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GARLIC GROWING GUIDE
The ten stages of growing garlic
Becoming A Garlic Guru
Do you have a passion for growing garlic? If you can successfully grow bulbs from cloves (Level 1 - see below) then consider taking it to level 2 to successfully grow garlic bulbs from bulbils. To be a 'Garlic Guru' complete the first two levels, then try to grow garlic's 'true seed'. Growing garlic from true seed is a slower process than using cloves to propagate, but it allows growers to develop new garlic varieties and maintain genetic diversity in their crops.
Garlic Guru Levels
There are three levels to achieve. Each is a greater challenge and takes more time to achieve.
Level 1 - Cloves (Entry Level)
Follow our garlic growing guide to progress to the next level. You achieve Level 1 status once you have successfully:
joined and contributed at least one post on the NZ Garlic Guru Facebook page; AND
grown a bulb of any garlic group (ideally a group best suited to your climate) to at least XL grade (70mm+ width). Note: Elephant garlic is not garlic; AND
gift the XL grade bulb to another gardener to grow - share the love!
This goal may take between 1-3 years to achieve.
Level 2 - Bulbils (Advanced)
Learn how to grow bulbils by following the growing bulbil section. To achieve this level you have to successfully:
harvest bulbils* from your own garlic plant; AND
plant the bulbils from your own crop; AND
harvest bulbs that contain cloves that were grown originally from your own bulbils.
*This goal might be a greater challenge in the Far North. This level may take between 2-5 years to achieve.
Level 3 - True Seed (Garlic Guru)
Persevere by researching the growing true seed section on this page. To achieve level 3 Garlic Guru status:
join the True Garlic Seed Growers NZ Facebook page, AND
harvest true seed* from your own garlic and video it; AND
plant the true seed which grows into bulbs and video it; AND
share your success and videos with the True Garlic Seed Growers NZ Facebook page
*This goal might be an even greater challenge in the Far North. Level 3 while possible, may take a lifetime or possibly several lifetimes to achieve!
Growing garlic bulbils is a medium-term goal. They are small secondary bulbs normally produced in the flower cluster (umbel) beside the flowers.
In botany, a bulbil (also called a bulbel or bulblet) form on other types of plants and are defined as a secondary bulb located in the angle between a leaf and stem or in place of flowers such as with garlic. Bulbils are called offsets when full-sized, and if left fall to produce new plants.
There are many good reasons to grow bulbils despite them taking 1-5 years (depending on the garlic type) as they:
are a quick way of obtaining stock
are economical than buying bulbs but are slower to develop
reduce the risk of soil-borne disease
revitalise bulb size and condition
are great raw in salads, on pizzas or to spice up a meal
The softneck garlic types silverskin and artichoke do not normally produce the scape flower stem nor bulbils. Also, the semi-bolting garlic types turban, creole and asiatic may not produce scapes in mild-winter areas. Thus some garlic will not form bulbils unless they are put under environmental stress. We are lucky here in the cold deep south, as most years we get some bulbils from all our garlic groups.
Growing a garlic scape (without removing it) for most garlic groups will result in smaller bulb sizes. We discuss this in the section on scape removal. In brief, not removing the scape to try to grow bulbils will result in the bulb size being 10-30% smaller.
Depending on the garlic group, bulbils take between 2-5 years to produce mature-sized bulbs containing cloves not just rounds without cloves. The rate of maturity depends on the climate, soils and bulbil size as each garlic group produces different sized bulbils. The larger the bulbil the quicker the formation of a good-sized bulb.
Garlic Bulbil Guide
The quickest way of getting bulbils is to get them from a fellow garlic gardener or to buy them. Gourmet Garlic are the only NZ supplier of bulbils. They can be found in our online shop. Each year we sacrifice the size of some of our bulbs to produce bulbils for our interested garlic growers.
When you are growing to produce garlic bulbils from your own plants, in year one (if your climate permits), grow a strongly bolting garlic such as porcelain, rocambole, standard purple stripe, marbled purple stripe or a glazed purple stripe. These are the most reliable garlic groups to grow bulbils from.
Let the scape grow, and at harvest time remove the plant to cure much like a garlic bulb. It is best to cut off the scape at this time and store it separately in an open container, allowing it to to dry out of the sun and weather. This will ensure that any bulbils that come loose do not get trampled, mixed with others or lost as they cure. Store them in a dry cool spot in an aerated paper bag until planting time.
