Grow garlic from bulbils

Garlic Plant Bulbils: Tips For Growing Garlic From Bulbils

Garlic propagation is often associated with the planting of garlic cloves, also referred to as vegetative reproduction or cloning. Another method for commercial propagation is on the rise too — growing garlic from bulbils. The question is can you, the home gardener, grow garlic from bulbils?

Can You Grow Garlic Bulbils?

First off, you may be wondering what a “bulbil” is. Bulbils are tiny, undivided bulbs produced in the scape of hardneck garlic. The scape looks like a garlic flower; however, the reproductive parts are for show only, there is no cross pollination. Essentially, the bulbils are clones of the mother plant that can be planted to produce a replica of this parent.

There may be less than 10 garlic plant bulbils or 150, depending upon the variety. Bulbil size ranges as well, from that of a grain of rice to the size of a chickpea. So the answer is yes, you can easily grow garlic from bulbils.

There is an advantage to planting garlic bulbils over cloves. Propagating

from garlic plant bulbils can revitalize garlic strains, thwart the transmission of soil-borne diseases and is economical as well. Now I’m betting you want to know how to grow garlic from bulbils, but first you need to harvest them.

Harvesting Garlic Plant Bulbils

Harvest the bulbils when mature or when the cluster has expanded and split open the sheath surrounding it. You may cut this from the plant, or hang and dry the entire plant. Drying takes a significant amount of time, so be sure to hang the scape or plant in a dry area lest they mildew.

When the bulbils are easily removed by lightly rubbing, you are ready to separate them from the clusters, remove the chaff and dry further in a shallow pan in an aerated area with no direct sun. They can then be stored at room temp or cooler for six to seven months in an unsealed container. Do not refrigerate.

How to Grow Garlic from Bulbils

Garlic likes rich, well-drained soil amended with a good dose of compost and a soil pH of 6 to 8. Rocky or heavy clay soil will produce misshapen bulbs. Sow bulbils in a raised bed ½ to 1 inch deep, depending upon their size, and about 6 inches apart. The depth difference when planting garlic bulbils accounts for their size; tiny bulbils should be sown at a shallower depth. Space the rows 6 inches apart. Cover the bulbils with dirt and water in well.

Keep the area weed free. The tiny bulbils take about three years to produce a good sized cloven bulb while the larger bulbils will produce small cloven bulbs in the first year. In the second year, harvest the bulbils and cure like garlic and then replant the “round” that fall. By the third year, the growing garlic from bulbils should be of that of a normal sized bulb.

Garlic Bulbils

Bulbils, or top sets, offer an alternative approach to growing garlic that is economical and avoids soil borne disease. Growing from bulbils also seems to increase the vitality of strains. We refreshed our hardneck planting stock from bulbils every few years.

Bulbils form when a scape is allowed to mature. The scape is the stalk growing out of a bulb. Although it is sometimes referred to as a ‘garlic flower’ it is not really a flower. Like cloves from a bulb of garlic, bulbils propagate garlic vegetatively and the bulbs that grow from them are clones of the parent plant.

The bulbil capsule, or umbel, can contain from ten or less to a few hundred bulbils, depending on the variety and the conditions.

For more of Henry’s pictures of bulbils and of our experience growing bulbils visit his photo gallery.

See also our Growing Rocamboles from Bulbils page.

Bulbil Sizes Differ Greatly

Under most conditions Rocambole garlics produce some eight to twenty, even thirty, bulbils that are huge by comparison with the bulbils from Porcelains. Rocambole bulbils can be as large as the tip of your baby finger and are strongly coloured. Most Porcelain bulbils are pale and closer in size to a grain of rice, with more than a hundred bulbils to a capsule. If the bulbil capsules are left on the plant until after the usual harvest time for bulbs of that variety even a Porcelain will produce some plumper bulbils with a blush of pink. The various Purple Stripe varieties produce bulbils which are between Rocamboles and Porcelains in size and quantity. Standard Purple Stripe bulbils vary a lot in size within a single capsule. Marbled Purple Stripe bulbils are more evenly moderate in size – see the picture of the Metechi bulbils on this page.

When they produce scapes, Weakly Bolting Hardneck varieties also produce bulbils. Creoles produce small bulbils, Turbans produce moderate sized bulbils and Asiatics produce a few huge ones.

Softneck do not grow scapes. However, when stressed a softneck may produce neck bulbils above the bulb and these may be planted.

