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Growing great garlic

Simple tips for a successful crop



Not many of us think of October as a planting month, but for the best and biggest garlic, that’s the ideal time to get your cloves down into the ground.

If you are starting with your own garlic stock (only perfect specimens, of course), it’s good to begin by figuring out just how many finished plants you want to harvest the following summer. Each separated clove will likely produce one good-sized, finished garlic bulb, and you may want some more for seed. Add on a few more for potential losses, or needy friends.

Begin by carefully separating the full, papery bulb into cloves; you could have anywhere from five to fifteen cloves on each, depending on the variety. (The infamous Elephant garlics have only a few, massive cloves.) Leave the paper on. I usually pick the biggest and best ones, although smaller ones are fine in a pinch.

Now you are ready to plant. Start with your cleanest soil (no quackgrass, weeds, or rocks) and although some richness is good for garlic, you don’t want to have a lot of fresh manure or fertilizer lying around in the bed. Fork down into it a good six inches to a foot, turn the soil over, and bust it up with the back of the fork. Rake it even and remove any rocks, lumps or weed roots. This deep-forking, preliminary work allows you to then winkle in your garlic cloves to the right depth without making your wrist ache.

Plant your garlic cloves about six inches apart, to a depth twice their length (just over two inches down). You can do long rows, or lay them out in a patterned raised bed to fit more in. I use a trowel to open up a gap in the soil for them, then slip the clove (flat side down, point side up!) down and along the trowel back, using thumb and fore-fingers, till I reach the required depth. Hold the clove down there, and withdraw the trowel. Rake or trowel soil back over the holes, and make sure the garlic is covered.

That’s basically your garlic patch put to bed for the winter. Snow cover will protect it nicely, and a light sprinkling of straw will help, but don’t put too much over it or you may invite mice to take up house there (and eat your bulbs!). The first pointy green shoots will appear in the spring, and by mid-summer the bulbs will have grown to full size.

Weed them carefully as they progress, so you don’t damage the shallow roots that surround them. But do keep the bed clean for the best results. Don’t water them unless there’s a record drought, and don’t mulch them. When a few leaves begin to yellow, it’s a sign they are nearly ready. Try loosening or forking one up to check out the size, and enjoy the most oily, pungent and fantastic garlic you ever encountered that same night at suppertime.

Dry the finished plants in the sun for a few days, turn them regularly and keep them dry at night. When they feel firm and finished, and the stems are paper-dry, trim off the root hairs with scissors, and cut off the stems a couple of inches above the bulb (unless you want to braid them). Store them in a cool, dry place at around 7 degrees C ( 45 degrees F.). They will keep until March. Use them up while they are still good.

Troubleshooters?guide to garlic –?Watch of for these crop-destroying horrors

While garlic is pretty trouble-free to grow (make sure that bed is tidy to start!), there are a couple of things to watch out for. Don’t store your dodgy specimens, but enjoy the damaged or imperfect ones first in the kitchen. Keep the best for later.

If you do miss the boat in the autumn, you can still plant in early spring, but the bulbs will not attain the same size. Still better than no garlic!

Other problems:

Onion white rot: (Sclerotium cepivorum) This disease can affect all of the allium family (which includes garlic, onions, leeks, and shallots). It can attack both young and older garlic plants, causing the root area of the bulb to go mouldy and white. Leaves will turn yellow, and the plant will fall over. For this reason, rotate your garlic (and all alliums) on a four year cycle, if you can. Burn and destroy any affected bulbs that you find; do not compost them.

Onion neck rot: (Botrytis allii) Not common in garlic, but keep an eye out. This shows up in storage, when the neck above the bulb begins to rot. First it softens, and then a grey mould is visible inside. It’s caused by wet weather, and wet necks. Burn or destroy (do not compost) the offending specimen.



August’s?Harvest –?The business side of garlic production


Having spent 20 years in the business, Warren Ham has learned a thing or two about growing and selling garlic. Since 2006 he has owned and operated August’s Harvest, a 50 acre farm near Stratford, Ontario, certified by Pro-Cert Organic Systems Ltd. He grows 12 acres of garlic along with 12 acres of shallots, 1/2 acre of Saskatoon berries and 15 acres of vegetables for a 300-member CSA food box program.

