Now is the time to plant garlic

Just a small amount of effort will return great dividends come summer.

Photo by Maine Extension
Photo by Maine Extension

Now that Halloween is behind us, you may be wondering what to do with all of the extra garlic that you purchased to ward off vampires. Now is the perfect time to plant garlic. Just a small amount of effort will return great dividends come summer. Garlic is easy to plant, easy to maintain, goes well in many dishes and has multiple health benefits.

Garlic (Allium sativum) is in the same family as onion and related to leeks and chives as well. Garlic is native to Asia. There are two subspecies of garlic (hardneck and softneck) and hundreds if not thousands of varieties. The garlic “bulb” is the entire head of the plant and each bulb is made up of multiple cloves. The “neck” of the garlic is the stalk that is extends from the garlic bulb.

Hardneck garlic (Allium sativum ssp. ophioscorodon) has a long flowering stem (scape) that terminates in a pod called an umbel. Hardneck garlic is comprised of a bulb that surrounds the central growing scape and usually has four to twelve cloves. Hardneck varieties are generally spicier than softneck varieties and are more tolerant of the cold winters we experience in northern Michigan. Porcelain, marbled purple stripes, purple stripe, glazed purple strip and rocambole are commonly planted hardneck varieties.

Softneck garlic (Allium sativum ssp. sativum) usually has 8-20 irregularly shaped cloves depending upon the variety. It is thought that softneck garlic developed more cloves to compensate the absence of an umbel. Because of their “soft neck”, varieties that fall into this category are easier to braid. Softneck varieties tend to store longer than hardneck varieties and are likely what you will see in most grocery stores.

Health Benefits

Studies have confirmed the many health benefits associated with garlic. Garlic is rich in Vitamins C and B6, Manganese and antioxidants. Intact raw garlic contains the compound alliin; crushing or chopping garlic activates an enzyme called allinase, which converts alliin to allicin. Allicin is the antibacterial compound that is responsible for the sulfur smell and many of the health benefits. Because allicin is only released when garlic is crushed or chopped it is best to crush garlic and allow it to sit at room temperature for 15-20 minutes before consuming or using. Literature reviews have shown that garlic supplements have reduced total cholesterol and hypertension. Garlic has been shown to boost immune system function and reduce the number and length of colds. Garlic has also been shown to enhance memory (in rats at least). While there are demonstrated health benefits associated with consumption of garlic, responses can vary by person.

Growing Garlic

A good time to plant garlic is mid-late October. Garlic can still be planted until the ground freezes. Cloves are planted “root side down” about two-to-three inches below the soil surface. Cloves should be planted six inches apart within a row and rows should be one foot apart. It is also a good idea to place about six inches of loose straw mulch on top of the bed. Early season weed control is important and garlic should be watered about once a week. In the late spring, for hardneck varieties, a scape will emerge from the center of the plant. It begins growing strait but will eventually curve into a circular shape. At this time, many growers cut the scapes since they take energy from the bulb, often resulting in smaller bulbs. Scapes can be used in many different ways such as garlic scape pesto, grilled like asparagus, or added to a marinade. While different varieties can be ready for harvest at different times, in northern Michigan, most varieties can be harvested in early July. For those who may have a hard time remembering when to plant and harvest garlic, a farmer once told me that in northern Michigan garlic should be planted during the MLB World Series and harvested during the MLB All Star Game.

For more information on growing garlic please contact your local Michigan State University Extension office.

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