Pros and Cons of Propagating from Bulbils

The obvious advantages of propagating from bulbils are two-fold. First, there are many more bulbils than cloves in true hardnecks and so you can increase your planting stock faster. Secondly, since the bulbil capsule does not touch the earth you can avoid soil born diseases and pests. We also find that the progeny from bulbils often outperform the parent bulbs.

The downside is that it takes several years to grow full sized bulbs from bulbils and you need to harvest and replant each year of the propagation process.

When the scapes are left on the bulb for the bulbils to mature, the bulb will often be considerably smaller, although we are finding that with enough soil nutrients the garlic plant can produce both a large bulb and a healthy crop of bulbils. We leave the bulbils to grow for a few weeks beyond the normal bulb harvest date. This extra time allows the bulbils to mature and get bigger and it also allows the bulb to continue growing. The late harvested bulb has stained and deteriorating wrappers and so it is not desirable for selling or keeping. It is fine for your own planting or for short term storage for home consumption.

Our Experience with Bulbils

With Rocamboles we find it takes about two years to produce a decent sized bulb from bulbils, sometimes longer to reach full size. Usually the larger bulbils will produce small bulbs with about four small cloves the first year and the small cloves will in turn produce medium sized bulbs the second year. We have been pleasantly surprised by the size of some of our second year Rocamboles when they are well nourished and the weather is favourable. See our Growing Rocamboles from Bulbils page.

With Porcelains it takes at least three years to produce decent sized bulbs. At the end of the first growing season we harvest teardrop-shaped rounds of varying sizes. When these are planted the next harvest usually consists of small bulbs. When the cloves from these are planted they are on the way to decent sized bulbs in the third harvest. It may take a further year or more for the bulbs to reach their full potential in your farm or garden. Our best experience was growing excellent sized Susan Delafield and Northern Quebec in just three years. We high graded at each stage, planting first the larger bulbils, then the larger teardrops in the second year, and then the larger cloves in the third planting.

Beginning in 2000 we grew one of our favourite Porcelains, Leningrad, up from bulbils and it was worth the effort. Our Leningrad is very well adapted to our farm and we achieved a substantial seed stock for very little cash outlay. Since the Porcelains have fewer cloves on average than the other hardnecks, it takes many years to build up a commercial seed stock starting from a modest number of bulbs alone.

For many years we grew a substantial number of bulbils each year from a selection of cultivars from all the hardneck garlics. We did it to increase the vigour of the cultivars that were disappointing, to increase the stock of ones that were in great demand, and to refresh our stock. Many growers find that over time some garlics produce smaller bulbs. We found that if we grew some new stock from bulbils it was likely to outperform the parent bulbs by the time it had reached full size. It was our policy to refresh our stock from bulbils every five to ten years.

In 2009 we planted some bulbils in the spring in our small greenhouse and by the end of the season they were easily twice the size of their field grown counterparts.

Harvesting Bulbils

Bulbils will grow even when they are not fully mature. We like to leave the bulbils on the plants in the field until they have burst open the umbel sheath around the bulbils and before they risk touching the earth.

We cut the fully mature bulbils on long stalks before harvesting the bulbs so that there is no contact of the bulbils with dirt. We tie the stalks in bunches, hang them until well dried, snip the bulbil capsules off and store the capsules in brown paper bags.

When and How to Plant

With the first Leningrad bulbils we acquired we planted the bulbils in the spring and then the first-year, teardrop-shaped bulbs the following spring. We have also planted Rocambole bulbils successfully in the spring.

Now we do almost all our bulbil planting in the fall. The advantage of fall planting is that you don’t have to be concerned about the bulbils drying out or getting moldy over winter if you do not have ideal storage conditions. On the other hand, we have lost a few to rodents.

We mulch our fall planted bulbils once the ground is hard and the rodents have made their nests elsewhere. In the spring we pull back the mulch.

Small bulbils, all Porcelain and standard Purple Stripe bulbils and the smaller ones of other varieties, are so small that the first year we plant them shallow, either broadcast or close together in rows. We cover them with a little dirt or potting soil. They will not be producing scapes the first season and they are fine planted upside down or on their sides. They are shallow rooted the first summer and so they need frequent watering. One missed watering on a hot day can stop the growth for that season. It is a good idea to harvest them before the tops have died down completely or else they are hard to find in the soil.

