We have been growing Garlic at Terra Firma since, well, since before it was Terra Firma. In fact, when our founder Paul Holmes starting farming up, garlic and tomatoes were his primary crops.
The climate in Winters is very close to perfect for growing garlic. The “stinking rose” is a winter crop, planted in the fall and harvested in late spring. It loves water when it is growing, and hates it when harvest time comes, which makes it particularly suited for the combination of cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers that we have here. Contrast that with Fresno, where most of California’s garlic crop is grown in California now grown and normally gets so little rain that the crop must be irrigated all winter long. We rarely irrigate our garlic until late April, and even then just a few times.
This year we irrigated our garlic twice during its eight month life. It was planted in late October into moist soil. In mid-November we started to wonder if it might need to be irrigated, but then we got a healthy dose of rain right after Thanksgiving.
Our normal annual rainfall is around 24 inches, and that seems to be just about the perfect amount for garlic. This year we got almost 40 inches. In wet years like this one, we have to watch out for a fungus called “rust” that infects the leaves of the crop and can actually kill the whole plant. Oddly enough, one of the ways to control this disease is to spray the crop with…garlic oil. It turns out that garlic cloves (but not the leaves) have a high concentration of sulfur compounds with a natural fungicidal effect. We spray garlic oil on several other crops as well to control a variety of different fungal diseases, including powdery mildew on our grape.
When the garlic plants are done growing, their love affair with water ends. Once the heads separate into cloves and the skins around them begin to form, contact with water in any form is potentially catastrophic. Most years we finish harvest on or before June 1st, so we are rarely happy to see heavy rain in May.
This year, we were initially a little frustrated at how slow and late our garlic started maturing this year. But the garlic knew better than we did. When the heavy rains hit in mid-May, the plants had not yet started forming their skin and cloves. Had it been closer to harvest, it would have likely rotted in the ground. Instead, the moisture helped to boost the size of the heads a bit.
If you are a garlic fan, you may remember that last year we had a terrible crop due to a problem with the “seed” we planted (garlic does not actually grow from seed, but rather from individual cloves that are planted). We are still mid-harvest as I write this, but we are more optimistic about this year’s crop.
Garlic harvest is fairly simple process: we simply loosen the soil under the roots with a tractor implement and then pull the entire plant from the ground. The crop is placed in very lightly packed bins, standing up, and moved to a dry barn where we use fans to circulate the warm air. Our normal June climate — hot and dry — is perfect to slowly dry out and cure the garlic in the shade.
In regions with high humidity or cool weather, garlic must be dried using heaters and/or dehumidifiers to keep it from getting moldy. We don’t usually need these to dry our garlic, so we don’t have any. But once or twice we experienced significant crop loss in storage during periods of unusual wet weather in June. That type of weather seems highly unlikely this year, and the garlic we are harvesting is already quite dry thanks to the very hot temperatures of the last week or so. But we’re keeping our fingers crossed anyway.
There are many different varieties of garlic, but we just grow one. Called California Early White — despite often having some purple skin — it seems almost perfectly adapted to growing our area. It has big cloves even when the heads are small, has a nice balanced flavor, and stores quite well.