I have been receiving letters lately from folks worried about their garlic. It is understandable. With great anticipation, we insert these naked little cloves in cold soil, just as the season takes a downturn; we stress throughout the snows and storms of winter as to whether they can possibly survive; come early spring, we are elated when we see their tender tips emerge, apparently unscathed; then we plunge into worry and anxiety when, despite their rapid growth, they show signs of yellowing tips; we scrutinize them for other diseases, insects, “issues;” we feed them, water them, murmur soft nothings of encouragement; we marvel at the beauty of their gangly scapes, waving in the wind; and then with a certain amount of apprehension, we begin digging the bulbs, 9 months in the making, one by one; we cradle them gently, inhale the fragrant aroma as they hang to cure in gentle breezes, and then we, sometimes with great flourish and ceremony but without apology, devour them.
Who needs this roller coaster? We all do! Obviously. But it’s a slippery slope, my friends, very slippery indeed.
I just want to let you know that I am here to help you with your relationship woes with your garlic. I qualify because I have been growing it since 1976 and still don’t know what the heck I am talking about, but blog as if I do. And so people write to me as if I might have all the answers, when in truth, I share the same afflictions. I just figure sharing is caring – and I definitely care – so when we share our experiences, maybe we can figure it out together.
Agggghhhh! Yellow leaves! and more!
This is the #1 Complaint. A reader (who also lives in a rainy area of the Northwest) recently wrote asking about yellow leaves on her garlic. But we need to distinguish what we are talking about. Yellow tips are one thing; outer yellow leaves – ok, that happens, too; but more yellowing than that is a definite red flag for concern. When she pulled up a plant to have a look, she found the outer layers of the bulb end to be very slimy. I repeat, Slimy. When she peeled off the layers, it looked like a green onion. Is this normal for this time of year (early April)? What exactly are we dealing with here – and what should we do about it? Salvage what we can – wait and see? What are our best options? On a scale of 1 to 10, how close should we be to panicking?
Hmmm. Some yellowing is common – if it’s not too extensive. “Slimy,” however, does NOT sound good! Growing garlic in the Northwest is a real balancing act, especially if you are in an area that gets really wet winters, cool springs, and then drought in summers.
Unfortunately, I have to admit I don’t have any clear answers, and without actually seeing it, am hesitant to draw conclusions – and even then, I would be likely to experiment. Yellow tips – no big deal. Slimy stems, though, are worrisome, because it might be the beginnings of a mold problem. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Molds and Fungi: I am always battling molds and fungi, which I usually encourage elsewhere in the garden, but when it comes to garlic, can be deadly. Are your conditions encouraging molds? Too wet – a bit too cold right now – a little too warm later on – too rich? I try everything I can to minimize mold & fungal issues, which I go into below.
- Mulch: Are you using mulch? I have a love/hate relationship with mulch in the garlic patch. I pile it on everywhere else, but not on my garlic. If you are using mulch, pull it back right now (like, today!) and let things warm up & dry out. This year, I DID use a very light layer of straw to even out moisture and temperature levels; plus, I have become more aware of how destructive open exposure of the ground can be to microbial communities. I will probably add more mulch as we get closer to summer, as we are likely to experience severe drought this year. BUT – and this is a Big But – be careful of the kind of mulch you use. One year, I mulched with a well-composted cow manure/hay layer. I wanted to block the weeds, so I made it not too thick (or so I thought), but definitely more than a scattering. I don’t think it was excess nitrogen that killed the plants, but rather, the mulch made the soil a rich and significantly warmer and more moist environment that was perfect for all kinds of nematodes and an assortment of molds and fungi. I lost a sobering 75% of my crop. Some varieties I was only able to salvage because I saved the scapes. Another time, I used a thick layer of straw, which happened to contain a lot of grass seeds. Grass everywhere. Though not the rich environment created previously, it was a paradise for voles and mice to tunnel around in. Oh, and then there were slugs and earwigs and who knows what else…aren’t the mice supposed to eat these things? You get the picture. It was a hay day. Most definitely.
- Raised Beds: Do you use them? Raised beds help tremendously with drainage and also help the soil to heat up during our cool springs. I just heap the soil in from the sides; I don’t bother with framing them with boards (I often plant in circles around shrubs; that way the garlic does double-duty as pest control). Just don’t plant the bulbs too close to the edges. Other plants you might grow in pits so they get more water. Not garlic.
- Freeze Damage: Raised beds and mulch can help with preventing freeze damage, but it can still happen, particularly if the plants experience repeated freezing & thawing, which is typical for our Northwest winters. I can see where this could easily cause a “slimy” outer layer and the yellowing of entire lower leaves, being as each leaf represents a layer around the bulb.