The larger bulbils from Rocamboles, Marbled Purple Stripes and Weakly Bolting Hardnecks can be planted more like you would cloves – an inch or so deep at 2 to 4 inches apart. They prefer to be planted right side up, with the place they were attached to the scape downward.

See our Growing Rocamboles from Bulbils page.

Garlic scape with bulbils. Source: Stefan.lefnaer, Wikimedia Commons

Reader Louisette Gilbert wrote to ask whether she can sow garlic from bulbils, the little aerial bulbs found at the top of the scapes (stems) of hardneck garlic. The fast answer is yes, you can, but if you want to grow harvestable garlic cloves anything close to the size of regular cloves, you’ll have to be very patient: it will take at least two years!

On the other hand, some garlic varieties produce a hundred or more bulbils per scape per season, so eventually you’ll have a huge harvest.

Also, bulbils are free of the soil-borne diseases that can come to plague garlic grown from cloves over the years. For that to be true, though, you should plant them in a different bed than your clove-grown garlic. Bulbil-grown garlic, being disease-free, tends to be more vigorous than garlic grown from cloves and may eventually produce somewhat larger cloves.

Produced By Accident

Most gardeners cut back garlic scapes when they begin to twist, as in the photo above, in which case no bulbils will have time to form. Source: Leo Michels, Wikimedia Commons

Most gardeners end up with bulbils by accident or by ignorance. Theoretically, you’re supposed to cut back the scape (stalk) when it starts to form a spiral so the plant “can put all its energy into producing larger cloves.” Plus the harvested scapes are delicious: a real delicacy … and your first harvest!

It’s when you didn’t know you were supposed to remove the scapes that you end up with flower heads bearing bulbils towards the middle or end of summer.

Bulbils Aren’t Seeds

Garlic flower head: note the purplish bulbils, with their characteristic teardrop shape, and, towards the bottom right, some immature flowers that will never produce seed. Source: Hedwig Storch, Wikimedia Commons

Many gardeners assume bulbils are seeds. After all, they appear on top of a flower stem! But in reality, garlic plants almost never produce seed: their flowers usually abort before they reach maturity and certainly before they are pollinated. Instead, tiny bulbs (bulbils) appear among the flower buds and take over the space.

Bulbils aren’t seeds, because they aren’t issued from cross-pollination (nor any pollination). They are, in fact, clones of the mother plant.

Sow Once, Twice… Thrice?

Depending on the garlic variety and your growing conditions, it’s going to take 2 to 3 years, maybe even more, to grow full-size garlic cloves from bulbils.

Some garlic varieties produce only a few bulbils per scape, maybe 4 to 10. They’ll be bigger and will mature more quickly than the tiny rice-sized bulbils of varieties that produce 100+ bulbils per scape.

Harvest and Sow

Ideally, you’d leave the scape on the plant until it’s completely dry, that is, about when normally you harvest your garlic, but if you harvested them earlier and the bulbils seem viable, they probably are. Plants you’ve let “go to seed” will usually produce smaller cloves, but they’ll still be usable.

Freshly harvested garlic bulbils. Source: omeyeio.wordpress.com

Harvest the bulbils by breaking them free of the scape, then store them in a dry, well-aerated, shady spot until planting time (September or October in most areas). Plant them about 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep and the same distance apart in good, well-drained soil in a sunny spot. Some gardeners just dig a wide trench 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep and toss handfuls of bulbils in any which way. That works too as long as you thin the plants come summer.

I highly recommend mulching with straw, as not only does it help protect against the cold of winter, it keeps weeds down the following summer … and young garlic plants are easily smothered by weeds.

Some gardeners prefer to store bulbils indoors over the winter and sow them in spring. That works too!

Season 1

These are fairly large size bulbils that may well mature in the second season. Source: Stefan.lefnaer, Wikimedia Commons

In summer, you can actually thin and eat any excess garlic plants (they’ll look like skimpy chives) if you’ve grown them densely, using them as you would green onions. They’ll have a perfectly delicious mild garlic flavor. Just leave plants spaced about 1 inch (2.5 cm) or so apart to grow on.

Keep the bed well weeded. Water only in periods of extreme drought (garlic prefers to be grown on the dry side).

