By CINDY LADAGE
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Garlic has been part of folklore since the Egyptian pharaohs’ time. They served garlic to their slaves to ward off illness and, in ancient days, garlic was touted as a deterrent to evil spirits.
Today garlic has become part of the specialty crop market – and a topic at the 2013 Illinois Specialty Crop conference earlier this month. Kyle Cecil, University of Illinois extension educator for Small Farms and Local Foods, presented information for growers considering adding garlic to their products.
“Garlic keeps coming up as a topic with commercial growers,” he said. “Garlic is encouraged because it is easy to grow, everyone eats it and there is almost no part of the garlic you can’t sell.”
The demand is there; the United States is the largest importer for fresh garlic. Statistics Cecil provided show for every person in the country, almost 2.3 pounds of garlic is consumed.
Defined as an onion-like plant derived from Southern Europe, garlic has a bulb that breaks up into separable cloves. Garlic is planted in the fall and harvested in the summer. “It will root and have limited growth before the first hard freeze, then growth resumes and the stalk forms in the spring,” Cecil explained.
“Garlic is a good crop for all growers with good drainage. Waterlogged soil will cause rot. You need to make sure the soil is fertile and high in organic matter.”
He recommended adding fertilizer, depending on the soil type and needs.
In Illinois and northern parts of the United States, hardneck garlic is raised rather than softneck garlic, such as that found in the grocery aisle. Hardneck is distinctive because of the “scape” stalk, which coils from the top. At the top of this scape grows a number of bulbils often mistakenly referred to as garlic flowers.
This section of the garlic can be sold, Cecil said, and has a mild flavor. The scape is often used to replace onions, or in addition to onions and garlic bulbs in dishes.
Softneck garlic is more common commercially because it is easier to grow and plant mechanically and also keeps for longer than hardneck. Hardneck is usually planted from the cloves of the garlic bulb, although a smaller non-commercial version can be planted using the scape.
“You get much bigger bulbs from the garlic clove rather than the head or bulbil that grows on the scape,” Cecil explained. “Garlic has an internal chill requirement that must be met for the cloves to properly grow. If not cold enough they will form one big bulb.
“In central Illinois garlic is usually planted in late September or early October. Planting time is important; you need to plant six to eight weeks before the ground freezes hard,” he said.
There are usually 5-8 cloves from the bulb. When cooking garlic, Cecil said, usually the entire bulb is diced.
How garlic is planted can vary. Cecil said some use a dibble, others a waterwheel and some do it by hand. For a plot he worked with, the grower used a tractor hooked to a single-shank ripper.
Cloves should be planted 3-4 inches deep no matter which type of technique is used. They should be set about 4-6 inches apart in the row, and it is important the cloves be planted with the tip up or, Cecil warned, “They may grow, but result in unmarketable garlic.”
Research is ongoing as to whether to plant in with a cover crop such as oats, or to use mulch or just open soil. Cecil was optimistic about the use of oats they drilled garlic into because the oats should winter kill, providing mulch, without so much effort. Decisive results were not yet in, though.
Harvesting, like planting, can be done in a number of ways, such as with a potato digger or even a broad fork. To cure, garlic should be dried on screens or hung in small bunches. Curing takes 4-6 weeks.
To contact Cecil for more information or with questions, email cecil@ illinois.edu