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Garlic Pages Frequently Asked Questions

Linda Fey admiring recently planted garlic in November, 2005

What is the origin of this collection?

The garlic displayed on these pages represents a duplicate growout maintained from 2005 - 2012 by Jeff Nekola and Linda Fey of the entire holdings of the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. The SSE began developing this collection in the early 1990’s, with accessions occurring up to the present.  Most material was donated by John Swenson and Ron Engeland in the early-mid 1990s, and by Darrell Merrill in 2000. To this collection we have now added in most of the material grown by Joel Girardin of Cannon Falls, Minnesota and Avram Drucker of Tiller, Oregon. 

How did you determine the history of each variety?

For each variety we searched through all volumes of the Seed Savers Yearbook, and determined for each the year of first listing. From this, we searched forward through the Yearbooks, sifting out the relevent historical information from all subsequent entries. In most cases, however, the most relevent information was reported within a two-three years of first listing. We also kept track of all relevent USDA and Gatersleben accession numbers that were reported in the Yearbook entries, and then sought additional information by seaching for these accessions online. Additionally, some historical information was gathered from Filaree Farm catelogs, and from other sources such as the writings of Chester Aaron.

What does Variety mean? 

Garlic (Allium sativum) is often scientifically classified into one of two varieties:  var. sativum (softnecks) and var. ophioscordon (hardnecks).  Within the last decade, a refinement on this coarse-scale system has been popularized by Ron Engeland and the folks at Filaree Farm.  The Engeland system sorts garlics into one of eight main groups (Artichoke, Asiatic, Creole, Porcelain, Purple Stripe, Rocambole, Silverskin, and Turban) based on bulb and clove appearance and plant growth form.  Additionally, the Purple Stripe group is split into three subgroups (Purple Stripe, Mottled, and Glazed).  More information regarding these groupings may be found at the Filaree Farm website. Within the last few years, an eleventh variety -- Middle Eastern -- has been proposed based on isozyme analysis. This final group appears to remain somewhat of a 'garbage can' containing the few strains that defy catagorization within the other ten varietieis.

While we have done our best to assign each of these to a group, we anticipate that other growers may sort them differently by putting more emphasis on some traits (e.g. clove and wrapper color) than others (e.g. general bulb morphology, plant growth form). 

What do the Harvest Dates mean?

Garlic will mature at different times in different years and in different climates.  As such, a single harvest time for each variety is impossible.  What we have done is to break the total garlic harvest into five different windows:  Very Early (more than two weeks before the Middle window); Early (one to two weeks before the Middle window); Middle (the central two weeks of the harvest season); Late (one to two weeks after the Middle window); and Very Late (more than two weeks after the Middle window).  The harvest dates exhibited on these pages represent the harvest windows in which each variety was dug during the 2006 season in Albuquerque, and were:  Very Early – before June 15; Early – June 15 to June 30; Middle – July 1 to July 14; Late – July 15 to July 30; Very Late – later than July 30. The 2007 harvest was so compressed that essentially all of the non-Turban garlics became ready within the last week of June and first week of July. Because of this, we have only reported the 2006 harvest dates, but will continue to keep track of these patterns.

When should I harvest garlic?

While bulbs will continue to size up until all above ground growth has died back, waiting this long to harvest will ensure that the bulb wrappers will be few or none. As a result, the heads will not hold as well, and will dry out much more quickly. Thus, optimal harvest date is determined by balancing head size vs. wrapper number, which can be guessed at by the number of green leaves above ground.

Over the last four seasons we've discovered that two main factors influence optimal harvest time: variety type and plant size.

The first garlic variety to size up are Turbans, which will have full-sized bulbs while only 1/3 -1/4 of leaves have turned brown. In Albuquerque, these tend to be ready to harvest during the last week of May and the first week of June. Asiatic, Glazed Purple Stripe, Middle Eastern, Porcelain and Purple Stripe varieties are harvested next, when green begins to fade in the leaves, and approximately 1/3 of them are brown. For us, these are harvested generally during the third and fourth weeks in June. There is considerable genetic variation within the Purple Stripes, however, and their harvest is spread out over the entire month of June. During the last week of June and the first week of July the Artichoke and Rocambole varieties are harvested. Artichokes are ready to be dug when their green begins to fade and approximately 50% of leaves are brown; Rocamboles are ready when the leaves turn from dark to light green and no more than 1/3 of them are brown. During the second week of July the Marbled Purple Stripes and Creole varieties are harvested. Marbled Purple Stripes will have 2/3 of leaf material brown when ready to dig, while Creoles wait until the very end to allocate energy to their bulbs, with more than 3/4 of leaves needing to be brown before they are ready. Be careful, though, as some Marbled Purple Stripes (Allison's, Brown Rose, Brown Tempest) need to be harvested up to two weeks earlier, during the last days of June, and with the Creoles which have a harvest window of only a few days before bulb wrapper loss becomes too great. The final variety to mature are the Silverskins, whch are harvested from mid July to late July. They demonstrate their readiness to be dug when more than 50% of leaves have turned brown, and when the stems lodge (fall over).

