How to Grow Garlic

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Fresh garlic has potent immune-boosting, antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal effects. Historically, garlic has been widely used in medicine for circulatory and lung ailments
  • Garlic must be fresh to give you optimal health benefits. To activate its medicinal properties, crush the fresh clove prior to swallowing it, or put it through your juicer to add to your vegetable juice
  • Garlic is really super easy to grow, but keep your local climate in mind. Softneck varieties, which can be braided, are best if your winters are mild whereas hardneck varieties fare better in colder areas
  • An optional trick that helps prevent fungal disease and encourages healthy growth is to soak the garlic cloves (with the papery skin still intact) in water with baking soda and liquid seaweed for two hours right before planting
  • Fresh garlic will keep up to six or eight months, depending on the variety, if kept in a cool, dry place. Shelf life can be prolonged even further by dehydrating, pickling, preserving or freezing

By Dr. Mercola

Herbs and spices are among the healthiest, most nutrient-dense foods available. They're really a "secret weapon" that just about everyone can take advantage of, regardless of your budget. Not only are they generally inexpensive to buy, they're even less expensive if you grow them yourself. Garlic in particular has long been hailed for its healing powers, especially against infectious diseases like cold and flu. 

The Many Medicinal Properties of Garlic

Research confirms fresh garlic has potent immune-boosting, antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal effects. Historically, garlic has been widely used in medicine1 for circulatory and lung ailments, and modern research backs the wisdom of many of these historical claims — and more. For example, studies show that regular consumption of (primarily raw) garlic:

Many of its therapeutic effects comes from sulfur-containing compounds such as allicin, which also give garlic its characteristic smell. As allicin is digested, it produces sulfenic acid,11 a compound that reacts with dangerous free radicals faster than any other known compound. Other health-promoting compounds include oligosaccharides, arginine-rich proteins, selenium and flavonoids.12

Garlic must be fresh to give you optimal health benefits, though. The fresh clove must be crushed or chopped to stimulate the release of an enzyme called alliinase, which in turn catalyzes the formation of allicin.13 Allicin in turn rapidly breaks down to form a number of different organosulfur compounds. So, to activate garlic's medicinal properties, compress a fresh clove with a spoon prior to swallowing it, or put it through your juicer to add to your vegetable juice.

A single medium size clove or two is usually sufficient, and is well-tolerated by most people. Allicin is destroyed within one hour of smashing the garlic, so garlic pills are virtually worthless. You also won't reap all the health benefits garlic has to offer if you use jarred, powdered or dried versions.

For these reasons, growing your own garlic is a simple and inexpensive way to ensure you have a supply of medicinal garlic on hand — not to mention garlic is one of the most popular flavor additions to a wide array of dishes. In short, you really cannot go wrong growing garlic in your garden.

Selecting an Appropriate Garlic Variety

For a successful crop, keep your local climate in mind. You might also try a couple of different varieties for different flavors. For example, elephant garlic has a milder flavor than you might be used to. Garlic can be divided into two main classes or types:

Softneck garlic is ideal if you live in an area where winters are mild. Softneck varieties are also best if you want to create garlic braids. Popular varieties include:

Creole

Artichoke

Asian

Elephant

Hardneck varieties are better in colder areas. Some of the most popular varieties include:

Porcelain

Purple stripe

Rocambole

Planting and Harvesting Guidelines

Garlic is planted in the fall and harvested the following summer. The featured video might confuse you if you live in the U.S. or Europe, because it mentions planting in what we would consider summer months and harvesting in the middle of winter. This is because the film is based in Australia, where the seasons are transposed, and the shortest day of the year is June 21. Here are some general planting guidelines to consider:14

  • For the biggest bulbs, plant your cloves in the fall after the first frost. If you don't mind smaller bulbs, you can also plant them in late winter, once the soil has thawed
  • Select a sunny spot in your garden and use well-draining fertile soil with a neutral pH (6.5 to 7.0 is best). Loosen the soil at least 1 foot deep and mix in a 1-inch layer of organic compost. If your soil is too acidic, add in a small amount of wood ash
  • Right before planting, select a fresh, healthy bulb and break free the individual cloves. With the papery skin still intact, soak the clove in water with a tablespoon of baking soda and a tablespoon of liquid seaweed for two hours. Soaking is optional, but it helps prevent fungal disease and encourages healthy growth
  • Poke a hole, about 3 to 4 inches deep, and place the clove in the hole, pointed end up. Space each clove about 6 to 8 inches apart and cover with soil
  • Cover the plantings with 3 to 8 inches of mulch or hay

That's all there's to it! What could be easier? In four to six weeks, you'll start seeing shoots poking through the mulch and your garlic will be ready for harvest in early to midsummer, once the soil is dry and one-third of the leaves have withered and turned pale. To harvest, carefully loosen the soil with a digging fork, then pull up the plant. The bulbs can bruise easily when first taken out of the ground, so treat them gently.

