I’ve been growing an increasing amount of garlic at my family farm for about 5 years now, but over the last two harvests I’ve been really disappointed in the quality of it, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. It looked like rot. The wrappers were yellowed, the roots more or less missing from the otherwise mature and fully developed bulbs.
At first I blamed weather conditions. Last year we had a wet spring, and this year we’ve had just an overall weird summer, period. It’s been cooler and wetter than usual, lacking much of the heat units we need for most of our usual southwestern Ontario crops. The wet weather made it easy to assume the problem was due to some kind of overly wet soil conditions.
Last year roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of my 300+ bulbs were affected. But this year, virtually all the garlic I planted was affected, although one particular variety that I had planted as new seed was mostly ok. I planted 425 cloves last fall, so to have about 3/4 of my harvest looking so poor was a major let down. All that work to plant it, then harvest, cure and trim it, was a waste. As I sat and trimmed, and could really closely investigate how bad the problem was, I became more and more disappointed.
I reached out to the seller of my most recent (and some of my previous) garlic seed, Dan at The Cutting Veg. I explained what was going on and sent some photos. Within a day he got back to me and pointed me in the right direction: the dreaded Stem and Bulb Nematode. Why I couldn’t find this affliction in my prior Google searching is beyond me, but I’ve learned a lot about it since. And it’s bad. Very very bad.
Stem and Bulb Nematode is probably the biggest and worst infestation affecting American garlic crops. There are several species of nematodes that cause the damage, but garlic, and some onion and pea crops, are most susceptible. The pest, a microscopic worm-like creature, is spread through affected seed, and once it’s in your soil, your effed. Like, really really effed. Fallowing a field for upwards of 5 years isn’t even a guarantee that you’ll get rid of the infestation.
The nematode enters into the stem and nibbles at the root systems. Which explains why the garlic is full grown and mature looking, but that rot begins to set into the damaged plants. The plants are characteristically loose in the soil; the cloves often prematurely begin to separate and the plant stems and garlic wrappers are yellowed, a bit slimy and soft feeling and the roots are virtually non-existent.
So I can no longer grow garlic in my family farm garden anymore. And I can’t use any of my seed anymore — I have to invest in all new seed. The garlic I do have can be eaten; the nematode isn’t going to hurt me or anyone else, but I have to ensure all garlic wrappers and garlic waste goes into my garbage. It’s not clear that composting the waste from the garlic would ensure it doesn’t get passed on through my compost into my garden. Part of me wants to just throw it all away and be done with it, but that would be a waste of (mostly) perfectly edible garlic.
We had already been discussing a re-work of our upper tier front yard here in Toronto, to get rid of the lawn that’s been struggling there (and that dear hubby hates to cut), and just turn it all into flower beds and more raised veggie beds with mulched paths in between. This change would allow me to grow my garlic here at home, and keep a better eye on it when it’s time to trim the scapes and then harvest/cure it. The past several years I’ve had to depend on my Mom to do the scapes, and then harvest/cure/trim when it’s convenient for me (i.e. when I’m visiting the farm). So this will overall be better, but it does mean I probably can’t plant my usual quantities.
So how did I get this nasty bug in my garlic seed? I brought it in by buying from some unscrupulous garlic seller. I have bought seed garlic only a handful of times, and the sellers have included reputable businesses like The Cutting Veg or Richters. However, there was one time I bought some Russian bulbs from a seller at the Toronto Garlic Festival, and I recall that the bulbs, which I didn’t pick out directly, were not-so-healthy looking when I got home. But I was dumb, nematode illiterate, and I planted the stuff. I bet you anything that’s where this all started. Sigh. JERKS. What an awful thing to do to someone.