garlic.jpgQ: Can I grow garlic in Colorado? Is it really the health food so many claim?

A: Garlic is easy to grow in our area. Planting now, four-to-six weeks before the first frost allows roots to develop over winter. You’ll have your first garlic crop next July.

Garlic is a member of the Allium or onion family. It is native to Central Asia where climates and soil are similar to ours. Nutritionally, garlic is a great source of Vitamins A and C, potassium, phosphorous, selenium and a number of amino acids.

Legends abound about the medicinal benefits of garlic. In World Wars I and II, before the availability of antibiotics it was used as a disinfectant and applied directly to wounds. In the 1950’s Dr. Albert Schweitzer used garlic to treat typhus, dysentery and cholera while working as a missionary in Africa.

While garlic is considered a perennial it is usually grown as an annual in Colorado. It prefers full sun but will tolerate light shade. Soil should be weed-free and well amended. Good drainage is a must for successful garlic growing. Just before planting add a 5-10-10 fertilizer.

There are two main classes of garlic:

• Softneck (Allium sativum var sativum) is the most popular garlic due in part to its long shelf life — up to eight months. The plant has pliable leaves shooting from the center of the bulb. Often you’ll see this type of garlic braided and hanging decoratively on a wall. The two most common types of softneck garlic are artichoke and silverskin. Both strains are commonly sold in grocery stores.
• Hardneck (Allium sativum var ophioscorodon) grows better than softneck varieties in our climate and produces fewer but larger cloves than its softneck kin. Hardneck garlic grows flowering stems called scapes; this stem eventually turns woody. If cut while still green, it makes a nice addition to a stir-fry. The most common hardneck garlic is rocambole. It’s easier to peel than softneck garlic and many think it has more flavor. The drawback: shelf life is usually 3 to 4 months.

Both types of garlic consist of a stem and an underground bulb composed of four to 20 or more cloves. Whichever type of garlic you decide to grow, select the largest bulbs and separate the individual cloves from the bulb a day or two before planting – don’t let the cloves dry out. Plant the largest cloves pointed end up (the end where the roots were should be on the bottom) about two inches deep. If the soil is tilled sufficiently the cloves tuck neatly and easily into place. In small gardens garlic can be planted eight inches apart and rows can be as close as four inches. After planting water thoroughly and cover with a thick layer — four to six inches — of mulch.

Pull back half that mulch mid-March when you see tips of the young plants poking through. Keep the planting area moist. Garlic has a shallow root system and needs to be watered consistently through late spring into early summer. Apply an all purpose vegetable fertilizer at this time.

In late June or early July, when the bottom half of the leaves turn brown and drop to the ground, your garlic crop is ready to harvest. Use a pitchfork and carefully bring up the entire bulb. Don’t use a garden hose to clean the bulbs as it can cause potential decay. Remove any soil that’s still attached to the bulb with a soft brush. Tie the garlic plants in bundles of six to ten plants and hang them to dry in a cool, dry spot with good circulation.

Varieties the experts recommend:
Walt Lyons whose Yucca Ridge Farms is one of the largest growers of garlic in Colorado recommends the Siberian Purple Stripe (hardneck type) for novice gardeners.
Cecilia Schneider who grows 27 varieties of garlic at Tagawa Gardens in Aurora, Colorado recommends Yugoslavian Red, also a hardneck type garlic.
In the softneck type garlic, many growers favor high yielding Inchellium, Polish White, Chef’s Italian Red, and Kettle River Giant. Check with a local nursery for availability of these varieties.
After your first experience growing garlic you may find you have a favorite. If so, save a few of the largest bulbs for next year’s planting.

Garlic for Colorado Gardens by Betty Jo Cahill, Colorado Master Gardener, Denver County

“Master Gardener: How to grow gourmet garlic” by Casey Ehmsen, published in the Greeley Tribune

“Garlic Goes Gourmet” by Debbie Whittaker, published in Front Range Living, September 2009

Harvesting and Storing Onion and Garlic by Curtis E. Swift, Ph.D. Colorado State University Ouray County

Contributed by Eileen Tully, Colorado Master Gardener. Photo courtesy of Colorado State University Extension. For answers to your horticultural questions, until Sep 30, 2009 contact the Master Gardener Help Desk at 520-7684 or Access fact sheets and seasonal information on the El Paso County Horticulture website