Autumn approaches, and our gardens are filled with vegetables to harvest. But if you crave tasty garlic for next year, now is the time to prepare for planting. Garlic requires vernalization — a period of cold temperature — before it can initiate growth. In North Central Washington, the best time for planting garlic is September or early October.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is in the same species as onions, but unlike onions it rarely produces seeds. “Seed garlic” advertised in catalogues is a garlic bulb. The bulb will contain 10 to 20 cloves enclosed in a parchment-like sheath and arranged around a modified flower stem. Each clove can produce a new garlic bulb. While any garlic clove can be planted, seed garlic from a reputable grower is more likely to be vigorous and disease-free than garlic purchased as food in a grocery store.
There are two subspecies of garlic: hardneck (var. ophioscorodon) and softneck (var. sativum). The most obvious feature that distinguishes the two is the “scape” of the hardneck variety, which rises from the leaf cluster and forms a coil which later straightens into a hard stalk. Many gardeners harvest young scapes to use in salads or stir fry.
Hardneck garlic is more cold hardy than softneck, though both varieties grow well in our region. The cloves of hardneck garlic are fewer and larger than softneck, and many people consider them more flavorful. However, the shelf life is shorter than softneck varieties. Because of its hard central stalk, hardneck garlic cannot be braided, making it less suitable for ornamental uses. Softneck garlic doesn’t form scapes, and the stalk is pliable.
Prepare seed garlic for planting by separating cloves from the bulb. This should be done the day of planting, taking care not to damage the basal plate where the roots will emerge. Larger cloves will produce larger bulbs, so save the small ones for eating.
Garlic should be planted on a site that receives at least six hours of sun a day. It does best in well-drained soil high in organic matter. Plant cloves 6 inches apart and 2 to 3 inches deep, and cover with 2 to 3 inches of mulch such as weed-free straw. This will help prevent the cloves from frost-heaving.
When choosing a planting date, the objective is to get maximum root growth without initiating top growth. Garlic will grow roots in the fall until the ground freezes, at which time it becomes dormant. Garlic planted too late will get off to a slow start in the spring. Garlic planted too early will begin top growth which can sometimes result in winter damage. Late September or early October is a good time for planting in Wenatchee or Chelan, while early September works best in Leavenworth or Plain.
For more information, take a look at Ron Engeland’s classic 1991 book, “Growing Great Garlic.” Ron grew garlic in Okanogan County for many years, and the farm he started is still in operation. His book is not only a complete guide to garlic from planting to marketing, but includes garlic history, garlic artwork and garlic poetry.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in The Wenatchee World. Connie Mehmel is one of four columnists featured. To learn more, visit wwrld.us/cdmg or call 667-6540.