Learning to Grow Garlic
My journey to growing garlic started with the passion of one man: Ted Maczka, of Fish Lack in Prince Edward County, Ontario. He was a character! He had a giant garlic on the roof of his car, a baseball hat adorned with bulbs and garland necklaces. Ted was born in Poland and came to Canada in 1952. He was trained as a tool and die man, but he and his wife ran a European food store. This was where he discovered that Canada imported millions of dollars of garlic a year. He made it his mission to both continue to learn about garlic, through his own research trials in his garden, and to pass along his knowledge through education, such as doing talks at fairs such as the Royal Winter Fair. He was the Johnny Appleseed of Canadian garlic!
My connection to Ted came through my mentor Charlie Robb of Haliburton County. Ted taught Charlie and supplied him with garlic. (Ted’s garlic is still available from Seeds of Diversity, by the way). In 2006, I attended a local farmers’ group training on growing your own garlic that was led by Charlie. It was very well attended, and many people felt confident enough to start beds of garlic as a result. Being able to use local garlic gave us all an advantage, as I later learned it is much better to use garlic that has been proven in your area.
The basics we were taught at Charlie’s training went like this: In the fall, prepare your soil by adding manure to a depth of 4 -5 inches. Prepare the garlic by breaking the bulbs into the cloves right before planting. Plant north to south, 6 inches apart with rows 8 inches apart. To plant, push the clove down with point up to a 2–3-inch depth. Mulch 4-6 inches after the first frost (spoiled hay works well) which will protect cloves if they get heaved out of ground due to the frost / freeze cycle. Don’t worry about fall sprouting. In the spring, look for garlic coming up through the mulch and if they look stuck gently help them. Snap scapes when they make their first curl. Harvest exactly 9 months from the date of planting- or when the three bottom leaves are brown.
Armed with the basics and a handful of local garlic, Bryan and I started growing garlic for ourselves and to sell to locals at our first farm in Haliburton County. We started out with the Music variety from the Porcelain family of garlic, which is the most common type of garlic grown in Canada. We then got Charlie Robb’s Red Russian variety. The third variety we added was Italian in origin (brought to Canada over 50 years ago) but had been grown locally for some time. To increase our supply, we kept some bulbs back for re-planting each year. This is a slower process then bringing in new stock every year but it is safe-no importing of disease and bugs - and inexpensive.
When we moved to Thunder Bay in 2019 we brought this hardneck with us. We unfortunately missed the fall planting in our first year and didn’t even cold shock the garlic before we planted it in early May. I wasn’t sure what would happen but we got lovely “big” corms (single cloves). We planted many of these in the fall and it gave sizeable garlic which we then supplemented with some Manitoba- grown garlic. We also decided to try growing softneck garlic specifically to make garlic braids (softneck stems are more pliable). The first two years we got lovely soft necks that we kept replanting to increase their size but the third year (this year) the softneck garlic decided to join the rest of the group and scapped, which it shouldn’t do. This was a big surprise, but after doing some research, I learned that the University of Minnesota had found out about this phenomenon a few years ago. So, we will see if in addition to now scapping the growth pattern of the “softneck” switches as well (softneck typically have a petal-style of growth with lots of little cloves (8-12)).
It is now the end of August and we have finished the harvest. All the garlic is cured. We are now selling garlic that meets the minimum size requirements we established and we are holding back the rest for the upcoming fall planting. Our goal continues to be growth, as it takes time to both increase the size of our average bulb and to increase the total number of garlic we are producing. If you are interested in getting some of our garlic this year, head to our website or find us at the Thunder Bay Country Market (at the CLE grounds).
Beverly holding some of our garlic.