Commercial Garlic Grower Tip Indicates a section especially pertinent to farmers
Bulbils & Umbels

Umbels can be purchased in our Online Garlic Store. Select them from the cultivar's product page drop-down menu. Each product page provides information about how many bulbils are, on average, contained within each umbel.

We allow a good number of umbels to grow to maturity for each cultivar. However, if you know ahead of time that you'll be wanting a large quantity of a specific type, please contact us so that we'll be sure to reserve them for you. If possible, contact us before scape removal in June.

German Umbel with Bulbils

What is a Bulbil?


Are bulbils the true garlic seed?

One of the most fascinating features of hardneck garlic cultivars is that they still "bolt," which means that in the second half of their growth they produce a towering stalk (the scape) that carries at its tip the now mostly impotent reproductive organs of the garlic plant. There are delicate, tiny flowers that emerge if the scape and the umbel at its tip are left to mature, and there are also tiny (and not so tiny depending on the cultivar) bulb-like features contained therein; but these tiny bulbs are not garlic's true seed... they are bulbils.

Why plant bulbils?

Bulbils are like miniature round or oblong cloves. They can be eaten just like a clove (many people don't bother peeling them but simply crush them and use them in recipes) but more importantly for us, they can be planted.

Commercial Garlic Grower Tip There are several reasons to plant bulbils, either instead of or in addition to planting mature cloves. Unless you're in a big hurry and need to bring a full crop to market next year, try building your stock using the bulbil method. Benefits to farmers include:
  • exponential growth of seed stock (see chart below)
  • purging of all soil born disease (nematodes, fungus, etc)
  • gradual acclimation of cultivar to your growing conditions
Rapidly increase planting stock

Compare bulb vs bulbil propagation for the Porcelain cultivar Yugoslavian.
  • Cloves per Yugoslavian bulb = 4
  • Bulbils per umbel = 200
   1st Year  2nd Year  3rd Year
 Bulb
(4 cloves)

(bulbs)
16
(bulbs)
64 
(bulbs)
 Bulbils 200 
(rounds)
200
(small cloved bulbs)
800
(larger cloved bulbs)

A $3.50 bulb will yield 64 bulbs in three years, worth approximately $100 at retail prices ($10 per pound). 

A $4.00 umbel of bulbils will yield about 800 bulbs in three years, worth approximately $1,000 at retail prices. (We're even rounding down by 25% here to account for smaller than usual bulb size in the third year.)

How Do You Plant Bulbils?

 

Selecting the Cultivar

Growing from bulbils can be fun and profitable. Use the same criteria used to select which bulb to plant (cf. Selecting Garlic "Seed" Stock) to choose which cultivar of bulbil will best suit your culinary and gardening needs. Here's a quick breakdown of what you can generally expect from umbels/bulbils in a given family of garlics.
  • Porcelain: 100-200 bulbils the size of a grain of rice; 3-5 years to maturity
  • Rocambole: 10-25 large pea or marble sized bulbils: 2 years to maturity
  • Marbled Purple Stripe: 40-60 medium sized bulbils; 2-3 years to maturity
  • Purple Stripe: 80-140 small bulbils; 3-5 years to maturity
  • Creole: 70-100 small bulbils; 3-4 years to maturity
  • Turban: 40-60 medium bulbils; 2-4 years to maturity

Planting Methods

There are several methods for planting bulbils and you'll need to determine what works best for your specific climate and situation.
  1. Fall planting outdoors in the field
  2. Fall planting in seedling trays
  3. Spring planting in the field
  4. Spring planting in seedling trays
  5. Greenhouse planting with any of the above
Regardless of the method chosen some basic principles apply.
  • Bulbils (like cloves) require vernalization (also called stratification, which means they must experience temperatures below 5 degrees C in order to grow. This can be achieved by putting the bulbils in a breathable bag in the fridge or freezer (not deep freeze) for up to two weeks prior to planting.
  • Bulbils should be kept dry until planting time.
  • Bulbils, once planted, should be lightly watered in and kept moist. If bulbils are allowed to dry out in the early part of their growth, they will die.

