A relative recently asked me to start growing garlic again. I planted a few hundred cloves every autumn for several years, gave most of the crop away and then stopped a couple of years ago. Apparently, those who had been the beneficiaries of my harvest have regretted my retirement from small-scale garlic farming.
The hiatus was not the result of a conscious decision. Garlic must be planted in September or October, and in 2004 I didn't get it done. Then 2005 came and went, and - whoops - no garlic. It's hard to think in terms of tilling, planting and mulching in the fall, and once you miss your opportunity, it's gone until the next year.
At the same time, once you get the garlic on the ground, you really don't have much more to do. You water, and as soon as the green tops emerge, just cover your garlic plot with a thick blanket of mulch and wait until the following summer to harvest it. In drought years, you'll need to do some supplemental watering, but that's about it.
Garlic is the crop tailor-made for people with a brown thumb. You can't mess it up - unless you try to plant it in spring, you plant the cloves upside-down, or you plant garlic that has been treated with an anti-sprouting agent.
In this climate, garlic must be planted in the fall and allowed to overwinter. The cloves must sprout in the fall, sending up a green top, and begin to establish roots before winter arrives. If they don't have roots to anchor them in the soil, the cloves could be dislodged if the ground freezes. However, in Northeast Kansas we no longer seem to have the kind of hard freeze that contracts the soil enough to expel a garlic clove.
The importance of planting in the fall, then, is to give the garlic a head start on the spring growing season. The cloves already will be rooted when the soil warms in March, which automatically provides a longer growing season. Cloves planted in spring produce spindly greens and tiny heads.
It's also necessary to place the individual cloves in the soil root-end down. Upside-down plantings won't sprout. Create a furrow about 2 inches deep, thoroughly wet the soil in the furrow, and allow it to drain completely. Break apart a head of garlic and divide the cloves, leaving the paper on. Push each clove into the bottom of the furrow, spacing the cloves 5 to 6 inches apart. Refill the furrow with soil.
Be sure to select planting garlic that has not been treated with an anti-sprouting agent. This is a danger of planting supermarket garlic. Like potatoes, much supermarket garlic has been treated with chemicals that prolong its shelf life.
If you buy garlic bulbs from a grocer, buy organic to avoid the chemicals. This is the cheaper way to go, but you will be limited to the organic garlic varieties that are available from that store. Most of the time, your only option will be a soft-neck white Italian variety.
An interesting range of hard- and soft-neck planting garlic is sold by some seed catalogs, such as Territorial Seed (www.territorial-seed.com) and Johnny's Select Seed (www.johnnyseeds.com). It can be pricey (three bulbs for about $10 is not unusual), and you generally have to reserve the more popular garlics in the spring to be delivered in fall in time for planting. However, you can experiment with garlics from all over the world.
One of the best garlics I've ever grown was a hard-neck red Korean garlic that I ordered by mail. I bought three or four varieties that year, and while the distinctions among the others were difficult to discern, the red Korean garlic's flavor was anything but subtle. A garlic available from Territorial called Spanish Roja also is a good bet.