Choosing Garlic Seed
Garlic "Seed" - What is it really?
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 (or clone) of a sister plant and not true seed in the scientific sense. In some rare cases (usually universities or researchers) true garlic seed can be produced, however precise steps are taken to create specialized conditions 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:
SOFTNECK → Artichoke
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. Little cuts or bruises can be an invitation for mold and decay once in the ground and you never want to plant diseased cloves. Any cloves or bulbs that have mold or other condition issues should be gently discarded while trying not to spread things like spores to the other healthy garlic cloves. Washing your hands or any tools that come into contact with diseased bulbs or cloves is important. 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 down the road who has grown the same healthy garlic for years or a garlic seed supplier with experience growing disease free bulbs, it's important to trust your source.
On our farm, we inspect every bulb before planting to make sure that there are no disease, insect or quality issues. We believe that good bulb inspections are key to a good quality control program that ensures healthy crops year after year. Also, when we find a new type of garlic variety, we only add it to our growing program if we trust the source and isolate that new variety from our main crop for one growing season, to ensure that there are no specific disease or pest issues.
Size and Shape
Both garlic bulbs and cloves can come in many different sizes, and you always want to plant the large cloves, from the larger bulbs first. Small cloves will still produce a bulb if the conditions are right, however it will generally be 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, disease free garlic seed 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 thin or "weak" looking.
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. Then 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. So if you want to have 1000 porcelain garlic plants to harvest in the fall, you would need about 250 bulbs (1000 plants/4 seed cloves = 250 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.
Next → Garlic Soils