While most plants are planted in the spring for fall harvest, garlic is just the opposite. Usually, garlic is planted in the fall and harvested mid-summer the following year. Why is garlic so different? Because garlic is actually a perennial, that gardeners choose to grow as an annual. Garlic can be grown as a perennial in a permaculture garden, or as a unique edible addition to your perennial flower gardens.
Growing garlic as a perennial means less maintenance, year-round harvests and never buying seed garlic again.
Growing garlic as a perennial is pretty simple. Just plant garlic as you normally would in the fall, and then ignore it for a few years. Occasionally, that happens by accident. You intend to harvest garlic, but the stem snaps off or a bulb or two get forgotten in the ground.
The following year, each clove of that garlic plant will send up a new sprout. When you plant garlic, you plant individual cloves, but since these were never separated they’ll come up as dense patches of garlic shoots. After two or three years, a single garlic clove will have dozens of garlic shoots sprouting from a small patch of ground.
Individual stems can be pulled off the edges of this garlic mass at any point during the summer and eaten as green garlic. Normally, you can only get “green garlic” bulbs uncured at the farmers market for a few weeks a year. They have a milder flavor than cured garlic, and they taste a bit more like a vegetable. That’s because they haven’t been cured, which dried down the bulb and concentrates the flavor.
As the summer progresses, this patch of hard neck garlic will produce garlic scapes. We don’t grow the braid-able type of softneck garlic up here in Vermont, so I can’t speak to growing soft neck varieties as a perennial. The hardneck varieties have better flavor anyhow, and the only reason soft neck is sold in the grocery stores these days is due to the fact that it can be planted mechanically and is grown without bothering with garlic scapes.
When growing garlic at home, hardneck is the way to go. If you’re still confused about the difference between types of garlic,here’s a rundown on the difference between hardneck and softneck, and details on all of the 10 types of garlic you can grow at home.
Either way, I think a patch of garlic scapes coming out of the perennial flower bed fits in beautifully. If you’re not a gardener, you’d never know they weren’t some kind of exotic flower bud. And in essence, they are just like any other perennial flower bud.
Most people that grow enough garlic to supply their family all winter have trouble using up all the garlic scapes. There are countless garlic scape recipes, each trying to use up a huge surplus each year. We make garlic scape pickles, and a good bit of garlic scape pesto for the freezer each year. Still, using up a few hundred garlic scapes is near impossible. They’re cute at the farmers market, but that’s in tiny farmer’s market quantities. Once you’re growing a boatload of garlic, most of the scapes go to the pigs.
When you’re growing garlic as a perennial, the garlic scapes aren’t a problem. Harvest as many as you like, and just leave the rest. They’ll bud out, and pop into clusters of tiny baby garlic cloves hanging in the air.
Normally, garlic scapes are cut so that the garlic plant puts all its energy into forming a large bulb. The bulb mass at the bottom of these scapes don’t need any extra mass, so the scapes can do as they please.
In the fall, those garlic scape bulblets will dry down into miniature garlic cloves. These can be used just as you’d use any garlic clove, or they can be planted as seed garlic. In this way, you’ll have an unlimited supply of seed garlic produced right in your own perennial bed. Garlic plants grown from garlic bulblets may take a bit longer to mature, and can sometimes take an extra year to fully bulb out.
While these perennially grown green garlic will supply you from snowmelt through the end of fall, but what about the wintertime? For winter garlic, I pick out one of these clumps of perennial garlic each spring or fall and divide it up. A single bundle will have many individual garlic cloves, and once they’re divided out they’ll grow into full sized garlic bulbs for harvest the following July.
This clump of garlic was harvested in the spring, divided out into individual plants and then grown out as usual. Since it was spring planted garlic, it took a bit longer to mature, but was ready a few weeks after fall planted garlic would have been.
Simply use a shovel to dig up the whole clump, making sure there’s plenty of dirt intact around the root ball. Carefully separate the individual garlic plants, and plant them deep in fertile soil.
Since there’s already a green top growing from each garlic bulb, you’ll need to be careful not to damage them in planting. This patch of curing garlic will also need scapes cut to mature properly.
The bulblets harvested from the garlic scapes are also great for planting. Those bulblets dry down just in time for fall, and then they can be fall planted just like regular seed garlic.
Either way, with spring divided garlic plants or fall planted bulblets, the harvest comes out just like any annual garlic planting.
In truth, the “cured” garlic for winter use is still being grown as an annual. In a milder climate, a secondary annual garlic plot might not be necessary, but up here in Vermont we have roughly 6 months of winter. It gets way too cold to dig garlic outdoors in February.
So why do I keep perennial garlic? Lots of reasons:
- I know I always have garlic that can be propagated if need be. If my annual patch has a crop failure, I have seed garlic here for the next year. It’s also handy in case of a zombie apocalypse.
- Perennial garlic patches are part of our permaculture pest control strategy. We plant a clove or two under trees and near fruit bushes, and then just ignore them. The tree mulch keeps the garlic mulched, and the garlic keeps away pests and trunk borers.
- It’s just plain pretty. Who needs fancy flowers when you can have a beautiful curl of garlic scapes in the perennial bed?