Are you sensing a theme yet? It’s July, it’s hot and humid outside, and I’m up to my ears in tomatoes and beans. I’ve only just harvest the first few okra pods, but here I am thinking about this year’s garlic seed order.
For those of you who are new to garlic cultivation: it goes in the ground in the late fall, lies dormant through the winter, and then does most of its growing in the spring for an early summer harvest. Although it occupies a place in the garden for seven or eight months of the year, it does so during a time where there is less garden activity and less of a demand for that space. And homegrown garlic is such a revelation that it’s worth the wait.
My relationship with garlic is…unique. At times, it’s bordered on obsession. I’ve spent many seasons fretting and fuming over garlic-growing challenges, wept over losses to rain and rot, skipped an entire year of growing it because I couldn’t handle the stress of bringing it to market anymore, and when I finally let it go and mostly ignored this past year’s planting I got incredibly lucky with respect to the weather and had my best harvest to date. I’ve read garlic books cover-to-cover, pored over varietal descriptions online, grown more than a dozen different cultivars, and performed garlic taste-tests complete with sprigs of parsley to cleanse the palate between samples.
I might have a bit of a garlic problem.
I could wax poetic about all the reasons to grow garlic, but I’ll leave that for another post. Today, let’s assume you’ve already decided that you would like to grow some this year and need to source some seed.
What Is “Seed Garlic,” and Why Is It So Expensive?
The term “seed garlic” can be a little confusing–with a name like that, you might expect it to come in a nice, neat little packet like the seed of other allium family members like onions and leeks. But modern garlic doesn’t often set seed as we know it. Over hundreds of years of domestication, garlic has almost entirely lost the ability to reproduce sexually–that is, by flowering and setting seed. Some hardneck varieties can still perform this type of reproduction with the help of a human hand, but seed viability is extremely low (less than 10% germination).
The reason for this loss of reproductive ability is because humans have long capitalized on garlic’s ability to reproduce asexually through clove division. So when you see a reference to “seed garlic,” it’s actually a reference to a whole bulb of garlic, which is composed of multiple cloves. Each individual clove will yield a new plant.
Here’s the rub, though: the bulb size of the new plant is directly related to the size of the original clove. So the biggest and best garlic bulbs will come from the biggest and best cloves…which in turn come from the biggest and best bulbs of the prior year’s harvest. So when garlic farmers sort their crop, they save back the biggest bulbs to plant or sell as seed, sell the mid-sized bulbs at market for fresh eating, and keep the smallest bulbs for their own use. Since seed garlic is literally the cream of the crop, gardeners and farmers can expect to pay a premium for those big, beautiful bulbs.
Sourcing Your Seed Garlic
So seed garlic is going to be expensive no matter where you look. But it’s sometimes more economical to purchase your seed garlic directly from garlic farmers rather than from seed companies. The seed companies are usually purchasing the garlic from the individual farmers anyway, but then have to mark up the retail price to get a return. There’s certainly nothing wrong with purchasing seed garlic from a reputable company, but you will often pay more per pound.
On the other hand, ordering from seed companies can be convenient–some carry enough different varieties that they can serve as a one-stop shop for your garlic-growing needs. Some of them also offer smaller units of purchase or even sampler packs, which can be helpful if your growing space is limited but you’d like to try several different varieties. Whether you order direct from farms or from seed companies, it’s fairly easy to find certified organic stock.
And in case you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned anything about just getting garlic from the grocery store to plant: it’s really not a great idea. Sometimes it’s been sprayed with chemical growth inhibitors to prolong its shelf life, and more often than not it hasn’t been handled very gently during transport–which can lead to damaged or rotted cloves, which you definitely don’t want to plant. And most of the garlic you’ll find in the stores is “California Early” or a related softneck variety grown more for storage than for flavor. Of course, I see local newspaper articles crop up every few years sharing the tales of backyard gardeners who just “planted what [they] got from the store” and swear by it. So it can work in a pinch. But there’s a whole world of garlic out there for you to explore!