Surprisingly, bulbils can be planted at the start of spring when daily temperatures reach around 18°C. This reduces the chance of the bulbils scaping and shortens the time taken to produce large bulbs. However, some growers still recommend a cooling winter is best for bulbil growth. If planting in a mild/cool winter area, you may consider pre-cooling them before planting.
Plant bulbils closer together than standard cloves, ideally in a separate area of the garden. These small plants will need a bit of care as weeds or other garden plants can shade them out. It is easy to mix them up with your standard crop - you don't want to lose track of these ones! You will need a little more room for the larger bulbil plants from asiatic and rocambole garlic types as they are from larger bulbils. In the first year prepare damp soil in a tray, pot, or in your garden bed and gently sprinkle the bulbils onto the soil. Put a light covering (mm not cm) of fine soil on top of them.
Studies have reported that bulbils are more productive and winter-hardy than using standard cloves. Ensure that the soil does not dry out and that there is sufficient soil depth for them to grow roots (10cm+). Shoots will appear quickly, and after a few months in summer they will dry out. If scapes appear remove them to give the bulbil the best chance for bulb production.
Harvest the small bulbil's bulb when the leaves dry out. Cure and store them just like any garlic bulb. At harvest the bulbil bulb will be a several times larger than the bulbil you planted. If you are growing from a large bulbil such as asiatic or rocambole you are likely to end up with a round bulb often with cloves. These large bulbil bulbs can be about 30mm wide. Medium sized bulbils normally produce rounds 20mm wide and the smallest bulbils from groups like porcelain, standard purple stripe and glazed purple stripe only form 10mm wide rounds.
The following year plant the bulbil bulb just like a normal bulb. Be aware of the climatic zone you live in and use our planting page to know when to plant. Larger bulbils normally take two years to produce normal sized bulbs with cloves, while other groups might take another year or two longer.
Growing True Seed
Growing True Seed
Growing garlic's 'true seed' is a long-term goal. It is something to aspire to. There are probably less gardeners in the country that have managed to successfully get fertile garlic true seed from their plants than the number of cloves on a porcelain garlic bulb.
So what is Garlic's True Seed?
There is much confusion in gardening circles about what constitutes garlic seed. Visit an online auction or a grower's website and bulbs or cloves (and rarely bulbils) are referred to as 'garlic seed for planting'. This is not technically correct as these are all clones of the plant. True seed is the tiny black seed formed on the umbel flower head as a result of sexual reproduction. Some people may use the term 'seed garlic' to describe clones, while 'garlic seed' is true seed.
Garlic seed was not recognised and widely available in modern era until the 1990's. For thousands of years widespread cultivation around the globe using cloves or bulbils to produce a bulb resulted in a decline of the plants' ability to sexually reproduce. Thus the most popular commercial garlic crops have lost their ability to bolt and form flowers.
For most crops, like onions (which garlic seed looks similar to but is smaller than) when a cultivar produces a desirable trait such as a resistance to a disease, it can then be propagated asexually to produce clones. Likewise in nature. Random selection retains desirable characteristics to benefit the plant's survival. Absence of genetic renewal means garlic is not able to adapt to new conditions, threats or changing global climatic conditions. For the grower it also results in having to retain 10-25% of the bulbs for replanting rather than using seed.
However, in the 1980's fertile garlic strains were collected in a small town near the Tien Shan mountains of Central Asia - the origins of wild garlic. These were primarily strongly bolting purple stripe garlic types such as standard purple stripe, marbled purple stripe and glazed purple stripe which are most genetically similar to wild garlic plus a limited number of porcelain and rocambole too. These collected plants managed to grow fertile true seed. This inspired growers to try growing garlic's true seed themselves .
The garlic plant's umbel contains small individual flowers which are tightly packed in between bulbils. The bulbils compete for nutrients and light with the flowers which the bulbils generally out compete. When the umbel matures, the bulbils begin to fall off which offers more light for the flowers which have withered by this stage. While it is possible to get true seed without removing bulbils - there's a greater chance of growing true seed by removing the competing bulbils.
When the scapes begin to curl, they can be cut and placed in a bucket of water. Some true seed growers do this instead of waiting for pollination or if there are pests, windy or wet conditions, if it's regularly too hot (>30°C) or if there is a prolonged cold (<18°C) period. The scapes will continue to grow and eventually produce bulbils.
