What went wrong?? Garlic edition.
April 5, 2014 12:42 PM   Subscribe

I planted garlic in pots on my windowsill 4-5 months ago. All was going well until a few weeks ago when the greens stopped appearing. Having never grown garlic before, I didn't worry too much, thinking this was a part of the process and that maybe bulbs were forming beneath the dirt. Today, I went to water the garlic and it fell right over... basically showing me a minuscule garlic bulb with no root system. I am completely confused. Please help me figure out what went wrong so I do this right the next time!

More details, for the gardeners among us (I have a black thumb with some greenish bits).

I planted two garlic cloves in pots about 5" wide and 4" deep. One was ceramic, another clear plastic, and as both grew in the same manner I could keep an eye on the roots of the one in the clear plastic container and see that each had grown nice, large, strong root systems. I had garlic shoots within a few weeks, which I adored clipping to cook with (how did I go this long in life without knowing how delicious these are??). A few weeks ago - maybe 4ish months into the growing process? - only the parchment-like outer shoots remained and I lost any greens. I didn't think much of this since I could still see roots in one, figuring this was just a phase in the growing process. I kept watering - every 4ish days, or whenever I could see the soil was getting too dry. I didn't keep the plants over watered, and they seemed plenty thirsty.

Today, I noticed one was flopping around its container (when prodded, obviously, not of its own accord) like no live plant should do, so I poked my finger into the soil to see what was up and the whole thing just fell over. Same with the second plant. Both have a tiny, tiny proto-garlic bulb, about 1cm square, connected to no roots. So, clearly, my garlic experiment has failed.

Help me figure this out so I can increase the green bits in my black thumb and keep more home-grown garlic shoots (and eventual bulbs) in my life. I don't want to go back!
posted by AthenaPolias to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
When you grow garlic or onions in doors, your mission is to harvest the green shoots until the bulb is exhausted. For some reason, the cloves/bulbs themselves don't really seem to bulk up. 4 or 5 months is actually an excellent run!

So -- your cloves probably just spent all their energy producing the greens and then died. It's OK. You can buy another garlic bulb at the store and plant the individual cloves again. You didn't do anything wrong.

I think that if you actually wanted to harvest bulbs, you'd need some supplemental lighting and fertilizer. It would be more trouble than it's worth. Enjoy your greens and just know that you're going to have to replant them a couple times a year.
posted by Ostara at 12:55 PM on April 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Garlic is an over- winter crop, and is planted in late summer/early fall and harvested the following summer. I think it would be (nearly) impossible to grow garlic in a windowsill pot. For that matter, same for any root vegetable.
Best bets for this kind of endeavor are herbs, either annuals like dill or basil, or perennials like thyme, sage, or rosemary. Most however, do best semi-ignored outdoors.
posted by dbmcd at 1:30 PM on April 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yes, Ostara is correct. If you want to grow garlic bulbs, you have to let the greens grow untouched for several months. The greens collect sunshine which the plant turns into stored energy- in this case, garlic. Without the greens to provide a way to process sunlight, the plant has to use its stored energy to produce more greens.

A friend is a garlic farmer. She has one plot for scapes (garlic greens) which she harvests to eat and sell; she replants this with garlic each year. She has a separate plot of garlic for bulbs. The scapes of this plot are never picked, only the bulbs dug out to sell ( or break apart for futher planting).
posted by holyrood at 1:58 PM on April 5, 2014

I can confirm what ostara and holyrood said... I live a few houses down from a garlic farm, it's a complicated process.
posted by HuronBob at 3:09 PM on April 5, 2014

Hmmm, I'm a little surprised that the garlic farmer doesn't harvest the scapes on the garlic intended for bulbs. I've always understood that harvesting the scapes (the flowering part of the garlic) allows the garlic to put more energy into bulb making. I harvest my scapes every year (and make them into a sort of pesto) and then harvest the bulbs a month or so later.
posted by sevenless at 4:11 PM on April 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think holyrood may be confusing the scapes, which are the flower stalk and is normally snapped off to eat and to increase bulb size by redirecting energy that would go into flowering, and green (aka immature) garlic, which basically looks like a scallion and is one of the earliest crops.
posted by rockindata at 9:15 PM on April 5, 2014

Hmm. Well, now I'm a little confused, but I now realize this is genuinely a much more complicated process than I realized before I started my first crop! I think I'll plant a few extra plants and treat them differently to see what works with my circumstances - a few outside that I ignore, one or two inside that I'll harvest the scapes from, and one indoors that I just leave alone. Worst case scenario, I still have delicious garlic scapes for scrambled eggs and the like. Thanks so much, everyone!
posted by AthenaPolias at 10:49 AM on April 6, 2014

It's really not all that complicated.

The job of the green parts of any plant is to use light to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water from the roots into sugars. Plants store sugars away in their root systems before they go dormant, so that they have something to turn into fresh green parts when the season to do that comes around again. When gardeners talk about "energy" in plants, what they actually mean is sugar.

If you're constantly removing green parts, especially from an indoor plant that's not getting anywhere near as much light as an outdoor one in the first place, it will use most of the sugar it makes to replenish what you're taking rather than building up enough of an excess to need big storage structures to hold, so you won't get much in the way of a bulb.

Flowers are relatively expensive structures to build, sugar-wise, so if you stop a plant from making them by trimming the buds they form from, all it can do with the sugar it would otherwise have turned into flowers is store it.

Fertilizers are very much a second-order thing. Don't worry about those too much until you've got the basics - water but not so much as to make the soil go soggy, air at a suitable temperature, and sunlight - under control. In half-decent topsoil you can get quite good garlic bulbs with no additional fertilizer at all for at least a couple of seasons. But once you do get up to playing with fertilizers, compost tea is the right place to start.
posted by flabdablet at 11:30 AM on April 6, 2014

By the way, most indoor plants end up over-watered, which can lead to various kinds of root rot. If you've got water beading up on the surface of your soil, you're not watering often enough; if it runs out the bottom, you're watering too heavily. It's quite possible to make both those mistakes at the same time.

Ideally, potting soil should be about as damp as a thoroughly squeezed kitchen sponge.
posted by flabdablet at 11:38 AM on April 6, 2014

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