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How to keep over one hundred garlic varieties separate

One of the most common questions I get at garlic festivals is "How the heck do you keep them all separate?!" Other people openly question if I succeed in keeping them separate. I have to say- I take keeping track of the different heirloom types very seriously, and there's no way to do it other than lots of time spent in information management, and a fair amount of startup money in supplies.

I start with 12 inch white garden stakes, with the variety name written on one side. After the fall planting, I do a spring and summer patrol of the field double checking for fading stakes, touching them up with a black chisel-point Sharpie (large chisel point Sharpies are a triumph of market forces, by the way. Treat yourself to chisel points and you'll never look back).

I buy bundles of 4 foot long hardwood stakes, and I superglue clothespins to them, two to each stake (on opposite sides). I use the clothespins to hold the 12 inch stakes horizontally, making them readable even when the garlic has grown to 3 or 4 feet high. Every 4 foot stake eventually has two 12 inch stakes- indicating what variety lies ahead from whichever direction you approach from.

Garlic variety markers

After my October/November planting, I immediately go to the field and use a metric survey tape to measure the borders between every single variety, accurate to the centimeter. Something like this:

0.00 to 17.24, Ajo Rojo

17.24 to 23.14, Rose de Lautrec

And so forth. If I were to ever lose the stakes, I'd still be able to reestablish the transition of varieties using the survey tape and a standardized starting point (the 0.00 mark). I always have a notebook hardcopy and then a spreadsheet uploaded to the cloud.

As a backup to the transition measurement, I plant the ends of garlic varieties in a special way. Normally the garlic is planted at 3 or 4 rows, at a standardized distance from each other, but at the end, with the variety I'm finishing, I plant extra garlic in the in-between spots of the normal rows. This makes every end of a variety have a distinct stop pattern, almost like a punctuation mark. Using survey tape and the punctuation mark, I can reestablish every transition even if the stakes are ever lost.

During harvest time, I have a minimum of one variety ID stake per crate. All garlic is directly harvested into small one bushel crates, or occasionally into a single wheelbarrow load to deliver to the drying location. No garlic is ever transported without at least one ID stake in it. I unclip the 12 inch stakes from the 4 foot stakes and throw them in before I harvest the type.

This process of carefully managing the stakes throughout the clipping and bagging process (where each bag will be tagged with a variety marker) continues right on through. If I drop a bulb and lose track of which it was, or anything happens, it is set aside and not sold or planted. I cook myself pans of roasted garlic from such drops or mishaps, though thankfully they're quite few. Now that I've got a black garlic machine for home use, suitable ones are chucked there, too.

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