The bucket of water serves to keep the scapes hydrated and to encourage the growth of bulbils. After a few weeks, the bulbils can be harvested and planted to grow new garlic plants. This technique has a lower success rate.
It's also important to know that garlic flowers are protandrous, meaning the male antlers release pollen a few days before the female stigma is ready. Thus they rely on other nearby flowers and pollinators to become fertile. The flowering period is about 1-3 weeks during which insect pollinators (bees, flies etc) can come in contact with the flowers and spread the pollen. It is also possible artificially pollinate using a fine paint brush.
How to grow fertile Garlic True Seed
There is a series of steps that should be followed to get the best results in producing fertile true seed.
Step 1 - Pick it Right
Grow several strongly bolting garlic cloves in a cool to cold winter zone. You need a cooler climate to ensure the garlic creates a scape. Standard purple stripe garlic has the greatest potential success for true seed since it's the closest genetically to wild garlic. However the bulbils are some of garlic's smallest making it incredibly difficult to extract them.
An easier option is using marbled purple stripe since they have medium sized bulbils compared to fine bulbils of the other purple stripes and porcelains. It has been suggested that the marbled purple stripe group is good also because they generally have a thicker scape or flowering stalk then other purple stripe garlic.
Let the plant send up a scape. In order to prolong the plant's life continue to water and feed the plant to support its health.
Step 2 - The Tricky Part
Keep an eye on the scape and wait for it to uncoil and point towards the sky. It might be necessary to carefully cut the spathe open to expose the bulbils and flowers. Take care. Remove the bulbils without impacting the flowers as much as possible. This is a tricky and tedious task. Consider using tweezers to remove them as they are very tightly packed in a growing umbel.
Removing the first bulbil may be the trickiest part of this process - this creates an initial gap. When pulling the bulbil up, try to extract it from its base and remove its entire length. There might be some flower causalities during the first few bulbil extractions.
Step 3 - Mind the Gap
Once the first few bulbils are removed and a gap is created in the umbel, try to get the rest of the bulbils out by rocking them towards the newly created empty space. Try not to crush the bulbils and flowers as you remove them. If there is a tricky spot, leave the plant for a few days and the bulbils will realign which will make it easier to remove them later along with any crushed ones. The aim is to keep as many flowers intact as possible.
Step 4 - Keep Watch
Keep watch for garlic seed - most fertile garlic types have purple anthers. It is possible to detect a fertilised flower because they will have swollen ovaries which will yield seed at maturity. Note that each ovary has three chambers, each part contains two ovules - so it is possible to get six seeds per flower.
Seed is tiny. Tiny! It is black with an irregular grain shape similar to onion seed, but only half their size. It takes around a month and a half to two months for seed to be produced once pollinated. Extract the seed and consider applying a weak bleach treatment to the seed to reduce disease. Also consider pre-cooling before planting.
Step 5 - Plant and Cross Fingers
While growing true seed is quite an achievement, developing fertile true seed is the end goal. Most first-generation seed will be undersized and infertile (possibly slightly more than 10% will be viable). Later generations will have better fertility, and after several generations most seed will grow. After a few generations seed producing garlic will produce an astonishing 600 seeds per umbel.
Plant true seed much like the bulbil planting process with only mm not cm of quality fine seed raising mix covering them. Use a spray bottle to water and control soil moisture early on in their development. If possible, grow them indoors in late winter to give them the best chance of survival and to ensure the largest possible rounds. It will take them a week to sprout (most viable seeds about a fortnight), while weak seeds might take a couple of months. If starting them indoors wait until they are hardy, then harden them off and plant the seedlings outside in large pots or into the ground.
The first generation plants from true seed are likely to be weak and very slow growing. Keep your fingers crossed as they are at a higher vulnerability to disease than cloves or bulbils at this stage. It can take up to four months for the plant to get its first leaves. Some plants might have irregular growth but future generations will be stronger, having less bulbils and more viable seed.
Occasionally, plants can flower in the first year, although typically it is the following year when they will produce a bulb which flowers. With sexual reproduction there can be much variation in future plants' growth. Some plants might become softnecks, others might have few or no bulbils or other interesting characteristics which our current clones never develop. From there it is possible to selectively breed the desirable traits ... exciting times!
Good luck - please let us know if you are successful in producing fertile garlic true seed as this is certainly something to share with the expanding kiwi garlic-growing community.
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