Choosing Garlic Seed
What is "Garlic Seed"?
For the home gardener or farmer, the term "garlic seed" is usually used to describe garlic cloves or bulbils harvested from the previous growing season to plant the next year's crop.
This means that garlic seed is actually the vegetative propagation (clone) of a sister plant and not true seed in the scientific sense.
In some rare cases, usually at universities or research labs, true garlic seed can be produced, however, precise steps are taken to create the specialized conditions needed for this to happen.
Depending on where you live and what you goals are for growing garlic, you will need to understand and ultimately choose the types of garlic you want to grow.
There are a huge number of different varieties of garlic grown around the world, all with different characteristics, however, they can be broken down into two main groups called hardneck and softneck.
Hardneck garlic lends its name to the flowering stock it shoots up (or bolts) during the growing season and subsequently becomes hard. This hard stock starts at the base of the bulb and goes up through the neck, causing it to be a "hardneck".
Softneck garlic, on the other hand, does not generally send up a flower stock, unless grown in very cold climates or abnormal conditions where they sometimes do sporadically.
In general, hardneck varieties tend to be more suited to cold climates, whereas softneck tend to thrive in warmer environments (although with a bit of care, both can be grown successfully in most places).
Within the softneck and hardneck groups, there are several families or subgroups which in turn have their own varieties within. Below are the main family groupings that link to detailed descriptions and lists of varieties:
Hardneck Garlic Families:
Softneck Garlic Families:
Purple Stripe garlic bulb (left). Porcelain garlic bulb (right).
Garlic Seed Quality
When planting garlic cloves, you want to inspect every one of them as best as possible to ensure that none are damaged, diseased or have any other problems. Once in the ground, poor quality cloves can begin to rot, mould or spread disease pathogens to other garlic plants.
Any cloves or bulbs that have mould or other disease issues should be gently discarded while trying not to spread things like spores to the other healthy cloves. Washing your hands or any tools that come into contact with diseased garlic is recommended to prevent the spread to other bulbs.
Also, you want to have a trustworthy garlic seed source that you know is reputable and has been growing healthy garlic for some time. Whether it's your grandmother who has grown the same healthy garlic for years or a garlic seed supplier with experience, it's important to trust your source.
Some garlic seed suppliers are resellers of bulbs from many different farms. This means that it is difficult for them to keep quality controls in place to maintain the health of the seed stock.
Ask your supplier if they grow everything themselves and ideally, look for a seller that grows all their own garlic. As well, inquire if they have any strategies in place to ensure the health of the garlic is maintained.
On our farm, all the garlic is carefully examined throughout the season, from planting to harvest. Cloves, plants and bulbs are all individually inspected and rogued regularly. This process helps us prevent disease, insect and quality issues from occurring.
We believe that thorough bulb inspections are key to a good quality control program that ensures healthy, high-quality crops year after year. We use long 4 to 5-year rotations and test any garlic that appears to have issues. We grow 100% of the garlic we sell to ensure our standards always remain high.
Size and Shape
Both garlic bulbs and cloves can come in many different sizes, and you generally want to plant the large cloves, from the larger bulbs first. Small cloves will still produce a decent bulb if the conditions are right, however, they will often be a bit smaller.
Cloves also come in many different shapes like short and plump or tall and square, however, this does not generally affect the final size or shape of the bulb at harvest time.
On our farm, we plant uniform looking cloves from our medium and large bulbs. We do on occasion plant cloves from smaller bulbs when needed, but size them up over two seasons. We also like to plant the fattest cloves and avoid any that are very thin or weak looking.
Garlic cloves of different sizes and shapes. Larger cloves tend to produce larger bulbs, however, shape does not usually have an effect.
How much garlic seed you should plant is an important question that every gardener or farmer has to ask each year. The first step is to figure out how many bulbs you want to harvest the next season.
Second, you have to estimate the number of this year's bulbs you'll need to "crack" to have cloves to plant. This will depend greatly on the variety of garlic that you plan on planting.
For large clove garlic like porcelain varieties, you can expect anywhere from 4 to 6 cloves from each bulb. For garlic bulbs that have a large number of smaller or medium-sized cloves like the artichoke family, you can have as many as 12 good sized cloves.
Example Quantity Calculation:
If you want to have 1000 porcelain garlic plants to harvest in the fall, you would need about 200 bulbs (1000 plants/5 seed cloves = 200 bulbs). If you want 1000 artichoke garlic plants to harvest in the fall, you would need about 83 bulbs (1000 plants/12 seed cloves = 83 bulbs).
As you can see, the number of bulbs you need to have can be extremely different depending on the variety you are planting.
Below are estimates for quantities of bulbs required within different sized planting areas: