Growing Garlic in the South
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The days are getting shorter and it is harder to get into the garden if you work a 9 to 5 job. Even still there is always something new you can be doing in the garden, even in the seemingly dying fall. According to the Central North Carolina Planting Calendar, the recommended planting time for garlic is September 15 to November 30. November and December are also the time when you want to get in the rest of your spring-flowering bulbs, as well; so why not just add some garlic to your vegetable garden too.
Garlic is a much-loved, sometimes much-hated, vegetable condiment used to season dishes around the world. It is a member of the Alliaceae plant family, sometimes it is lumped in with Amaryllidaceae. The hallmark of this family is the tell-tale sulfurous scent of the bulbs.
The name garlic comes to us from the Welsh word garlleg, which is transformed into the English word garlic. The Ancient Egyptians, Southeast Asians, and Europeans all use garlic to flavor their food. It is speculated that it is originally from Central Asia, but humans have been growing and using the plant for thousands of years and there is nothing in the wild that resembles the modern garlic plant. It has mutated so much throughout the millennia that it has become adaptable to the myriad of growing conditions humans put it through.
How to Plant and Care for Garlic in the Garden
Garlic is simple to plant and care for. Make sure to select a site that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day and has well-draining soil. They prefer a soil pH between 6 and 7, so make sure to do a soil test before planting to avoid stressing your plants out.
Dig a hole approximately six to eight inches deep (including mulch). Pull off a clove from the garlic bulb, and place it in the hole root-side down. Look for the brown plate on one end of the clove that was attached to the bulb plate. Make sure to wait to pull the garlic bulbs apart until you are about to plant them. Leave six to eight inches between each bulb in the row. Mulching the bulbs after planting can help control weeds.
You should start to see the bulbs anywhere between four and eight weeks after planting, depending on your timing and the weather. Do not worry about your garlic during frost events. They can withstand cold weather, and require it to grow successfully. You may see long stems coming out of the bulbs in the spring. These are the flower stems, and it is important to cut these off when they are around ten inches long to preserve the plant’s energy for bulb production. You can save these stems, called scapes, and use them for cooking.
You should be harvesting them around June. Look for the older leaves starting to die back. Make sure to dig them on time, as they can separate in the ground if not dug on time. Loosen the soil with a digging fork or shovel and carefully lift the bulb from ground. Do not pull from the leaves, as they can break and wound the bulbs. Gently brush most of the dirt off. This is when you can tie the plants into bundles and hang in a shaded, dry, well-ventilated shed or garage. Leave the plants hanging for four to six weeks so that bulbs can cure.
Softneck, or braiding, garlic is scientifically known as Allium sativum var. sativum. ‘Sativum’ is a reference to the Latin for ‘edible’, obviously a nod to the overall edibility of the plant’s flowers and bulbs. The main hallmark of softneck varieties istheir tight bulbs and long leaves that help with braiding. There are two main groups: silverskins and artichoke types.
Hardneck, or Rocambole, garlic evolved from softneck varieties and is known as Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon. The flavor profile is more diverse in hardnecks, but they can be challenging to grow in the South, as they prefer richer soils than we usually have. There are some varieties that have been shown to be successful in the South: Chesnok Red and German Extra Hardy
Elephant garlic is the common name for Allium ampeloprasum, and is called elephant garlic because of its large bulbs. These bulbs are easy to store and use in the kitchen. They do not have a harsh garlic flavor, so are an excellent choice for folks who are sensitive to the sulfurious profile of soft and hardneck garlic.
The strong smells you get when you cut into garlic come from the phytochemicals that the plant produces to protect itself from predation. These chemicals are beneficial to our human health when we consume them. Allicin is a sulfur compound thought to be one of garlic’s most beneficial ingredients and what your eyes water for. Studies have shown that garlic can help with cholesterol regulation, offset metabolic syndrome symptoms, reduce risk of certain cancers, lower blood pressure and lower blood sugar levels. There is on-going research to verify these findings, and you can read more about them in the resources below.
Try incorporating garlic into your vegetable garden or your ornamental gardens for an added horticultural challenge. They can nourish your beds through the darkest season, and your table through the summer.