Growing Garlic from Umbels/Bulbils

There are three ways to go about growing garlic. Planting cloves is the fastest, easiest and most widely used method.  Growing from true seed is possible but very challenging and rarely done by the backyard gardener.  Growing from bulbils is a lesser known but very effective manner of growing garlic. It’s gaining popularity and for good reason. Here’s what you need to know.

Umbels/Bulbils – What Are They?

When you allow hardneck garlic to develop a scape (flower stalk), you get what is called an Umbel. The umbel (or flower) contains anywhere from forty to two hundred tiny cloves called bulbils. These little bulbils can be eaten just like a clove of garlic, or planted. The advantage of planting bulbils is that it enables you  to substantially increase your planting stock in an economical way. An umbel can provide anywhere from 50 to 200 bulbils for planting. In comparison, garlic bulbs provide about six good planting cloves.Another advantage of growing your garlic from bulbils is they provide you with a  with a seed stock free of soil borne diseases.

The disadvantage of growing garlic from bulbils is that it generally takes 2-3  years of successive plantings to achieve good-sized bulbs.

The benefits

  • You can plant a LOT of bulbils in a small space. You need more room each year as they get bigger but this give you time to prepare your land and soil and scale up your operation. This can be particularly useful for a small homestead with limited resources and helping hands.
  • It’s far more economical. You can obtain up to 200 bulbils for not much more than it costs for one bulb of garlic that contains only 5-6 cloves for planting.
  • More resistant to soil borne diseases and better adapted to your region.

The Disadvantages

  • It takes multiple years to go from bulbils to a full sized bulb (2-5)
  • You have to dig them up and replant each year
  • They are small and delicate and do not compete with weeds well
  • You sacrifice one for the other. If you allow garlic to flower, it will focus energy on bulbil growth rather than bulb growth. This means that your bulbs will be smaller.

Our Experiences

Growing Garlic from BulbilsIn the autumn we planted hundreds of garlic cloves and we also decided to build up our garlic seed stock by planting thousands of bulbils. We followed the instructions provided by our seed supplier Rasa Creek Farm who really do a great job of spelling out the process in detail.  You can get their tutorial here. Once planted, we covered the bed with a thick layer of straw mulch to insulate the bulbs through the winter.

Growing Garlic from Umbels/Bulbils
Creating furrows for the bulbils

The bulbils made it through a tough winter and started emerging through the straw in May.  The shoots are tiny and far more delicate than those of a clove. There are far fewer shoots than what we had planted but we’ll probably wait until harvest time to do a count and determine the overall yield vs. planted.

Mulching

Mulching your bed with a heavy layer of straw right after planting is really good insurance. It will insulate the crop from weather fluctuations through the winter, it will help retain some moisture in the dry hot summer and most importantly it will suppress weeds.

We removed the mulch from a few of the beds that were not doing very well. They had been waterlogged for several days.  Spring was brutal with non stop heavy rain and we had some drainage issues that we have since fixed.  The weeds soon took over these beds. The straw mulch does wonders at keeping the weeds down and we highly recommend you leave it on all season if you can.

We will keep writing updates on the progress of the bulbils over the course of their growth!

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