I was just a gardener, growing garden-variety softneck garlic, when I headed to Iowa for my first Seed Savers Exchange Conference in 2002. I returned home to Pennsylvania with 10 varieties of heirloom hardneck bulbs, planted them that October, and before I knew what had happened, I’d become a garlic farmer.
In addition to edible scapes, hardneck garlic (Allium sativum ssp. ophioscorodon) delivers cloves that are richer in flavor and easier to peel than the softnecks typically found at the supermarket.
I still cultivate softnecks (Allium sativum ssp. sativum), in part because the bulbs can be stored for up to 12 months, giving me a marketable crop year-round. But it’s hardneck garlic (A. sativum ssp. ophioscorodon) that excites my chef-customers: The cloves have a complex, wild-garlic flavor, and the scapes, or central stems, can be used like supercharged scallions in salads, soups, and stir-fries.
My business partner and I sell the biggest bulbs – of both subspecies – as planting stock, through our website and the garlic-festival circuit, for $18 a pound. The smaller, “culinary grade” bulbs bring $10 per pound at farmers markets and restaurants near our Berks County farm.
As if a never-ending market season and dual (growing and cooking) consumer bases weren’t enough, there’s another reason to grow garlic for a living. You can plant the cold-hardy crop (Zones 4”“8) this fall, in fields left vacant after the harvest of summer crops.
For best results, work two yards of well-composted manure into every 1,000 square feet of soil a week or two before planting (around Columbus Day in eastern Pennsylvania’s Zone 6). Select the largest cloves from the biggest bulbs and space them 6 to 8 inches apart, sinking each clove two lengths deep, root-end down. A week later, to protect the cloves through winter, conserve moisture, and suppress weeds come spring, cover the beds with 4 to 6 inches of straw or 3 inches of chopped leaves.
Cut the hardneck scapes in early summer, after they have emerged and curled back upon themselves. Dig up all the bulbs in mid-summer once softneck leaves flop over or those of the hardnecks turn brown. Use a spading fork to carefully loosen the soil around and below, then pull them up gently, to avoid separating the bulbs from their stalks. Brush off any excess dirt.
Group the bulbs in bundles of a dozen or fewer, and tie their stalks together. Hang in a warm, dry, low-light area and fan the bulbs out to ensure good air circulation. Softneck varieties will store for up to a year; hardnecks, 4 to 6 months.
The Bottom Line for Garlic Farming
Cost and yield may differ considerably, depending on the type of garlic grown. The numbers below are based on the super-prolific hardneck variety Music.