Place the entire plant, with bulbs attached, in a warm, dry, airy spot for about one week. At that point, brush off any stuck-on soil from the bulbs, but leave on the papery outer layer, and snip the roots, leaving about one-half inch. Wait one more week, then clip off the stems. If you planted a softneck variety, you can now go ahead and braid them together if you like.

Pest and Disease Control

Garlic has few serious adversaries, but you still need to keep an eye out for potential threats that might ruin your crop, such as:

  • Onion thrips, which can be identified by the pale grooves they create in the plant's leaves. Fortunately, it has many natural predators. Thrips thrive in weedy areas, so mowing and weeding around the garlic plants will also discourage them. Should you find them, place some sticky traps next to the plant. A more serious infestation can be treated using a biological pesticide containing spinosad
  • Onion root maggots can become a problem if you plant onion family crops in the same place over multiple seasons, so it's best to rotate your plantings. Diatomaceous earth can be sprinkled around the plant in late spring, which is when the females lay most of their eggs
  • Root rot diseases such as fusarium are preventable by making sure the soil drains well, and by using caution during weeding to avoid damaging the roots of the plant

How to Store and Extend Shelf Life of Your Garlic  

Leaving the outer wrapping will inhibit sprouting and prevent rotting, allowing you to store the garlic longer. As a general rule, hardneck varieties will stay fresh for four to six months if stored in a cool, dry place. Softneck varities can be stored for up to eight months or longer. For even more extended storage, you can process it in various ways:

Dehydrating — Using a dehydrator (not your oven, as heat will damage beneficial compounds) will stop the loss of moisture that naturally occurs as soon as you harvest the garlic. As moisture is lost, it gets hotter and more pungent. Dehydrating it will stop this process, preserving the garlic at whatever level of flavor it currently has.

To dehydrate garlic, make sure the cloves are firm and clean. Slice them evenly and dehydrate at 110 to 116 degrees F until completely dry. Drying time will depend on the thickness of the slices. The thinner they are, the quicker they dry. A food processor with a feed tube attachment can be helpful for creating slices of even thickness.

Store in a tightly sealed container with a desiccant to soak up any moisture. The chips can then be used in an adjustable grinder, or chopped and used in soups, chili and roasts, for example.

Pickling — While pickling will extend the usefulness of the garlic more or less indefinitely, it does alter the nature of the compounds in the garlic, neutralizing some and creating others. Hence, pickled garlic has different medicinal qualities than raw.

As explained by Enon Valley Garlic Company:15 "The acid in vinegar neutralizes the alliinase and slowly breaks down the rest of the cloves into odorless, water-soluble compounds that circulate via the bloodstream, mostly S-allyl cysteine (SAC), the active ingredient in Kyolic brand of aged garlic extract.

Kyolic has many studies demonstrating that SAC lowers cholesterol, blood pressure and sugar levels as well as inhibiting platelet aggregation. While SAC may have some anti-tumor properties, the odorous sulfides have far greater anticancer properties … [T]he longer you leave the garlic in the vinegar, the more SAC is formed — for two to three years; It just gets better with age." 

To pickle your garlic, clean it as you would if you were eating it raw and place in a sterile glass jar. Cover the cloves completely with 5 percent vinegar (white vinegar, apple cider vinegar or live mother vinegar). Cap with a lid and refrigerate for at least two months. Again, the longer you leave it, the better. Both the garlic cloves and the vinegar solution can be consumed, and will have the same medicinal qualities.

Preserving — The process of preservation is similar to pickling, but will not extend shelf life for years on end. You can, however, get at least a year out of it if it's stored in the refrigerator. Prepare the garlic as described under pickling, but instead of using full-strength vinegar, simply cover the cloves with distilled water and add 1 tablespoon of vinegar per quart of water. You can use more, but not less vinegar than this. By lowering the pH, spoilage is prevented.

Freezing — Yes, garlic can also be frozen for up to three years, but it's uncertain as to whether it's best to freeze it whole, or chop or crush it first. Enon Valley recommends crushing or chopping the garlic and then waiting five to 20 minutes before freezing it to optimize the possibility of having the allicin and sulfide formation occur upon thawing.

Replanting Tips

Be sure to save some of the bulbs for next year's planting as well. As noted by Mother Earth News:16

"Many garlic varieties fine-tune their growth patterns to the climate in which they are grown, so planting cloves from bulbs you grew yourself can save money and also result in a strain that is especially well-suited to the conditions in your garden. As you harvest and cure your crop, set aside the biggest and best bulbs as your 'seed' stock.

One pound of cured bulbs will break into about 50 individual cloves, which is enough to plant a 25-foot-long double row. If allowed to flower, some varieties produce fleshy bulbils (little bulbs) atop the flower stalk. Elephant garlic often develops elliptical, hard-shelled corms underground outside the main bulbs.

Garlic bulbils and corms can both be replanted. The first year after planting, bulbils and corms will grow into small plants that can be harvested as scallion-like 'green garlic' in late spring, just before the roots swell. If left unharvested, bulbils and corms develop into full-size bulbs in two to three years."

Should you be dissatisfied with your crop, don't use it for replanting. Instead, experiment with other varieties to find the one that responds best to your climate and soil conditions.

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