Plant Profile- Garlic

The post today is on a crop with a long and tortuous path, and one that isn’t finished yet by a long shot. Garlic is such an amazing plant with a multitude of uses that I was excited when I first tried growing it. The excitement was short lived however as when the plants were dug as their tops died down I found bulbs that were not substantially bigger than the ones I had planted. This was in my old intensive style garden that relied on truck loads of mushroom compost and regular irrigation.

When facing a failure like this there are a lot of different ways to respond. One option I have become more fond of as I get older is to simply give up on that particular plant and focus my energy on something that is more sincerely rewarding. The opposite extreme is to throw everything and the kitchen sink at the problem, hoping that if you just add enough of the right ingredient or work hard enough at the right technique then the problem can be solved.

With biological systems there are a multitude of possible causes for failure. Was the crop planted too early or too late? Watered too much or not enough? Was there too much fertiliser, too little, or even more diabolical the wrong balance of any of dozens of nutrients and minerals. Or it could be something about the soil itself, or the daylengths were too different at our latitude to places further south where garlic normally grows, or our winters simply weren’t cold enough. I tried growing it again on a smaller scale with new bulbs and got the same result.

As it turned out life got in the way and I stopped gardening for a few years. When I got back to it I noticed a few other folk were growing garlic as far north as Bundaberg, and even close by but usually further inland where the soil is quite different to mine. My earlier stock had come from mail order nurseries further south, so I thought it was worth trying again with the three unnamed varieties I knew could grow close by.

Like all my other cool season beds I simply top dressed some uncomposted goat manure and a bit of wood ash and charcoal, then hoed the topsoil from the paths up onto the beds during the summer after the geese had been through the area. Once the weather cooled a touch in March I divided my garlic bulbs and planted them about 10 cm apart in two rows. As before they sprouted, got a follow up weeding later in the season, a top dressing of camphor laurel leaves, and then left to die down in early spring. During the early season there was a lot of rain so the gardens were quite boggy, but the rain stopped in early winter so the ground was quite dry by spring.

To my surprise they had formed useable bulbs about 3-5 cm across, with distinct cloves that allowed them to be divided and replanted. Why had they filled out now when they failed during previous attempts? With so many possible factors it is almost not worth even asking the question, though I suspect the goat manure with its different mineral balance is the main reason. The smaller bulbs that had not filled out well were eaten since they were unlikely to store well. The large ones were strung up on the verandah over the summer. One variety almost completely dried up and died during storage and its few remaining bulbs were discarded. The other two were replanted this year along with a couple of new strains from different sources. Once again they performed pretty well considering the difficult conditions. The soil was like concrete at harvest, with large slabs of clay being levered out with a tuber hidden in the middle. A careful shovel strike would split it open like a geode with a precious bulb wedged inside. My initial planting of less than 500 g of very small cloves have a total yield of just over 2 kg, though this included the living roots and stems that will be slowly absorbed into the tubers soon.

I kept one kilogram of the largest bulbs to replant next year, and if the same rate of increase holds can expect about 8 kg of bulbs. Next year I plan to prepare some beds on our creek flats about 200 m from home. The soil is siltier here so it is possible the garlic will perform better. Due to its location it will be difficult to move large amounts of goat manure to the location, but I might try growing a portion of the garlic crop without this input to test my theory. I will also plant another bed of garlic in the same vegetable bed close to the house in order to hedge my bets. If I planted them all on the creek flats I might find they dislike the conditions so much that I lose my strains that perform reasonably well for me, taking me back to square one. Crops like garlic that are grown by division take several years to propagate up to a useful scale.

There are a few reasons I have been more persistent in learning to manage garlic compared to most other crops. It is in the Allium family, with spring onions giving their best harvests through late autumn to mid spring, and garlic chives coming on after the first good summer rains in January most years. This leaves a bit of a gap from late spring through summer, drawing out longer during droughty years. Garlic fills this gap nicely with harvests in early spring and ease of storage for a few months. Another reason is that garlic is so much more than just a vegetable. Even the bland bloated bulbs imported from China have potent medicinal properties. My years of being plagued by persistent ear infections are past now I know the power of fresh garlic infused olive oil trickled down the ear canal (the relief is almost instant). Home grown is much more potent, especially when grown under my zero input conditions, so garlic is definitely a crop where the total weight of the crop isn’t the most important factor. This potency can be further preserved by storing peeled cloves in honey, the planned use for the smallest bulbs this year. I haven’t tried this before so I will have to let you know how it turns out down the track. Garlic is a perfect example of a crop that bridges the divide between food and medicine, a distinction that doesn’t really exist for anything if you look closely enough. Garlic will always be a minor crop for me, especially since it is effectively sterile so the potential for further breeding and local adaptation is very limited (though amateur plant breeders are working to restore fertility and diversity overseas, so never say never). But it offers sufficient unique benefits that it was worth the slow and frustrating journey to this point. Hopefully garlic and I can grow to understand each other even better in the future.

Dried off garlic ready for harvest. I should have taken photos when they were green
A solid lump of clay levered off with the shovel then lifted with the weed on the left. Two bulbs are hiding in this lump
The harvest sorted by size, destined for honey, replanting and eating over the next month or two.

2 thoughts on “Plant Profile- Garlic

  1. I was surprised to learn recently that Garlic is a perennial.
    I was even more surprised to learn that Garlic has been cloned from bulbs (asexual reproduction) for so many centuries that people think it is sterile.
    I myself have proven this is wrong. A soft-neck variety from the local market put up a scape (flower head) in my container garden and I am currently coaxing it to produce true seed as we speak.

    Yes, it is true that Garlic has almost lost the genetic ability to produce true seed, but not quite. If you know how to coax the plant to put all of its energy into flowering then you will be amazed to watch as the plant struggles to remember how to produce true seed after thousands of years of cloning.


    1. Great to hear you are part of the world wide movement to restore fertility to garlic. Many crops fell into the local optimum of easy vegetative propagation for so long that they lost most of their fertility, becoming a genetic dead end. I think I am too close to the equator to hope for my own strains to flower but will try true garlic seed when it becomes available. Alliums also form interspecies hybrids quite easily so that has a lot of potential as well since there are many wild species. It makes me think about what abilities domesticated humans such as ourselves have mostly forgotten but could be renewed with a bit of support and struggle.


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