A year of garlic farming
A quarter acre, planted and harvested by hand, and shipped around the country
The morning dew always falls heavy in September. Walking up to clip garlic stems each morning, takes on a ritualistic feel, since I arrive to the drying greenhouse and remove my soaked shoes as I enter. Some days, with clear eastern sun, it very much feels like I’m entering hallowed ground, as the greenhouse is ablaze with light as I stoop underneath the open eaves and take my shoes off as a first act of recognition where I am. I sit down in a lawn chair, pull up a crate of garlic, and get clipping, to either the echoes of nature, or later in the season, to music especially selected for helping with endurance.
On my farm, September is the time for clipping and cleaning garlic, which is harvested in July, and next season’s planting done just a month later, in mid to late October. One season’s crop is drying in the tunnel, and just about to be shipped to homes throughout the country, while I am starting the field preparation for the next run. The cycles of garlic, how last season’s work nips right on the heels of next season’s, force me to think more cyclically. Choices made in one moment have rippling effects on all. One year, as I struggled with a hand trowel to plant my 15,000 plants, I was forced to plant the cloves fairly shallow- and saw as many of them were lost to frost heaves as sunlight, water, and temperature conspired to make miniature earthquakes of the first two inches of soil above the cloves. The next year, I bought a beautiful stainless steel trowel, engineered to be as thin and strong as could be, and it sliced through the soil with ease, and I planted the garlic deeper. This made them resilient to those frost heaves, and also protected from the droughts that increasingly hit the farmers of the Northeast.
This early-years mentality led me to suffer more than needed and looking back, it was woven into other themes of my life at the time. Sometimes your mind puts you in survival mode, and actually holds you back from full potential, justifying the survival mode mindset and perpetuating itself. You are always saving, never spending. Saving money, saving emotional energy, at the expense of body, mind, or soul.
I have a passion for growing garlic, that came from the several times I’d saved myself from bad infections with it. A couple gum infections, several colds and flus, all struck at a time when I had no healthcare, but I had garlic. I’m not saying it’ll cure everything but it sure got me out of a jam or two. Those experiences made me excited to produce extra for others, so I kept expanding the garden. Somewhere along the way, I realized that approaching it with deliberation, and equipping myself with scale-appropriate tools, could make it profitable, doable, and ultimately, more enjoyable. It is now my side hustle, one quarter acre hand-planted, over fifteen thousand plants.
Being so cyclical, it’s hard to know where to start, but one garlic season can be roughly described as starting in the spring, on a fallow (empty) piece of ground. Knowing how tough weeds can be in an organic system, I think long and hard of an appropriate cover crop to sow in the future garlic plot. Rye grows at cold temperatures few other plants can succeed at, but is a beast to turn under with a plow. Buckwheat grows quickly, and supplies a view of hundreds of native bees, buzzing and whirring, as it goes to flower in less than two months after sowing, and is easier to plow or disc. There’s also oats, peas, vetch...the options are endless. But, I went with buckwheat this year, as it also is a “great neighborhood to raise kids” for the countless predator species of insects who will feed on the pests that attack my other crops. A buckwheat field is a plea for help to Mother Nature- please send your best, make homes, and bon appetit. I let the buckwheat go to flower, and will turn it in with a moldboard plow, in September. A neighbor will come and disc the field- a farm tool that cuts up the roots into smaller pieces, smooths out the field, to receive the garlic planting.
I like to avoid tilling, as it does some harm as well as good- so a fine tool that allows me to plant into disced ground is important. That trowel I told you about- that is critical. It’s made of stainless steel, with a smooth wooden handle that fits perfectly in the palm. Any blade other than stainless will get these microscopic burrs of rust that catch on all the snarly roots of overturned sod or overturned cover crops. Most home and garden trowels are curved- to also allow shoveling- but I use a special one whose slight curve is just enough to make sure it never bends in hard soil (the principle of an arch as one of the strongest structures known, should illustrate this idea). A bad trowel will have you pushing harder, only for the hole to still be too shallow, and your hands will be calloused and aching while doing poor work. A good trowel slices so clean, as to make deep plantings easy. A dull blade, or blade too thick, will also compact the soil at the bottom of the hole, so a slicing blade preserves the texture of the soil beneath.
To achieve proper spacing on my garlic beds, I am a bit fanatical. I lay out the beds precisely 48 inches apart, center to center, with the kind of strings normally used to lay out buildings. This spacing is critical for my operation, as I am working with a small piece of ground that I carefully fertilize organically. I made a planting rig to align the 4 rows of garlic perfectly. Four long, thin pieces of oak are made parallel to each other, and made rigid by cross-pieces, and marked every six inches, for the in-row spacing of the plants. I used to do this with a 1 by 3 pine furring strip, but pine flexes and twists as it ages, and leads to crooked beds. 1 by 3 pine was also far heavier than needed, so now the oak rig is made of the lightest, smallest diameter wood possible. Everything must be predrilled and bolted together- screws or nails would split the size wood I work with. The rig is good for about 3 bedfeet before it needs to be moved, so it will be picked up about one thousand times, in the course of planting a quarter acre. That is why so much engineering went into making it light and strong.
