Marketing garlic year round
by Tom Roberts, Snakeroot Organic Farm, Pittsfield
Garlic is a strange plant. When people at market ask about growing
it themselves, I tell them to forget everything they know about how
plants grow because garlic is different. It does not flower, and has no
seeds. All reproduction is vegetative, so your harvest is genetically
identical to your planting stock. You plant in late fall and harvest in
mid-summer. Each year, garlic has two modes of reproduction, a one year
plan (plant cloves, and get bulbs) and a two-year plan (plant bulbils,
get rounds; plant rounds, get bulbs).
We grow stiff-neck, or rocambole, garlic exclusively. As the plant
grows during the season, it produces a cluster of 12-20 bulbils at the
top of the plant. Planting these bulbils in the fall produces garlic
rounds---undivided garlics from chickpea to golf ball size---by mid
July. These rounds behave just like cloves, and when planted in the
fall, produce regular garlic bulbs in early August. Rounds may also be
used just like garlic cloves in the kitchen.
Ninety percent of all the garlic we grow is on the two-year
method, as this is the quickest way to expand production and allows us to
sell all of our bulbs and not hold any back for planting. It also
allows a wider range of garlic products of offer for sale.
Garlic bulbs are harvested in early August and are sold at farmers'
market during the rest of the season. Many folks buy extra garlic late
in the season to store through the winter. These bulbs keep pretty well
till late winter, but few make it into May. Typically there is a
"garlic-less" season from the time markets begin in May until the
harvest begins again in August.
Therefore the problem arises how supply garlic to garlic-loving
shoppers from May until August.
Many marketers have realized that cutting the scapes (curly-cue
tops) in mid July offers the flavor of real garlic in another form
several weeks before the season's bulbs are ready. So they begin
teaching the garlic fans shopping at market to use scapes as garlic,
too. Scapes can be cut up just like scallions to add real garlic flavor
to any dish where you would use garlic cloves. Extra scapes can be
chopped and frozen for later use. The Chinese are already accustomed to
using them as tsuan tie. Koreans know them as manil chong. We offer
them at market with anywhere from ten to twenty in a bunch for a
dollar. They are such strange-looking items in a produce display, that
many people want to know what they are. This provides a lead-in to
explaining them, and we always ask people to taste them before using
them, because they are not like garlic---they are garlic. "Think
cloves, not chives."
For six years we have been selling more and more scapes as garlic
fans look forward to this early-season taste of garlic. However, simply
selling field-grown scapes provides only a few weeks additional
marketing. We have taken this a step further by dedicating two eighty-
foot beds in our greenhouse to early season garlic production. We
generally plant in early January. This allows us to cut scapes in early
June from the greenhouse garlic, and harvest garlic bulbs by early
July. Thus we are simultaneously marketing both garlic bulbs (from the
greenhouse) and garlic scapes (from the field) by mid July.
This leaves only a few weeks at market without garlic. So to solve
this garlic void, we have developed two entirely "new" products at our
One is garlic grass, where we plant a handful of bulbils in a tray
in the spring, and sell it to cut like wheat grass to be added to
salads, omlettes or stirfries. We do several plantings so we are able
to offer flats of fresh young garlic grass all during May. Again, folks
who taste samples are usually surprised by the strong true garlic
The second product is garlic scallions. These are akin to green
onions, where onion thinnings are sold like scallions. Since we are
able, using the two-year method, to produce large quantities of garlic
bulbils, we grow some to be harvested early as garlic scallions. These
are bunched like regular onion scallions, but since they are larger, we
put six to ten in a bunch, and offer them next to the scallions with
separate labeling. The flat leaves of garlic make them easy to tell
apart from the round hollow leaves of onion scallions.
Unlike scallions or green onions, garlic scallions require removing
the remains of the old round they grew from. This is quickly
accomplished in the field along with any peeling required to remove
older lower leaves that are beginning to yellow.
We discovered garlic scallions by accident this year because we
neglected to harvest all of the rounds from last year's garlic patch.
These field-grown garlic scallions were ready to harvest by late May.
Next year we will take advantage of garlic's ability to grow in the
cold by starting some early in the unheated greenhouse in order to
offer garlic scallions to a garlic hungry public when markets start in
Now our year-round garlic marketing looks like this: Our season will
start off in May with garlic grass and greenhouse garlic scallions.
Early June will see our greenhouse scapes at market along with field
garlic scallions. By late June we will be offering greenhouse scapes
and bulbs, which will continue until the field scapes taper off in late
July, when we will be offering field bulbs until markets close in late
October and November.
Even without a greenhouse, by using garlic grass, scallions and
scapes, anyone with a garden can be eating fresh garlic just about
year-round, and direct marketers can be teaching their customers about
new forms of a favorite food available from their local grower all
For the shoppers who want to become growers of garlic, we also offer
rounds and bulbils for sale at our market stands, as well as bulbs. Of
course this also leads to some explaining of the garlic life cycle,
which is entirely new to most people, even the most ardent of garlic
fans out there.
Whether we are explaining garlic grass, garlic scallions, scapes,
bulbils, rounds or the garlic planting cycle, we see this opportunity
to inform people about garlic as a way to build non-monetary
connections between the buying public and local farmers. Although we
may end us selling them some scapes for dinner or garlic stock to
plant, the information about garlic is free. And they will remember
they heard it from a local farmer.
Tom Roberts has been growing organically since 1980, and selling
organic produce at farmers' markets since 1983. He and Lois Labbe
cultivate Snakeroot Organic Farm's two acres of market gardens in
Pittsfield and attend the Unity, Fairfield, Orono and Pittsfield
This article appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of the Maine Organic Farmer and