Natural Essays

The life cycle of a garlic field

By Richard Phelps
Posted 11/19/20

In these parts, garlic is harvested in July. Shall we start with the harvest, or the planting? Let’s start with the harvesting because if you don’t harvest garlic, you have nothing to …

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Natural Essays

The life cycle of a garlic field


In these parts, garlic is harvested in July. Shall we start with the harvest, or the planting? Let’s start with the harvesting because if you don’t harvest garlic, you have nothing to plant. Well, you could buy it, but someone had to harvest what you are planting. And this year I did buy some. I bought a new variety, Music. Music is a more recently evolved porcelain hardneck garlic propagated in Canada by a converted tobacco grower, Al Music. It does very well in cold climates and is the most widespread garlic grown in Canada, taking up 90% of their market. I bought 40 pounds from a Cornell University plant specialist who can’t keep her hands out of the soil.

Back in July I had a good group of helpers “pulling” the garlic from the ground and moving it to the edge of the field. There, I trimmed the tops and sorted the bulbs into seed garlic or culinary garlic. Seed garlic simply means the largest garlic. “Plant the big cloves, eat the small.” While sorting, the garlic is tied into bunches, the roots are left on and the stems trimmed to about a foot. Some garlic enthusiasts think curing in this fashion increases the flavor of the garlic. The garlic is immediately hung in the barn to cure. Direct sunlight is discouraged and fans for air circulation are turned on, if electricity is available. Not always the case. Garlic can be eaten or sold immediately after pulling, of course, but the objective of curing the garlic is to dry it enough that it does not mold and can last the winter months in storage.

Ok so now that I have the garlic seed, what next?

I was now in position to develop a new garlic field. Planting garlic in the same spot year after year can lead to problems. Not only can those elements that make garlic unique become depleted, like sulfur and copper, but fungus and other rots may intrude. Once the hayfield was cut and baled, I plowed the new section. After plowing, I disked it. Then waited. Then disked again. Let weeds and grasses start growing and then hit them again. In between each action, we picked off the stones. A few weeks ago I came into some nice horse manure. I spread the manure, added lime. Then I tilled the field with the tractor-tiller and picked off the stones one last time, and then tilled again. Ready to plant. The soil, nice and fluffy, perfect for accepting the garlic cloves.

To get the garlic cloves we have to break apart the garlic heads, or bulbs. This process is called “cracking.” This is a tedious job requiring strong hands, keen eyes, and the ability to self-entertain. These hardnecks want to stick together. Each variety of garlic has a different number of cloves making up the bulb. Music has five to six cloves per head. The German red has eight to twelve cloves. Each variety is kept separate. This segregation is not always achievable which is why one of my favorite varieties has become Mystery garlic, my own brand. It’s a Mystery because I don’t know what the heck it is -- Russian red, Hungarian hot, or German red. A big seller!

Each clove is inspected for size, disease, and physical damage. Only the best cloves are planted. To prevent dehydration and other degradations, cracking is done as close to planting as possible. The night before planting I soak the cloves in either a vodka bath or a 50 to 1 solution of Oxidate, a powerful hydrogen peroxide. This treatment kills mites and other microscopic pathogens. Immediately after this wash, I soak the cloves overnight in a hot water and kelp-powder bath to stimulate root growth.

In the morning, hopefully with a nice sun, we get planting. I put up a string-line across the field, dig a trench with a round-point shovel. Then we spread bone meal in the bottom of the trench, then blood meal, and we back-dress this lightly, leaving a visible trench. I come along with a bucket of damp cloves and drop them in, five or so in a handful, one after the other, along the trench. Then we place each clove, root-plate down, about six inches from each other, staggered in a zigzag on down the trench. Then we hoe up the row. In some cases we compost the tops of the row. Soon, when the ground is frozen, or drier, we will mulch the field with chopped leaves or woodchips, whichever is on hand.

We are just a small farm. A big garden, really. We don’t have machine planters or sophiscated cultivating techniques. The garlic will grow for nine months. It takes work. But you gotta love it, and the outside is the place to be these days of Covid.


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