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How to Grow Garlic in Kentucky

growing tips Sep 22, 2023

Who else loves garlic?  It's easy to grow.  It stores well.  It's a natural rodent & pest repellent.  It has natural antibiotic & antifungal properties.  And it's amazingly versatile in its culinary uses!  Think whole roasted bulbs spread on fresh bread.  Not to mention garlic scape pesto!

Garlic planting in Kentucky runs from October to mid November.  It is a 9 month grower with several steps to consider for a successful experience.   Let's get started!

Step One: Soil Preparation.  Garlic likes loose soil with good drainage.  If the bulb sits in wet conditions too long it can lead to root rot.  Grow them in a raised bed or directly in the ground.  Be sure to amend your soil with a plant or animal derived fertilizer rather than a synthetic.  This will feed the microbial life in the soil increasing nutrient availability to YOU!   Measure your square footage to determine the proper fertilizer application.

Step Two: Seed Selection.  Select a garlic variety that is appropriate for your Hardiness Zone.  Hardiness Zones are a USDA designation for extreme temperatures to help you make the best plant selections for your area.  Kentucky is split between Zone 6 (a&b) and 7.  Louisville is in Zone 6.  I like to purchase my "seed garlic" from local farmer's markets as I know it's well suited for our area.  If ordering online, be sure to check which hardiness zone the garlic was bred for!

Step Three: Note types of garlic.  There are two types of garlic with 1000's of variety's within them.  These two types are hardneck and softneck garlic.  Let's compare.

Hardneck garlic is more cold hardy, has larger, fewer cloves, and is the most flavorful.  The coolest thing about it is it produces a flower shoot know as the garlic scape!  This MUST be harvested around May to ensure your bulb "cloves up".  Scapes are delicious in stir-fry's, omelets, or steamed like green beans!  The downside to hardneck is it's shelf life.  After curing, it has a storage life of 4-6 months.

Softneck garlic is more adapted for warmer climates, has several smaller cloves, and is milder in flavor.  It may produce a small scape so that its stem is softer allowing it to be "braided" for effect.  Ever seen garlic braids?  They are gorgeous!  Softneck garlic typically have a longer shelf life of 9-12 months after curing!

Step Four: "Cracking your bulbs".  In preparation for planting, carefully remove the cloves from the growing stalk, trying not to disturb the root side flesh.  If breakage occurs, it may not germinate properly.  Also, keep the papery husk on the cloves.  Think of it as a wrapper that keeps them preserved longer.

Step Five:  Planting.  Garlic can be planted 4-6" apart within a row, and between rows.  You can fit about 6-9 cloves per square foot to maximize your yields.  Plant with the root side down, about 2-3 inches under your soil.  It's helpful to layout a measuring tape to guide your spacing, careful not to overcrowd them.  

Step Six:  Straw Mulch.  The plants will sprout this year, then go dormant over the winter, then reemerge in the spring.  The cloves need to be mulched over with straw at the time of planting.  This will keep the ground temperatures warmer over the winter to keep it from freezing and thawing, potentially heaving the cloves out.  Also, once the cloves start to sprout, its best not to disturb them by adding straw later in the season.  Best to cover the cloves before they start to sprout!  This will also suppress all the weeds in the area that are sure to emerge in the spring.

Step Seven:  Scape removal.  By May your garlic plants will be about 3 foot tall, and the hardneck variety will be producing scapes.  You'll want to snap them off when they become about 1 foot long and start to curl back toward the plant.  They kind of look like a pig tail!  If you don't snap these off, the energy of the plant will go to making the flower, not the bulb!  In a few weeks you'll notice the plant starting to "die back".  Look for yellowing or browning of the bottom leaves.  This in an indication of harvest readiness!

Step Eight:  Harvest.  I like to do a "test dig" before popping up all my bulbs.  Pierce the soil with a shovel or harvest fork about 6 inches from the plant.  Go straight down and under the bulb to prevent puncturing the bulb.  If you can see and feel well formed cloves, they are ready to harvest.  If the bulb is simply round, the cloves need more time to form.  Check again each week.

Step Nine:  Curing.  Garlic can be eaten "green", uncured, or cured.  If you want to store it, however,  it must be cured.  After harvesting, knock of any excess dirt at the root to reduce moisture during curing.  Tie the plants into bundles and hang in a well ventilated area.  This can be a basement, garage, or under a covered patio.  I run a fan on mine to ensure air circulation.  Be sure your location allows the garlic protection from direct sun or rain.  The preferred curing temperatures range from 60-80 degrees for about one month.  Cut each bulb from the plant as you need it, or cut them all at once and store them indoors in a low humidity environment.  

Wow, if you got through all that you MUST be a garlic lover too!!  Happy planting!

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