The Stinking Rose; An Easy and Profitable Crop to Grow
My favorite crop to grow, sell and eat is garlic. I fell in love with the stinking rose at the same time I fell in love with my husband. We were young, aspiring farmers and we decided to collaborate with each other on a garlic growing experiment in a community garden plot in Austin, Texas. From that small five hundred square foot space blossomed two love affairs – one with each other and another with garlic farming. In our experience, garlic is one of the easiest, most profitable crops to grow on a small farm. Last year we grew fourteen different varieties of garlic in a 2,288 square foot section of our farm in North Central Ohio. I am happy to share the knowledge we have gained about garlic production over the past several years and I encourage others to experience the joys of growing garlic.
On a small, organic farm where much of the work is done by hand, garlic is a perfect crop because it is space-efficient, easy to plant and harvest, and enjoyable to handle throughout the cleaning and curing process. Garlic has relatively few pests and diseases due to its anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties and many growers actually use garlic solutions as pest control on their other crops.
Growing and Harvesting
In 2005 we planted thirty pounds (about 2000 garlic cloves) in four 4’x150’ raised beds. Our yield was approximately 1900 heads plus several pounds of garlic scapes (tender stalks that grow from the base of the plants in the early spring) and many small bunches of green garlic. This provided enough garlic to see us through a four-month marketing period at the Shaker Square Farmers’ Market in Cleveland and an 18-member CSA.
Preparing the Beds
On a farm, bed preparation is ongoing to maintain fertility and each farmer has his or her unique and creative way of adding organic matter and sculpting beds. Whether you are adding compost, animal or green manure or some other fertilizer, healthy soil is essential to growing great crops. To prepare the beds for our garlic crop, we used a section of our field where hairy vetch was planted the previous Fall. We started by spreading aged cow and pig manure over the vetch on our beds – we used manure because we had it available but compost would work just as well. We made sure to spread the manure at least three inches thick on top of each bed. We then incorporated the manure and the vetch into the top few inches of the beds with our tiller and let it sit for a few days before planting. In a perfect situation, we would have let the beds sit for at least one week to allow more time for the vetch to break down but we have found that nothing is quite perfect on our farm. However, this is part of why we love growing garlic - it is a forgiving crop.
Planting, Mulching and Fertilizing
Garlic is typically planted in September or October though we planted our Texas crop in November – it is a good idea to plant your garlic six to eight weeks before the ground freezes to allow for some top growth and root establishment. The cloves should be planted with the pointed end up and can be spaced three to six inches apart and one to three inches deep depending on the size. Though we could have squeezed three rows of garlic into our four feet wide beds, we only planted two rows to make weeding and harvesting easier.
After planting, we spread a good, thick wheat straw mulch over our beds and pathways. The mulch helps insulate the garlic throughout the Winter and keeps Spring weeds in check. It may also provide some nutrients and soil tilth as it breaks down.
Each year we experiment with new varieties and plant plenty of favorites that we save from the previous year’s crop. Our favorite hardneck variety is ‘Music’ – this is a variety of garlic that is genetically similar (and some would say identical) to ‘German Extra Hardy’. ‘Music’ consistently yields large, uniform heads that store well and are very popular at farmers’ markets. In our experience, one of the best softneck varieties for braiding is ‘New York White.’ For a more complete discussion of garlic varieties or strains and garlic farming in general, check out Ron L. Engeland’s excellent book titled Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers.
We began foliar feeding our garlic with a fish emulsion solution in March. We tried to feed every two or three weeks until the end of May or early June. While there is some controversy over whether foliar feeding is effective, we always noticed that our plants seems to perk up and turn a deep green color after a feeding.
Harvesting and Cleaning
One of our first harvests from the garlic crop is green garlic and garlic scapes. We picked the smaller plants to sell as green garlic bunches beginning in May. Not all garlic grows a scape but for those varieties that do, it is a good idea to cut the scape at the base just as it makes one curly cue. This will allow the plant to put more energy into the bulb and will also provide an interesting and tasty treat for your market customers in late May and early June. We actually had folks asking for garlic scapes before they were harvested. One season, I pickled garlic scapes and they were delicious.
Our favorite garlic task is pulling it from the field and bunching it for curing in the barn. During harvest time in late June and early July, garlic shines as a social crop because it allows for plenty of bonding time among farm workers. We determine harvesting time when approximately one-third to one-half of the leaves turn brown on the garlic plant. Before pulling the plants by hand, we loosen the soil around each bulb with a garden fork. After the plants are pulled, we haul them to the barn and bunch them into groups of ten to fifteen plants and hang them for air drying, bulbs down. Garlic needs about two weeks to cure and then the bulbs can be cut off and cleaned by simply rubbing the excess dirt and outer wrapper off with your dry hands. When cleaning, you can also cut the roots – this will make a more attractive bulb. If you choose to braid your softneck garlic, it is a good idea to braid before the stems get too dry and stiff.
Adding Value and Marketing
In 2005, we sold our garlic as individual heads, braids and garlic bouquets at the farmers’ market. The braids tend to be most attractive and they did draw people to our stand but we only sold two to four braids per market. Folks at the market were more interested in the large heads of our ‘Music’ variety. However, we did do a garlic braiding demonstration at our market’s garlic festival and this helped us sell tons of garlic. But you don’t have to wait for a garlic festival to braid your garlic at the market! We noticed that doing anything by hand (cleaning garlic, making bouquets, etc.) at the market attracts a crowd and helps you sell more of your products.
The garlic bouquets were a unique addition to our mix at the market. We simply cut some of our hardneck varieties with longer stalks, bunched them with rubber bands, and displayed them upright in jars or vases for a bouquet-look. We priced the bouquets based on the number of heads in each one.
We sold our large individual garlic heads for one dollar each and the smaller heads for fifty cents. Our small braids contain eight to ten heads and sold for fifteen dollars each while our larger braids with fifteen to twenty heads sold for twenty-five dollars. Braiding is an easy way to add value to your garlic crop (it takes only a few minutes to create one simple braid) and it also allows you to use smaller heads that you would probably not sell otherwise.
We recommend that you become familiar with the subtle taste differences of the many varieties you grow. At each market, we offered at least three varieties at a time and we always put a sign out that described how they tasted. In our marketing experience, most folks wanted to know whether they were hot and spicy or sweet and mild. It helped that we are big raw garlic eaters. Our favorite way to eat it is soaked in olive oil and spread over a slice of good, rustic bread. Delicious!
We grew nearly fifty different vegetables on our farm last year but nothing was a pleasurable and profitable as garlic. We highly recommend the stinking rose for direct sales as more and more market customers are interested in buying and eating gourmet garlic. Oh, and if you are single try a garlic gardening date – it worked for us!
Here’s a few of our garlic seed sources: