeks between mid March and the end of April. It is very fun to watch the garlic respond to the warming weather. By mid May we start to see scape development on the hardneck garlics. This signals that harvest is nearing.
Hardneck garlics produce false seed heads or scapes. Garlic scapes are elongated stalks that terminate in something that looks like a bud. If you let the scape grow it will open with a cluster of tiny blooms. The blooms become bulbils or tiny bulbs. These bulbils can be planted and over a period of several seasons they will develop into full size bulbs. The scapes can be removed without damaging the plant.
The practice of harvesting the scapes can encourage the garlic plant to put energy into the bulb. You can easily snap off the scapes by hand. Wait until the scape starts to curl and pull low on the stalk. Garlic scapes are delicious and tender. Use them as you would a green onion. These flavorful shoots are too good to waste!
Depending on the variety, harvesting garlic occurs successionally. Turbans are the earliest for Seismic Gardens followed by Inchellium Red, Russian Giant, and finally Red Creole. The Turbans are harvested approximately May 15, Red Creole mid June.
A good indicator of bulb maturity is when about ⅓ of the leaves have started to brown. At this point it is best for the grower to pull a couple plants and inspect the bulbs. What we hope to see is a bulb that has clearly defined cloves. But not cloves that are separating from each other. If the bulb has matured to the point of clove separation the bulb will not store well. Harvesting too soon, before the cloves are defined, can also diminish the shelf life.
When lifting garlic from the ground it is tempting to grab ahold of the plant and pull. Not a good idea! Garlic can have a robust root system and a firm grip on the soil. Pull on the plant and you are likely to sever the top from the bulb. Use a digging fork to help lift the bulbs from ground.
Garlic needs to be cured before storing. Garlic needs to be taken out of direct sunlight immediately after harvest. We like to bunch the plants in handfuls of ten and hang them underneath a protective roof with lots of air circulation. Three or four weeks does the job.
Once cured, cut the stalks down to an inch above the bulbs and trim the roots. Do not wash the bulbs or remove any wrappers before storage. It is ok to let the little bit that naturally wants to shed come off. The wrappers form a nice protective barrier that enhances storability. Store the cured bulbs in net bags in a cool dry spot. If you are planning on growing some of your own crop next season, save the largest, cleanest bulbs for replanting in the fall.