Specific harvest dates are also influenced by plant size, with smaller plants needing to be dug earlier than larger ones of the same variety. Those who have followed this site for the last few years have seen this impact as Creoles have moved from one of the earliest harvested types to now being one of the latest. The reason for this is that the initial starts from Decorah were so small that plants were dying down fully 3-4 weeks earlier than fully sized up material.

Do I need to pick the flower heads (scapes) from hardneck garlics?

If you want the largest sized bulbs, you must remove the scapes. Garlic plants, like everything else in the universe, must abide the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that energy/matter can neither be created nor destroyed. There is only a finate amount of solar energy that a given plant captures within a growing season. This energy is divided between three principle functions: (1) plant metabolism; (2) above ground bulbil formation; (3) below-ground bulb formation. As metabolic costs are the same no matter if tops are removed or not, any energy that the plants put into bulbil production will necessarily be taken away from underground bulb size. Some varieties with small bulbil investment (such as Turbans and Creoles) will experience a smaller reduction, but smaller even they will be.

What do the numeric codes represent?

The prefix ‘SSE’ represents the Seeds Savers accession number of that particular variety.  A number of varieties are also held in other seed banks, including the USDA garlic facility at Pullman, Washington (prefix codes of either ‘PI’ or ‘W6’) or the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) at Gatersleben in Germany (prefix codes of either 'ALL' or 'K').

Why have the Gatersleben links been turned off?

Sometime in late 2007 the ability for web-searching of the Gatersleben asscession database was terminated. While it is is possible to verify that the collection number for a given variety exists within their database, no collection information beyond country of origin is available. As such there was not much point in keeping this link turned on. If Gatersleben at some point in the future will again permit on-line retrieval of collection data, we'll turn the links back on again.

What does "2006 Picture" and "2007 Picture" mean?

The initial material we obtained from SSE in fall of 2005 was very small and needed significant sizing up. The initial pictures which were found on this site through 2007 are images of those first-season results. However, we had an outstanding success in the 2007 growing season, with average head size more than doubled! As a result, we completely re-shot the entire collection to allow you to see what well grown examples of these varieties look like. We repeated this process again in 2009. For those who are interested in how much these changed over the course of the growning season, I've also linked to the images of the 2006 and 2007 crops. The lighting in the area at Chispas where we did the photography changed over time, leading to some off-colors in the earlier pictures. Use of daylight-balance lights in 2009 provides the current pictures with the most accurate colors, even if the suboptimal growing conditions in 2009 lead to smaller bulb size. Use the 2009 images to see the correct bulb / clove colors, and the 2007 images to get a better idea of maximum head size.

How did you calculate maximum bulb size?

We calculated the average weight for the largest four heads of each variety about 4-6 weeks following cleaning. Previously, this site reported the average bulb size across all plants. However, I felt maximum bulb size was a more useful index, as it gives the potential upper limit for production.

Why do my garlic plants of the same name look different from those that are pictured?

There are two principle reasons for this.  Most likely, subtle differences (for instance wrapper colors, clove colors, size) are due to differences in climate and soils from Albuquerque.  We have extensive experience growing many of these varieties in the Midwestern USA, and have found that many (especially artichoke varieties) were less highly colored when grown there. 

The other reason is that names and plant material may have been inadvertently switched at some point in the past, either by the original growers of that variety or by Seed Savers Exchange.  Such honest mistakes are bound to happen, given the over 200 varieties that have been maintained for almost two decades.  If you are convinced that a variety we are showing has been attached to the wrong name, please inform either Jeff (email link at left). 

Why do some garlic varieties have more than one name?

Sometimes names were intially spelled incorrectly in Seed Savers Yearbooks, and we have kept track of these often multiple spellings that have been used over the years. Also, commercial seed companies sometimes rename varieties in the hope of garnering greater sales. While this may make economic sense, it plays havoc with the utility of names, as the original often reflected variety's place of origin. For instance, the name 'Samarkand Purple' is much more appropriate than 'Persian Star' as the variety was actually collected by John Swenson in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and has nothing to do with Iran. For this reason, we have chosen to arrange varieties by the names they have been assigned in their respective seed banks. We have provided synonyms next to the main variety name, and have included some of these synonyms as well in the garlic name list.

Where is the garlic grown?

We no longer maintain this collection in New Mexico. The farmers that we worked with moved off site, and then started a family. As a result, they honestly informed us that the garlic collection was no longer a priority for them. For both the 2011 and 2012 growing seasons, a signfiicant number of rows did not get drip irregation for the entire winter, seriously decreasing yields and ultimately threatenting the genebank. We sadly realized that because we did not have land of our own we could no longer guarantee survival of the garlic in New Mexico. Matt Barthel, the former Seed Savers garden manager, has adopted the entire collection, and will be growing it from his home in Rochester, Minnesota. Remaining growing stock has been shipped to other growers, and none remains in New Mexico.

Jeff Nekola with some of the 2007 Turban Garlic harvest

Last Edit Date: December 6, 2012 nekola Heirloom Vegetable Homepage
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