- Sun/Shade: Are they growing in part shade – or under conditions that create shade or block airflow? My plants do better in full sun, which is sometimes hard to find. (If planting around a shrub, for example, watch out for the ones on the dark side.)
Weed Control: Garlic doesn’t compete well with weeds, which most would consider to be arguing over water and nutrients. I have found weeds to be more of a problem in the way they block airflow and create their own cool, damp microclimate, which can encourage molds and shady characters.
- Spacing: What is your spacing? I find that my garlic does better with wider spacing – partly because they can reach out more for the nutrients and water they need (which means you can water them less), and partly because they benefit from the air flow.
- Yellow tips: As mentioned, I don’t worry too much about them. Sometimes it is the result of a little frost damage when the shoots come up in early spring. Sometimes it is minor variations in soil conditions. My garlic has to deal with a lot of wind, which is a definite stressor. Most of my varieties have yellow tips – some more than others – maybe some varieties are more susceptible? Maybe the soil is a little “off?” Do they need more nitrogen or something else? Without a soil test, we can only make guesses. I worry more about streaks, speckles, striations – or obvious signs of fungal issues, viruses, or abnormalties.
- Fertilizer: In spring, the plant is more greenery than bulb – so if you encourage that top growth with a little nitrogen, it will have more energy to produce bigger bulbs later on. When the plant starts to focus on bulb growth (about mid-May), you want to cut the nitrogen and just feed strengtheners, such as fish fertilizer and seaweed. I am hesitant to add specific fertilizers because I have a tendency to go overboard and get things really out of whack. All-around compost is always a good bet. I try to build the soil before planting with compost and green manures so I don’t have to add things later. Just beware: too much fertilizer can be a bad thing here in the NW. It can encourage too quick of growth, which can produce a weaker plant that can be more susceptible to diseases.
- Size: At this time of year, about the size of a green onion sounds about right. The outer layers of the “bulb” are very tender at this point. They are easily damaged. Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to garlic, although they might be an easier sell.
- Crop rotation: Did you plant allium plants in this spot last year? A 3- to 4-year rotation cycle is best — even more, if you have the space. Also, did you plant rye grass as a green manure or cover crop in this spot? Rye can be a host to the Fusarium fungus (which gives you basal rot).
- Crop Location: Did you plant your bulbs all in one place? I find it an insurance policy to plant my garlic in patches in various places. It makes life a little more complicated, but they are less likely to spread diseases, and if one area fails, another might make it. Bugs like thrips just love it when they find a great big patch of garlic.
Ok – so I just ran out and checked my bulbs. Yellow tips, some, yes; slimy, no. So I still think this reader has something else going on.
Under these circumstances, what would you do? What are the options? How much are you willing to risk? Is there something in the interim that you can do to maybe prevent disaster? Or are things already so bad that the best thing to do is to yank it all out (and maybe prevent other disasters)?
- If you leave them in the ground, pull back the mulch, weed to let them breathe, and restrict watering, they *might* come out of it with warmer weather on the way. Do what you can – best scenario.
- If the spacing is too close, you might consider pulling every other one, i.e., cut your losses.
- If you let them grow to full term, keep in mind that your bulbs might not have the storage longevity or size of a normal crop, but at least you might still get a decent harvest. If, for example, the slimy conditions and yellow leaves were from freeze-thaw cycles, which makes total sense, the plant could very well pull out of it. Garlic is a pretty hardy plant. I would call this the “wait-and-see, optimistic, but cautionary, approach,” which, combined with the above, would be my option unless the plants are showing obvious signs of disease.
- If they ARE showing obvious signs of disease (not just being a little slimy), I would dig out each bulb along with a little soil around them and burn them or take them to a landfill. Seriously. You can’t risk hosting diseases in your soil that can ruin other crops or be transmitted via a dirty shovel. Worst scenario – chalk it up to experience.
- If you end up yanking them, green garlic is still a delicacy. The upper leaves might be a little tough, but you can still use the “bulb” and on up the stem a bit. They can be cooked, dehydrated, pickled, frozen, chopped up into butters, etc. I confess, I have done this with somewhat moldy bulbs (rub off the mold – right?). I just hate waste – especially wasted garlic. It’s called “Making the best of a difficult situation.”
- If you end up having to pull them, at least you have a freed-up space for something else – (just don’t plant onions, leeks, chives, and the like). Always turn a problem into an opportunity when you can, I say.
I hope these ideas are helpful – and I appreciate your emails and comments — keep them coming! Let me know how your crops are coming along!
Alll the best garlic,
And in the “Misery-Loves-Company” Department, the Saint James Infirmary (Ode-to-Garlic) Blues