This article is the second in a two-part series on garlic cultivation. Last week I discussed calculating how much you want to plant, how best to procure your seed garlic and preparing the ground for planting. This week will cover clove-popping, planting and mulching.
Clove-popping is basically the same thing you do every time you break apart a bulb of garlic for eating. But in the clove-popping-for-planting context, you need to be more careful. Clove poppers make critical decisions that determine the quality of the harvest. Keep a bowl on hand for the reject cloves, which are still good eating. The clove-popping procedure should be conducted no more than a day or two before planting, to ensure that the cloves don’t dehydrate.
All the bulbs you use should be rock hard, with no sign of mold or excessive moisture. So greet each bulb with a firm squeeze. If even one clove in an otherwise good bulb is soft, shriveled or moldy, reject the whole bulb. Moldy bulbs are the worst. They should be treated like toxic waste and disposed of carefully. Don’t toss them across the room. Don’t pass them around for everyone else to examine. I won’t even put moldy garlic in my compost pile—I want those spores as far from my garlic as possible. I enclose the offending bulbs in a plastic bag and send it to the landfill.
As you deconstruct your bulbs, keep in mind that bruises, breaks, or even fingernail punctures in the cloves open the door to moisture and rot, and damaged cloves should not be planted. Place the good cloves gently into a bucket, like the babies they are.
Indeed, when you plant garlic cloves, you’re technically planting not seeds, but whole baby garlic plants. The clove itself is a modified leaf. The little scab at the bottom of the clove is the embryonic stem, and the little bumps around the stem are baby roots.
I use my thumbnail to break the bulb wrappers at the top of the bulb, away from the central stalk. Then I break the bulb in half and carefully separate the cloves. Best to leave the individual clove wrappers in place, although some easier-to-peel varieties will shed their wrappers at a longing look, and that’s OK, too. I quickly glance at the bottom of each clove to make sure the stem/root area isn’t damaged. Damage can occur as you pull the clove off the bulb.
Sometimes a piece, or even the whole thing, breaks off. These cloves go in the reject bucket, because a damaged stem will produce a weak plant.
There is a direct relationship between the size of the planted clove and the size of the harvested bulb. Big cloves from small bulbs will produce big bulbs. Small cloves from big bulbs will produce small bulbs. Get the picture? Clove size matters more than bulb size. If you want to bust out the postal scale, 6–9 grams per clove is the ideal size for planting. Another detail that matters is the size of the root/stem area. Again, bigger is better. So, if you have a clove of borderline size, look at the bottom. If it has a relatively big root/stem area, use it.
After clove-popping, planting goes relatively quickly. The most important thing is to plant the cloves with the root down. You don’t want to plant a garlic plant upside down any more than you want to plant a tomato plant upside down. Plant the cloves about 5 to 6 inches apart, and with the tip of the clove about 2 inches below the soil surface. Cover it, and give the soil a little pat to remove any air space around the clove.
Finally, mulch. Every garlic grower mulches differently, but all agree that mulch is a crucial factor in a good crop. To quote Ron Engeland, author of the definitive and highly recommended Growing Great Garlic: “Today I am older, wiser, and much more patient. Not a saint, mind you, but I mulch with the dedication of a champion chess player and the fervent sincerity of a young priest. Mulch moderates soil conditions. Like a good referee, a good mulch will prevent outrageous excesses in temperature and moisture levels so plants can enjoy a ‘level playing field.’”
Engeland recommends fresh grass clippings. Most garlic growers mulch with straw. Hardwood leaves work, too, but they can blow away in the winter. I like a thin layer of maple leaves covered by a matrix of straw, about 4 to 6 inches deep.
All of these mulches have the potential to form an impenetrable mat that the young garlic plants can’t get through in springtime, so start checking beneath the mulch in late March. Sometimes you find sickly looking pale stems growing sideways under the mulch, but they come back to life quickly if you remove the mulch and let the little guys find their way to the light. Once they are up, re-mulch around them and keep well-watered through late July.
E-mail Chef Boy Ari: firstname.lastname@example.org