The first question you should ask yourself is: what do I hope to accomplish?  Is this a hobby or a commercial enterprise?  Only you know the answer to these questions.

In my case I began growing garlic as one of several products made available to CSA and farmers’ market customers.  Gradually I put more emphasis on garlic than on some other crops for several reasons.  First, if you produce a good product there is a very good chance you will get a financial return for your effort.  A second reason is that while garlic requires certain periods of intense effort, the amount of time needed is less than what one might spend on a full season of vegetables.  So, somewhat less time and a reasonable return on effort.  Sounds like a plan.

Just so you know, I am a retired grower. I spent years growing and selling vegetables and garlic on what I would describe as ‘small scale’.  My wife and I determined that we would be the sole workers and we would not invest more heavily in equipment than was necessary.  So, what I have to offer is from this perspective. 

Garlic can be a challenging product. Yes, there are certain requirements for growing quality garlic.  The first of these is finding a source of seed stock.  The seed (garlic cloves) is not cheap.  Depending on your scale of production, you will need to make a considerable investment in seed for planting.

Before digging into your bank account for garlic seed, there are several factors that you must consider if you hope to have a successful harvest. Careful attention needs to be given to the type of garlic to be planted. There are over 600 different ‘varieties’ to choose from. Planting, watering, fertilization, growing, harvesting and storing all have specific requirements. Two particularly important issues are discussed here, along with organic growing suggestions.

 

The first issue is that of the leek moth. Introduced to Canada from Europe some years ago, it has now spread to most growing areas including Eastern Ontario. The female leek moth lays eggs on the growing plant and the resulting larva will burrow into the stem and move down to the bulb. Eggs are laid at four different periods covering much of the garlic growing cycle. While there are commercial sprays that can limit damage, these must be applied frequently and are problematic for organic growers.

 

A few years ago, I participated with the Federal Department of Agriculture in an experiment to produce and release a tiny wasp, also from Europe, under the IMP (integrated pest management) banner to control the pest. The object is not to eliminate the moth but to limit its numbers. Just for context, prior to participating in the study I found that 25-30% of my plants were being impacted, enough to make continuing growing an impossible challenge.

If I could not kill the insect before it caused damage, I needed to keep it from getting on to the plant in the first place. Solution? Floating row covers. These helped reduce damage from 25% to perhaps 5%. I put the row covers on as soon as the garlic emerged in the spring and left them on until harvest. There is no need to support the covers artificially. They float up as the plant grows.

You will need some sort of irrigation system under the covers and weights to hold the covers down. Weeds also grow very well underneath, so you will need to remove the covers for weeds’ control and for scaping. While adding cost and additional effort to your operation, the bottom line is that floating row covers work.

 

 A second problem organic growers will face is the menace of bulb and stem nematodes. Microscopic, these eel-like creatures attack the garlic bulb, making them vulnerable to basal rot. Once nematodes take up residence in your soil, they will be there for several years. Growing garlic in these soils will result in an almost complete crop loss.

How does an organic grower respond? There are a number of approaches. First, check your seed stock. The roots should look healthy and be firmly attached to the basal plate (where the roots join the bulb).

If you have a nematode infestation, one response is crop rotation. Wait 5 years before replanting in an infested area. If you are impatient, you might try some organic responses. You can also purchase a certain type of nematode that predates on garlic nematodes. I have not tried that method. 

Some have suggested planting marigolds. I have tried this but was not impressed with the results. Others have tried radishes, but I have no personal experience with them. One approach I have tried with some success is planting Oriental (hot/spicy) mustard. Once it has flowered but before it sets seed, cut and till it in before planting garlic. The mustard plant residue produces a gas that will kill nematodes. One challenge is finding a source of this mustard seed. My last source was in Saskatchewan.

 

If you are not deterred by the above challenges and have already purchased seed, you will want to plant it in October – enough time for new roots to make contact with the soil but not enough for the plants to surface.  Six-inch spacing on rows twelve inches apart should do nicely.  Some growers cover their beds with mulch.  While not essential, it can be helpful, especially to control weeds and retain moisture during the growing season. 

Your garlic will be one of the first things up in the spring.  In most years, irrigation is required in order to achieve reasonable bulb size.  One inch of water per week should do.  Most growers will plant hard neck varieties, which means you will have garlic scapes to remove by hand in June. Explore the many ways that scapes can be used. 

Harvest is generally in mid-to-late July. Once your garlic has been harvested it needs to be cleaned and dried.  Drying sounds simple, but mistakes, leading to mold or other problems, can be costly.  

Finally (and this is an issue you need to address right up front), what is your plan for marketing those lovely garlic bulbs?  You will have put significant investment in time and resources in growing your crop, but if you do not have a good market it will all be for naught.  One of the absolutely best sources of information on this and other questions you might have is to consult with those who are already in the business.  

Once you have done your homework, you will be ready to become a garlic grower.

 

David McCreery

Almonte, ON

 

idmccreery.4547@gmail.com

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