In late summer, as the leaves start to die back (that is, at the same time you would normally harvest garlic), dig up the plants. They’ll have formed “rounds” (small single bulbs that haven’t yet split into cloves), hopefully much larger than the original bulbils. Let them dry out in a shady spot, then plant them out, again at garlic planting time in September or October. This time, if they’ve increased notably in size, plant them deeper (2 inches/2.5 cm) and give them more space to grow (about 4 inches/10 cm).

Season 2

In their second summer, the plants will be much bigger and many will try to form a scape. Make sure you cut it off to increase the size of the cloves. Weed as usual during the summer.

Congratulations! Two years after you started, you now have fully mature garlic! Source: Tony Austin, Flickr

When harvest season comes along late that summer, you may have full-sized cloves to harvest and thus you’ll have reached your goal of producing garlic from bulbils. Congratulations! However, sometimes they’ll still be small and you’ll have to plant them out yet again and hope they reach their full size the following year. It can occasionally take up to four years before you have a true harvest.

Softneck Garlic

The information above concerns hardneck garlic (Allium sativum ophioscordum), the kind grown in cool climates.

If softneck garlic produces bulbils (and it does so very rarely), they will appear on the pseudostem. Source: australiangarlic.net

In mild climates, softneck garlic (A. sativum sativum), the kind you can braid, is the preferred type, but it doesn’t produce a true scape like hardback garlic, rather leaves rolled into a false stem (pseudostem), nor does it bloom, and therefore, normally it produces no bulbils. However, it will occasionally produce a few bulbils along its pseudostem, especially when the plants are stressed, and if so, they can be harvested and grown on as above.

Garlic from bulbils: a bit slow, but often very rewarding!

In the toad’s garden


Sprouting single clove garlics

As many a gardener I had a dream of growing a few single clove garlics. I have purchased singel clove garlics of chinese origin, planted them, and never had anything growing. Now I have learned from a reliable source, that the single clove garlics are allways radiated to prevent sprouting. Then the other day I found a little basket of sprouting singel clove garlics in the supermarket. I’m uncertain why a single little basket was filled with sprouting garlics, as there was no sprouting to find in any other garlic. Could they have fallen off the band just before the radiation chamber, and then picked up and returned to the band on the other side?

I’ve planted some of them, hoping the roots will be just as viable as the top. If someone is interested, I have a few more sprouting single clove garlics for trade.

Will they grow to new single clove garlics next year? I doubt it. I expect some rather ordinary garlics. But with the right culture this clone could possibly be induced to form single clove garlics. Somewhere I read, that this can be achieved by an early harvest, before the cloves have been created. To learn the right method of cultivation might demand some experimenting.

Harvesting Garlic Seed

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There’s a big difference between ‘garlic seed’ and ‘seed garlic.’ Most people plant seed garlic, and if you’re dealing with a reputable supplier, that means planting large well-formed garlic cloves from healthy disease-free stock. More often than not, it actually means planting the garlic that feed stores buy from farmers that were too ugly or misshapen to be sold in a grocery store as cooking garlic. Garlic seed, on the other hand, is made in abundance after homegrown garlic plants flower in the late spring or early summer.

Northern gardeners know that garlic scapes are a real spring treat. After the garlic has grown tall and healthy, it sends out a coiling flower known as a garlic scape. Generally, those garlic scapes are cut off as soon as they appear because if the plant puts it’s energy into seed, it won’t produce a large bulb.

A densely planted garlic patch, with a plant every 4 to 6 inches means a lot of scapes to harvest. I harvest garlic scapes for stir-fries, omelets and garlic scape pickles. Every year, try as I might, I always miss scapes in the garlic patch.

In late summer and early fall, they mature into heavy heads with small garlic bulbils and those are true garlic seed. While an heirloom hard neck garlic variety may only produce 4 to 8 large cloves to be saved for seed, it will produce somewhere between 20 and 100 little bulbils if the scapes are left intact. As you can see, growing and saving garlic seed instead of seed garlic pays back in huge dividends.

Each tiny garlic bulbil is like a miniature garlic clove and is in effect a garlic seed. The total amount of garlic seed produced depends on the variety, and types that produce huge numbers are favored by ‘seed garlic’ farmers that use the ‘garlic seed’ to grow out huge crops of garlic bulbs to sell to backyard gardeners as planting garlic cloves.

If you read through wholesale catalogs targeted at farmers, varieties will say “great for propagation, variety produces over 100 bulbils per plant.” Knowing that many commercial growers are taking the time to plant garlic seed rather than seed garlic drives home the point that it’s by far the most cost-effective way to propagate garlic.