Order Early for Best Selection
Depending on where they’re located, most garlic farms bring in the year’s harvest from June through August. Many of them–and the seed companies they supply–begin taking orders a few weeks before harvest, once they can be confident they’ll have a crop to sell. The demand for seed garlic–from small market farms and from backyard gardeners–is only growing, but there aren’t that many new garlic farms selling seed on a yearly basis. So many farms and seed companies sell out of certain varieties quickly, leaving the latecomers to take what they can get. If you want a good selection of cultivars to choose from, it’s best to get your orders in starting in July. But if you’re a little late, don’t panic. Some of the more exotic varieties will probably be sold out by the end of August, but more common ones like “California Early” and “Music” can often be had well into the fall because they’re grown in larger quantities.
It will usually be posted in a prominent place on their website, but do note that most farms and seed companies don’t ship seed garlic until a little closer to planting time–usually beginning in September–because fresh garlic must cure for several weeks after harvest and then the farms must sort and grade their harvest.
How Much Seed Garlic Should You Order?
Figuring out how much seed garlic to order can be a little tricky. First, seed garlic is expensive–so if you’re trying your hand at garlic cultivation for the very first time, you’ll want to start small. Second, it’s impossible to say that X pounds of garlic will plant Y row feet because different varieties have different numbers of cloves per bulb–and the number of cloves in your order determines the number of new plants you’ll have. For instance, “German Extra Hardy” has a hard limit of 4-5 cloves per bulb, while “Inchelium Red” has anywhere from 10-18 cloves per bulb. So one pound of the former won’t go nearly as far in terms of row feet as the latter. Many farms and seed companies that sell seed garlic will include this information in their cultivar descriptions, and I’ve seen some websites that even provide an “average cloves per pound” number, which is very helpful.
You’ll see a lot of different numbers for garlic spacing, but the most important thing to take away is that garlic actually does better when it’s planted more densely (to a certain point). I use a 6″ spacing both within my rows and between my rows, and plant three rows across in a 32″ wide raised bed. So if you’re mathematically inclined, you can calculate your available space and figure out how many cloves will fit in it, then order the appropriate quantity.
But if you’re a new gardener and just want to get started, here’s my advice: do not order more than 1-2 pounds of seed garlic total for your first outing, and limit yourself to 2-4 varieties total. Once you have your first year of garlic growing under your belt, then you can go crazy and grow a dozen different varieties at a time. Because if you get bitten by the garlic bug…well, it’s easy to go overboard.
Another quick note for those new to garlic cultivation: there are two primary types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. In general, hardneck varieties do better in areas with cold winters, while softnecks do well in both cold and warm winter areas. That said, I live in South Carolina and grow a mix of hardneck and softneck varieties each year. If we have a very mild winter, the hardnecks might not do that well and will produce only small bulbs–but when we luck out and get a cold winter like this past one, it’s possible to get some really nice-sized hardneck bulbs. If you live in an area with warm winters like us and are risk-averse, only order softneck varieties. If you’re comfortable with experimentation, though, I’d recommend trying both types.
A Few Seed Garlic Sources
I’ve ordered from a wide variety of garlic farms and seed companies over the years. The list below is far from comprehensive; in fact, it’s just scratching the surface. The entries here were selected mostly for their broad cultivar selections and certified organic options, not necessarily their prices. There are lots of small garlic farms selling seed out there, and most large mid- to large seed companies will offer at least a few varieties of garlic for sale. So you can shop around to get the best price and most obscure varieties, or you can do all your shopping in one place. Either way, get those orders in soon!
P.S. I hesitate to recommend specific garlic varieties because what will grow well for you will likely be different than what grows well for me–depending on your zone, your soil, your winter temperatures, and so on. But my favorite garlic varieties include “German Extra Hardy,” “Inchelium Red,” “Chesnok Red,” “Silver White,” “Spanish Roja,” and “Georgian Fire.”