The garlic planted in October will be covered by rye straw in November. I have found a rye farmer about as passionate about rye as I am about garlic. He makes sure to harvest and bale the rye at peak biomass- but right before the seeds become viable. When properly raked and baled, as my source does, the rye glows with a golden sheen- especially in the light of crisp late autumn days with low humidity. I can see my distant field covered in the straw, on a sunny day, almost shimmering. Soon, rain, sleet and snow will compact the straw down from a fluff to a thick layer of matter protecting the garlic cloves from winter’s vagaries. In the Northeast, we used to rely on a thick snow cover to protect our garlic from true deep freezes- like the polar vortices. Nowadays though, we often lose our snowcover to a winter heatwave, only for a polar vortex to push down south and flash freeze the soil over again. The rye straw protects the garlic from all that, and is also a carbon sequestration technique, to boot. The straw breaks down to stable organic matter that will improve the soil’s water and nutrient holding capacity for years to come.
In spring, the garlic sprouts through the straw, in April and into May. It starts slow but will soon “canopy out,” effectively shading out all the ground below it. The plants send up a stem, called a scape, that is an attempt at flowering. Farmers and gardeners know to harvest the scape as it achieves a “pigtail” shape, which will send a signal to the plant to focus on bulb production. You thwart the plant’s first attempt at reproduction, to induce it to try harder with the second. Scapes, harvested at the right time, are tender and taste like garlic-flavored, mild asparagus when cooked. If you puree them raw, with some olive oil and salt, and perhaps some spearmint, you can make a scape pesto that you will eat by the spoonful.
The sweltering heat of July is when the garlic is finally ready to harvest. Larger farms tend to use a tractor with a digging bar to harvest their garlic. It is a massive piece of steel attached to the back of a tractor, and dragged underneath the garlic to sever the roots and heave the soil loose. Unfortunately, if it’s not working right, it can damage some bulbs, but that is accepted on a larger scale. For myself, I cannot imagine using one. I have to harvest a few varieties at a time (since I grow over 100 heirloom types), so I attack the project with something called a broadfork. It is like a two-handled pitchfork, essentially. Instead of 4 tines, a broadfork may have 7-10 tines. You use both arms to pull the two handles, and there is a bar to step on, in between them, to use your full body weight to push it into the soil. A regular pitchfork only uses one arm well, and lets you set a boot on its precarious foothold- not a good long term plan for ergonomics. By my calculations, I have 1.7 miles of garlic to fork up, and the broadfork does it at about 2.5 feet at a time. It uses a wider range of muscles, and you can purposefully switch between reliance on upper body strength, or on leg strength, to use it, so you can give parts of your body a rest. At 90-95 degrees, while weather forecasters are sending out heat advisories telling people to spend no more than an hour outside, you are about to harvest for 12 hours per day, so being able to manage your energy is important. I made sure to source the best broadfork I could find. The tines are robust, designed in a way that requires very skilled welding to build, but when done, will never bend. This is important for my rock-filled soil, glacial till of the Northeast that it is. The handles are the finest tube steel, making it as light and strong as can be- while other companies often use wood that cracks far too often under rocky conditions.
I lay the whole plants into crates, and walk them down to my drying greenhouse, strategically built downhill of the garlic field. Laid out on wire racks, whole, with burlap cloth stretched over the greenhouse roof to provide partial shade, the garlic plants are allowed the most natural drydown possible, trying to simulate the Central Asian origins of the garlic life cycle, where a complete dry season forces the slow maturation of garlic in the ground.
This is what leads back to where we started- those beautiful September mornings. One to two months after harvest, the garlic is fully cured- the plant has had time to reallocate all of the resources of the stem and roots, into the bulb, giving it full flavor and medicinal value, and maximum storage capacity. At that moment, I finally clip the dried down stems and roots, to ship the bulbs to customers. In early years, I also would struggle through clipping garlic stems with cheap dollar store scissors- I figured that if I used anything nicer on such dirty, grueling work, I’d quickly spoil the blade so why not stay cheap? By now you know I’ve rejected that model, so now I’ve bought two sets of dedicated farming scissors. Not two because one may break- they never have- but so that they are stored at both ends of my far-flung farm and I never have to go far to find one. It’s a carbon-steel blade that self-sharpens. Thick, dry stems- over 15,000 of them, will each be individually cut, and 15,000 gnarly, dirty root systems will be trimmed back. A dull blade or bad scissors will have your hands aching with callouses within an hour, so the upgrade to these scissors was critical. The first pair I owned have gone through three seasons now, so 45,000 plants and counting.
From there, I have a “fulfillment center” within my greenhouse, with shipping boxes, bags, labels, scales, all laid out, and I bag the garlic on demand for online orders. I have some local wholesale accounts too, so some days I walk down the hill with a 20 pound sack of garlic for a local farm that doesn’t grow their own. With next season’s planting only a month away, I also have to browse my cured garlic for my own seedstock- selecting the finest bulbs I have to hold back to get another 15,000 in. With over 100 varieties, this could get very complicated, but I have elegant spreadsheets made through the years to ensure that I keep back the precise number of bulbs needed, of which varieties. This is my art, this is my passion and love. I struggle to do other artistic or creative things, but the greatest joy I’ve found is to put my creativity, thought, and planning into this. It's about fine tools, carefully planned schedules, and passion.