Today, most of his garlic is sold through his CSA program and direct to customers at the farm, as well as other growers, restaurant distributors, organic distributors, “foodie” and organic stores and chains and some mail order. Before that he was part of a group of farmers growing 500 acres of garlic, for direct sale to grocery stores.

Ham has been selling by mail order since he first began growing garlic. He ships across Canada and the United States using a courier carrier. “I got into it out of necessity,” he explains. “People hear about you and they call you looking for garlic.” He sells raw garlic for both eating and planting as well as shallots and jars of garlic preserves. He says mail order starts naturally as a peripheral to the core business. “As you are actively attracting customers, the passive forms of advertising and word of mouth do their work.”

When a customer places an order online, he or she pays immediately by PayPal. Ham receives notification of the order by email, but since availability changes frequently, he often has to phone customers before filling the order. Keeping the website accurate is hard to do. For farmers who are interested in getting a website, he recommends they learn to do the updates themselves. “It is costly and inconvenient to get someone else to keep your site updated,” he says. For his CSA program, he’s set up a separate website using Word Press software and says it’s much easier to maintain and keep current.

When Ham revamps the existing August’s Harvest website, he may drop the e-commerce option. “We really encourage people to call,” he says. The new website will have less emphasis on selling and more on what we’re doing, he says. Having pricing information available on the website means that competitors have access to this information, another reason Ham prefers customers call for prices rather than order online. And with mail order sales, it can be hard to satisfy customers’ sometimes unrealistic expectations, he adds.

Despite the issues with keeping the website up-to-date, Ham says the hardest thing about his mail order business is that “the border is not friendly to food and propagation products.” Border inspections and the need for phytosanitary certification along with currency fluctuations add grief to international sales.

Like any good businessperson, Ham modifies his business in response to changing markets. The mail order side of the business makes up only a small portion of sales, about five to eight per cent. The typical mail order customer is the home or hobby gardener looking for garlic to plant. “We have the capacity to fill larger orders so that’s what we focus on,” he explains. For these customers, a personal relationship rather than a website is important.

Ham moved into the preserve business as a way of using all grades of his products and to extend the length of time when products could be sold. KD Canners, an organic co-packer in Mississauga, Ontario, makes the various preserves such as roasted garlic purée, pickled garlic flowers, pickled garlic cloves, and garlic sauces.? The preserves are a side-line. Ham expects to downsize this part of the business as he focuses on his core business. “Garlic preserves are a specialty item which requires its own sales person visiting the stores to market it. We’re an operating farm, we don’t have a salesman on the road,” he explains.

In addition to garlic and shallot sales to larger buyers, Ham is focusing his energies on the CSA food box program. After supplying a food box program in Toronto for more than 10 years, he decided to develop his own program in 2010. He delivers to Stratford, London and Kitchener-Waterloo. With 65 different vegetable crops, it’s a logistical nightmare, he says, but it’s very worthwhile. With the CSA program, he has price stability and a steady cash flow. “You know the veggies have a home and you know what you are getting paid for them…it’s like supply management for vegetables.” People who buy from CSAs care more about their food and they are willing to put up with some inconvenience, he adds. “You get immediate feedback from the person eating your food . . . when you get it right, it’s very enjoyable.”

The CSA program is also allowing him to develop some new markets for vegetables such as sweet potatoes by adding them to the food boxes. Each week Ham includes information on his blog about how to store and prepare the items he includes in the boxes.

Ontario garlic producers have been hit hard by cheap Chinese imports in recent years, but Ham says there will always be a market for Ontario garlic. It’s local and it’s preferred by chefs due to its more intense flavour and higher sugar content. A strong believer in educating the consumer, Ham is a director of the Ontario Garlic Growers Association and involved in promoting the annual Stratford Garlic Festival. Now in its fifth year, the festival has grown from a one-day to a two-day event with garlic growers, food vendors, celebrity chefs, cooking demonstrations and entertainment. Each September, thousands of people flock to this family-friendly event which is raising the profile of Ontario garlic and creating a demand for locally-grown garlic.

August’s Harvest continues to thrive by being flexible, knowing its strengths, using smart marketing and responding to changing market conditions.