Growers host garlic workshop
NORTH BRUNSWICK — A garlic growing workshop taught by two area veteran garlic growers was well-attended at Middlesex County’s EARTH Center, a 400-acre preserve of land bordering South Brunswick and North Brunswick.
The Earth Center is a place for hands-on teaching by Rutgers’ Cooperative Extension Agents.
The popular Rutgers Master Gardener Program draws residents from other counties as they have the classroom space here.
“We want to get everybody here interested in growing garlic and show you that it’s not that difficult to grow,” said Phyllis Frederick of Highland Park at the outset. Joining her in leading the class was Erica Leviant, also based in Highland Park.
“Garlic is like wine grapes, the quality of the flavor reflects growing conditions,” Frederick explained, “that said, it’s very easy to grow, has few diseases and is planted in the fall so when everything else is being cleaned up and your land is barren, and you’re actually growing garlic through the winter.”
The two women pointed out properly cured and dried garlic has a longer shelf life, does not require a huge amount of space on one’s garden or small farm, and homegrown varieties in general are much stronger than the stuff most New Jerseyans find in the supermarket, white garlic shipped from China.
Types of hard and soft neck garlics easily grown in Garden State and Mid-Atlantic area soils include German mountain, chestnut red, musik and Spanish roja. Both women argued they all taste better when you’re growing it yourself because it is so much fresher.
“Who wants something that’s two months old before you even buy it? You know it’s been sitting on a boat in the humidity for a week or two,” Frederick said.
Both women encourage the class of 20 or so participants to try different varieties, be patient over the course of the nine month growing season and see what works best based on individual tastes.
Late October is the time to plant, spacing rows about 10 inches apart and spacing cloves pointed side down about 6 inches apart for harvesting in mid-July.
“What you find in the supermarket is generally soft neck garlic because it grows faster, is easier to grow and has a longer shelf life,” Frederick explained. Also grated garlic often found in Italian restaurants and specialty food shops is generally made from soft neck varieties.
Garlic grows well with roses, tomatoes and lettuces, but one must be mindful to have some separation between tomatoes and garlic, as you don’t want to be watering garlic too much in June or July, when it needs time to dry out.
It also should not be planted with legumes nearby, and in general it’s preferable to grow garlic in a raised bed. PH levels for the soil should be neutral, between 6.5 and 7.0.
“If your soil is too acidic you can always add lime, if it’s too alkaline you can add some sort of elemental sulfur,” Frederick said.
Leviant pointed out one key is to have good bulbs for plating, i.e., to start with good seeds. Ordering from reputable seed distributors like Johnny’s in Maine is recommended.
“You’re putting in all this effort into this and you’re patiently waiting nine months for it to grow,” Leviant said, “so it’s worth the extra effort to get good cloves from a reputable seed distributor.”
To break up garlic bulbs into cloves, use the thumb, go toward the middle and squeeze, and be sure to throw away any garlic with fungus on it.
After planting in late October, it’s wise to throw some hay or straw down on top of it to keep the soil a bit warmer through winter months.
Leaves can also be used but aren’t as effective as straw. Water the row or rows of garlic immediately after putting down the hay to prevent it from blowing away, “and then you don’t have to do anything for months, just wait.”
Cloves should be planted about three inches deep and mix a little blood meal into the soil, Leviant said.
“Try to use organic fertilizer as it’s good for the soil and good for the environment,” she added.
In mid-April, growers should be looking for green shoots coming up out of the soil and at that point, garlic can be fertilized again with fish emulsion and kelp sprays, three times in April and May.
After a brief discussion on drying and curing techniques — a shed, garage or basement area can be used — Leviant and Frederick then took the class outdoors for an on-hands planting session.
The planting class included working the soil, planting the cloves and adding hay over tops of rows.
They pointed out drip irrigation works best for garlic during spring and summer, so overhead watering that might make the soil too wet is not recommended.
Harvesting both soft neck and long neck varieties is an art, not a science, Leviant argued, “so you will learn from experience when to harvest. You should have about four or five green leaves coming out of the top, but the rest of the leaves should be brown, then you know it’s time to harvest.”
Soft neck garlic tends to be more forgiving. With hard neck varieties, “you have to harvest it at the exact proper time, otherwise you may have bulbs that start to split open.”
Leviant added, in closing, “the bulb grows just like a baby; it takes nine months for the garlic to grow, but in the last month it grows much bigger every day.”