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True Garlic Seed - how to grow it and other stuff

 
R Ranson
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I've been reading about true garlic seed in a few places: Here on Permies, The occasional blog post, and of course, Josphe's work with landrace gardening.

For those of you new to the idea of true garlic seed (which is a very different thing to seed garlic), here's a bit of over-simplified, zombie-heavy, background.

Forget Dolly, people have been cloning living beings for millennia. According to the all knowing Wiki, people have been using garlic for over seven thousand years. As garlic adapted to our needs, and humans became adapted to growing it, we realized that the most efficient way to grow more garlic was to plant the individual cloves. Each clove, planted in the fall or early spring, would become a whole bud of garlic. Where there was one clove, by next summer there would be eight, or ten, or more. This asexual reproduction is a kind of cloning, where the 'child' has the same (or near enough) genetic code as the 'parent'.

Planting the clove not only ensures that next year's garlic will be just as delicious as this year's, but it is also the fastest way to increase your garlic supply. Planting from bulbils (pdf link) can take two to five years before you receive a full grown garlic clove, and seeds, I suspect take just as long. Planting the cloves, gives you garlic in just one year.

The biggest problem with the traditional method of growing garlic, is that it leaves the crop susceptible to outside influences. With a vast variety of genetic diversity in the field, if a major disaster or two strike, be it disease, fungus, excessive rainfall, no rainfall, aliens, or whatever... with a lot of variety in the field, there are bound to be some plants with the necessary resources to survive the alien zombie drought from hell. The small the gene pool, the fewer resources the plants have, and the more vulnerable to problems the crop. A field of clones, are going to have very little hope against the four hose-zombie-grasshoppers of the apocalypse, or a flood, or whatever.

To put it another way, with fewer zombies, in a good year with normal weather, garlic grown from clones is awesome. It works great and produces well. However, if for some reason in the future the weather, or disease, or insects, or something else becomes unpredictable, then we will have little if any garlic to eat.

Seed garlic - the garlic bulbs and cloves used to grow next year's garlic.
Bulbils - the little fleshy bits of garlic that grow in the flower head and look like they should be seeds but are in actuality another way of asexually reproducing the garlic.
True Garlic Seed - a result of sexual (aka, flowers with male parts depositing their pollen on the female flower parts) reproduction - and is an actual seed.

Working with True Garlic Seed allows us to develop new varieties of garlic, increase the genetic diversity within a garlic crop, and possibly even breed the garlic with it's wild relatives and other related crops through a method called wild cross. Working with true garlic seed gives me hope about the continued survival of the crop.

One of the biggest problems of growing true garlic seed, is that the plant has become accustomed to cloning. Many varieties don't produce any seed at all, and those who do, tend to prefer 'walking' with their bulbils (like a Walking Onion) or just waiting for the humans to do the reproductive work for them. Lazy garlic.

It looks like if we want true garlic seed, the plants are going to make us work for it.


I've been watching with avid interest and finally it's time to try it for myself.

I don't know what type of garlic I grow, but my friend called it Sanguine when she gave it to me. Haven't seen any reference to it other places, but it is a lovely hardneck garlic that stores at room temperature from it's harvest in July, through to mid May when it starts to sprout. It has eight to ten cloves, and is delicious both raw and cooked. The bulbils are about fingernail size when full grown.

The flowers heads are just starting to open now. As each one is splitting it's 'paper', I'm removing the bulbils and leaving the flowers with the hope that they will bloom and produce seed. It's been a very dry summer so far, with less than a centimeter of rain since May first, so I don't know if the garlic plants have enough moisture to make the seeds, but I can't spare any water for them, so fingers crossed they are strong enough.


If it does actually make seed, how do I grow it? When do I plant the seed? What else do I need to know? What exciting things have you done, or want to achieve with your garlic?
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flower head just opening
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Dale Hodgins
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Dan Boone
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I don't know from seed, but I've been harvesting the bubils from wild garlic. Mine are the size of popcorn, and I'm mixing them with the whole grains that I cook in my rice cooker. The bubils hold their shape, so in the final product it's like having grains made of roasted garlic. Very yummy.
 
