Did you know that much of the organic garlic that's sold in grocery stores travel hundreds or even thousands of miles before it reaches your kitchen table? Around 75% of the world's garlic comes from China, and while Chinese garlic imports have recently had quotas imposed on them here in the U.S., Chinese garlic is still prevalent on the shelves of many grocery stores. That's a long way for a head of garlic to travel before becoming part of your favorite pesto recipe.
Grocery store garlic that doesn't come from China often comes from California, the U.S. state where the majority of the 500+ million pounds of domestic garlic comes from. What's crazy about this world of well-traveled garlic is that garlic is a fairly easy crop for small farmers and gardeners to grow. Local farmers and backyard plots should be America's source for garlic, not fields half a world away.
How to grow organic garlic
We've been growing USDA Certified Organic garlic here at Cherry Valley Organics for many years. We grow garlic for both eating and planting primarily for our Farm Share and farmers market customers here in the western Pennsylvania region, but the method we use to grow organic garlic is applicable to much of North America.
We start our garlic crop by planting organic garlic bulbs that we saved from the previous year's crop. But for new garlic growers or gardeners who don't have bulbs leftover from last season, we suggest starting with organic garlic heads purchased from small farms like ours. Pittsburgh-area gardeners can contact us to purchase our organic garlic bulbs for planting.
Garlic planting time is mid to late October in our region. To begin the process, the heads are split into individual cloves. As you split the cloves, try to keep the papery sheath around each one intact. This helps protect the bulb after it's in the ground. The cloves are then planted into soil amended with organic compost. We suggest a planting depth of 3 to 4 inches and a spacing of 6 to 8 inches apart.
Once the garlic beds are planted, they're mulched with hay or straw to protect the bulbs from temperature fluctuations and weed competition.
Types of organic garlic for planting
Here at Cherry Valley Organics, we grow several different types of garlic. There are two main categories of garlic: softneck and hardneck.
- Hardneck garlics have a thick stalk that grows from the center of the garlic bulb and produces a twisted, edible flower stalk in mid-summer (see photo below). Hardneck garlics produce fewer cloves per head, but the cloves are larger than softneck varieties. Hardnecks are typically very cold-hardy.
- Softneck garlics are great for mild climates, though we grow a few hardier softneck types here in Pennsylvania, too. Softneck garlics have no central stalk, their cloves are smaller, but they produce more of them. Softneck garlics store for a long time.
For our farm, this year's crop consisted of two hardneck varieties, 'German Red' and 'German White', and a softneck type named 'Inchelium Red'. We typically plant 3 garlic beds, each over 100 feet long and filled with 7 rows of garlic bulbs. Our annual harvest is over 100 pounds of garlic.
How to harvest and cure organic garlic
Because our farm is certified organic, we do not use synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides on our organic garlic crop. Come early July, when harvest time arrives, we watch the garlic plants carefully for signs of their readiness for harvest. If you harvest them too early, the cloves may not be as large as you'd like, but if you wait too long to harvest, the heads will split, limiting the shelf life of your harvest. Tim digs our garlic when the tops are one-third yellow. The garlic bulbs are lifted carefully from the soil by hand and the greens are kept attached to the bulbs through the curing process.
To cure our organic garlic, we lay the newly dug bulbs out in a single layer on an elevated platform in our high tunnel greenhouse. If you don't have a greenhouse, you can complete the curing process in a barn, shed, or garage. Anyplace dry and warm will do. Ideally, the curing site should have good air circulation, too. Do not wash the bulbs prior to curing, but you can brush off any excess soil with a paintbrush or your hands, though it isn't necessary.
After 2 to 4 weeks pass, the greens will have fully died back and the papery sheath around the heads will be completely dry. At this point, use sharp scissors to trim off the roots and cut the stems off a few inches above the bulb.
Here at the farm, as we complete the curing process, we also grade our organic garlic for quality and size. The biggest bulbs become planting stock for next year. This ensures the genetic trait of a large size is passed on to the next generation. We sell some of these large bulbs to customers for planting in their own gardens; the rest we save for replanting on the farm. The mid-sized bulbs are sold as culinary garlic for kitchen use. Our garlic bulbs cost between $1.00 and $4.00 depending on the size and variety.
Whether you choose to support a small, organic farmer near you by purchasing organic garlic from them or grow your own crop of backyard garlic, you're on the right path. Not only are you keeping more dollars in your local economy... you're also opening yourself up to quite the culinary adventure.
There are hundreds of different types of garlic that you'll never be able to find on grocery store shelves where they carry the same 3 or 4 varieties all the time. By shopping local or growing your own, you can try heirloom garlic varieties that originated all around the world. These varieties can be grown across much of the U.S. and offer a diversity of flavors you won't believe. The Slow Foods Arc of Taste lists more than 200 culturally significant foods in danger of extinction. On that list are three garlic varieties that are a good place to start: 'Inchelium Red', 'Lorz Italian', and 'Spanish Roja'.
To enjoy our organic garlic, Pittsburgh-area residents can sign up for our Farm Share subscription program and get a weekly delivery from our farm or stop by our market stand on Saturday mornings at the Sewickley Farmer's Market.
For more on the delicious fruits and vegetables we grow, check out the following articles:
- What are ground cherries?
- Our favorite heirloom tomatoes
- What is patty plan squash
- The importance of eating with the seasons