Growing Great Garlic

Posted: June 9, 2015

Consumer interest in garlic and garlic consumption has grown over the past several decades and it remains strong. Gourmet food interest and healthy diet trends are probably a factor. Regardless of the reason, this presents marketing opportunities for growers.

Garlic requires relative little space compared to many vegetable crops, has few pest problems and stores well…. all good attributes for small scale and beginning growers. Yields of 4,000 – 8,000 lbs per acre and retail prices for locally grown, specialty garlic near $5.00 per lb are attractive. Like all new crops, it is wise to start small, so that mistakes made in the learning process are not too costly. Arm-chair farming, like armchair quarterbacking can be unrealistic. Garlic is a labor intensive crop.

Growing Great Garlic is the title of a well known text on the subject by Ron Engeland. Not a bad place to start if you are interested in this unique specialty crop. Penn State and other Land Grant Universities also have good information, if you plan to grow this crop.

The University of Minnesota Extension has produced an excellent garlic growing guide that is a good first read if this crop is new to you, or for beginning vegetable growers. It covers all of the essentials…. varieties, planting procedures, pests, soil fertility, harvest, and storage. It also contains an excellent list of references and further reading. To this list, I would add The Complete Book of Garlic by Ted Jordan Meredeth, a recently published (2008), comprehensive look at this species and its culture. Penn State’s Commercial Vegetable Production Guide has a section on garlic culture but beginning growers will want to gain greater perspective on this crop's culture than the guide provides. Our Ag Alternatives Garlic publication has sample budgets and additional information.

Currently, we are approaching the harvest season for garlic. In Pennsylvania, “hard neck” garlic matures in early to mid-July. Its debut in local farmers markets is anticipated by local “foodies”. Actually, garlic scapes, the garlic flower stalk, are often marketed in June. Scapes are removed to increase yield but are also fine eating. They increase the return that this crop can provide to growers and add another unique item for CSAs and farm marketers. Garlic stores well and local sales will continue until the end of the growing season… and beyond.

Prospective growers might have an eye out for local garlic sellers as a source of planting stock. In fact, locating a reliable and high quality source for fall planting may be a challenge as the interest in growing garlic has increased. Also, although choices of garlic varieties are not as extensive as tomato or sweet corn, it is more confusing. Even sorting out the various subspecies is a challenge. Consult the references described above before you begin to locate planting stock. Become familiar with the lingo. Local terminology and variety names are common and add to the problem.

Certainly, not all garlic is the same and that adds to the value in the market place. A locally grown, high quality product and a range of distinct varieties provide excellent marketing opportunities.