Adam Hoar
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I have let some of my garlic go to seed in the past, I dont know if the seed ended up producing bulbs or not to be honest. But the first year you should get basically a chive and the second year the garlic should form a bulb. Which is why when you split the bulbs you get a clove the first year instead of two years later.
 
R Ranson
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Dan Boone wrote:I don't know from seed, but I've been harvesting the bubils from wild garlic. Mine are the size of popcorn, and I'm mixing them with the whole grains that I cook in my rice cooker. The bubils hold their shape, so in the final product it's like having grains made of roasted garlic. Very yummy.


Now that sounds delicious! Great idea for my extra bulbils.

Off to soak some grain for tomorrow's garlic delight.
 
J W Richardson
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I planted some seed last fall with the idea of having something akin to green onions to eat and sell in the spring. Now they are flowering and I guess to get swmething like a head from them I would need to plant their individual cloves this fall, and gradually work them up to size over a couple years.
Been growing the same clone for 25 years and it is definitely the worse for wear, still huge heads, but a lot of fungus showing up on the heads. I should probably start with new seed stock, possibly select for resistance with the existing stock, not sure if I would have any variability with the seed from this. Maybe after growing several new varieties together for a season?
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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R Ranson:

Good summary. How did it work out for you? I apologize that I missed this thread when it was first posted. It was a particularly stressful time in my life... I'm enjoying a life of peace and tranquility now that I am single.

If it does actually make seed, how do I grow it? When do I plant the seed? What else do I need to know? What exciting things have you done, or want to achieve with your garlic?


We have had the most success with the 'wintersown' method of planting. That basically entails planting the garlic seeds outdoors, mid-winter or very early spring under some type of cloche: A cold-frame, or under a milk jug with the bottom cut off, and the lid off. Small jugs are typically placed in a manner to get afternoon shade. I learned my lesson the hard way to plant them into weed free potting mix, because it's super easy to lose the tiny young plants among weeds.

Here's what my wintersown setup looks like: Plastic milk jugs over soil in an unheated greenhouse. I dug up the soil about 9" deep, and replaced it with weed free soil.


Here's what my seed harvest looked like this fall. 44 pollinated seeds from perhaps 300 plants. That's much better odds than the 3 seeds from thousands of plants the first time I tried. Germination rate on early generations if often quite low.


My first attempt at growing true garlic seeds produced 9 teeny bulbs which I stored in the refrigerator in a bit of soil during the summer. They got to be about 5 mm in diameter the first growing season.


The most seedy variety that I have worked with is called Chesnok Red. I have bulbils available if anyone wants to try. I would expect them to flower in the second growing season.

Here's what some of the seed heads looked like while threshing...


This winter, I planted my 3 seediest varieties side-by-side into the soil of an unheated greenhouse. I have those same varieties planted together in a field. My intent, in having them grow in two different environments, is to mess with the plants to see what happens... One environment might lead to better seed production than another. My first goal with this project is to find the DNA and the techniques that allow the production of pollinated seeds. After that we can start selecting for things like taste, or higher productivity. My longest term goal with garlic, is to develop a variety that can be fall or spring planted as seeds, that will grow vigorously enough to harvest for table use by fall. We do it with close relatives like onions and leeks. I suspect that we could do it with garlic.

 
R Ranson
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Great post Joseph. Thanks for sharing. I always learn so much from your writing.
Glad things are calming down for you. Sounds like you've had quite the 'adventure'.

No seeds happened last year. I think the drought had a large effect on things. Not enough moisture for the seeds to form. But it was a low harvest for seeds all round.

This year, I'm keen to try this in a part of the garden where I irrigate. I really want my own garlic seed so I'll keep trying and trying until I grow some.
 
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