Start by leaving a few scapes on garlic plants in the spring. They’ll mature into garlic seed by the late summer, and be ready for harvest once they dry and the plant begins to die back. The garlic bulb at the base of the plant will still be usable and fully formed, but likely much smaller than the other bulbs nearby.

Break the bulbils apart and leave them to dry in a protected, well-ventilated area for a few days. Since they’re not underground they condition much faster than curing a garlic bulb. After a few days, store them in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight until the fall.

Growing Garlic from Seed

Planting garlic seed is a bit different than seed garlic cloves. While seed garlic cloves will produce a harvestable crop the following year, garlic seed takes a bit longer before harvest. The tiny bulbil is much smaller than a garlic clove, and the plant will need a full year to get established in the soil and grow to the size of a garlic clove. Another year later, it’ll produce a full harvestable garlic bulb.

Start by planting garlic seeds in the fall at the same time as your regular garlic bulbs. They should be kept separate because they’ll take extra time to mature and you’ll be disappointed if you accidentally harvest them with your garlic crop the summer following planting.

Garlic grown from bulbils can take up to three years to mature if the initial garlic seed was quite small. How big the bulbils are will depend on the garlic variety, and they range in size from large peas down to the size of a grain of rice. The largest specimens can produce harvestable garlic in as little as two years, while the tiny ones will need a full three years to mature.

In that time, they’ll mostly just need to be left alone. Keep them in a mulched, weed-free bed and quietly bide your time until the eventual harvest of a huge crop of nearly free garlic. Without the considerable expense of seed garlic, which generally sells for $3 to $5 per bulb, this harvest is almost free.

In the meantime, you essentially have perennial garlic that’s helping deter pests from the rest of your garden.

Pest and Disease Prevention. Fortunately, mammals are not especially interested in garlic, but they can be an indirect nuisance. Squirrels will dig in the soil, looking to bury acorns, and in the process may uproot garlic. The real threat to garlic is smaller and more menacing. Insects and diseases present a serious and often hidden threat. Beware of penicillium mould, bulb and stem nematode, white rot, fusarium, basal plate rot, aster yellows and the leek moth. None of these will make it to the eleven o’clock news, but they are a garlic farmer’s worst nightmare. Each manifests in a different way and at different times in the garlic lifecycle.

Penicillium mould causes garlic to decay during storage. When infected bulbs are cracked for planting, airborne mould spores can infect healthy cloves, with potentially damaging results.

Bulb and stem nematode is a microscopic parasite that enters through the root plate or wounds in the bulb. It can lie dormant in the plant until the right conditions arise—it travels well in wet conditions, when it moves from plant to plant, including on a hapless gardener’s boot.

The leek moth is an insect pest that lays its eggs on the leaves of garlic. Once hatched, the larvae tunnel into the plant’s leaves, leaving it susceptible to bacterial or fungal diseases.

Here are a few common-sense practices as the first line of defense against such threats. Conduct regular inspections during the growing season, culling weak and stunted-looking plants and disposing plant material well away from the field or garden. Practice crop rotation, allowing three to five years between planting of any allium species or plants that are susceptible to the same pests and diseases as garlic. Avoid walking in your garden or garlic field in wet conditions, as your boots (or garden equipment) can transfer water- loving pests from one area of the field to another. For more details with photos try these sites:

Diseases of Garlic – Plant Disease Diagnostic Clinic, Cornell University

Managing Stem and Bulb Nematode in Garlic Starts in the Fall – Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Garlic Growers Association of Ontario. The GGAO promotes awareness and understanding of growing garlic in Ontario. For a nominal annual membership fee, the association runs meetings and field days two to three times per year. Members benefit from timely talks given by scientists from the OMAFRA and have the opportunity to learn from other farmers. You don’t have to be a grower to join the GGAO.

Garlic festivals & Farmers’ Markets. Garlic festivals, held annually from August to September across the province, provide information on growing garlic. And you’ll find a friendly and informative farmer with tips on growing garlic at any of the hundreds of farmers’ markets across Ontario, from Kenora to Kingston. A good source of information on growing garlic is the Garlic News. Editor and garlic guru Paul Pospisil publishes four issues per year from his garlic farm in Maberly, Ontario.

Information excerpted from Ontario Garlic: The Story from Farm to Festival (History Press), available online and in many Ontario libraries.

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