How to Grow Garlic Bulbils

Outdoors in Fall - Furrows

FALL PLANTING: You can plant bulbils in the fall at the same time as you plant your cloves, however there is more risk of losing the crop to winter kill or vole/mole activity when planted in fall. At RCF we've had both great success and catastrophic failure using this method. If planting in the fall, DO NOT MULCH UNTIL JUST BEFORE SNOWFALL. Mulch creates a wonderful habitat for voles/moles and they'll be nesting right above their winter snacks. 

All but the biggest of bulbils (Rocambole bulbils are huge and can be planted with regular spacing, or at least 4 inches apart) are planted differently than cloves. You can literally plant thousands of bulbils within a very small area. Here are the steps we use:

NOTE: Bulbils can be very difficult to distinguish from weeds in the springtime. We plant in furrows so that it is clear where the bulbils should and should not be coming up. This makes it much easier to weed around them.
  • Use a 3/4" thick board that is a few inches less long than your bed is wide and create furrows approximately 1.5 inches deep across your bed. You can tap on the board with a hammer or just use your hand to wriggle down into the soil.
  • Distribute your bulbils in this furrow all the way across. Unless they are very large, it doesn't matter if bulbils are upside down or not, so you can sprinkle them rather than placing them one by one if you like. Use the following spacing:
    • Porcelains and other rice grain sized bulbils should be spaced about 1/2" to 3/4" apart.
    • Marbled Purple Stripes and other medium sized bulbils should be spaced about 1" apart.
    • Larger bulbils should be spaced about 2 inches apart, and the largest should be 4 inches.
  • Gently cover the bulbils with soil and pat it down.
  • Water them in but don't saturate the soil.
  • Once spring comes, KEEP WATERED for first two to three months, allowing dry down towards the end of their growing cycle. Bulbils will not survive if allowed to dry out since their root systems are so small. Water every day if necessary to keep the soil moist.

Outdoors in Spring - Furrows

SPRING PLANTING: Benefits to spring planting are that you'll have side-stepped the possibility of winter kill and other problems, like voles and moles, that can occur out in the field. But keep an eye on them in storage to make sure they are dry and well preserved. Mold can settle onto bulbils if kept in a dank environment with no air circulation. Very disappointing. 

You'll be using the same basic technique as fall planting but you'll want to make sure that the bulbils have been properly vernalized (stratified) by placing them in a breathable bag in the fridge or freezer (not deep freeze) for a couple of weeks prior to putting them in the ground. Basic guidelines:
  • Get them in the ground as soon after snow melt as possible (this aspect of the job makes fall planting a little more attractive).
  • If the soil is dry (not likely) water them until thoroughly moist.
  • Keep moist for the next two months!  Bubils can fail if left untended and allowed to dry out.
  • Keep weeded. Garlic does not do well with weed competition and this is especially true with bulbils. Look at the photos below (under "What to Expect" to see what a bulbil patch should look like in the late spring.
  • Mulch between furrows to keep the weeds down and the moisture consistent.

Bulbils in Seedling Trays

We've never done this at RCF, but we've got customers and friends who have reported great success using seedling trays for their bulbils. If the trays are large enough (or the bulbils small enough) then the bulbils can remain in the tray for the entire season, then "harvested" and replanted in the fall. Others have grown garlic "plugs" from bulbil and then transplanted out of the trays and into their fields in the late spring. For most cultivars the first year will only produce a round the size of a large marble and so a tray with 50 or so cells will work. Other cultivars, like the Rocamboles, will produce a small cloved bulb the first year and so would require a much larger cell, or to be transplanted.

Regardless of when you plant them, bulbils should be planted about 1 to 1.5 inches deep in the tray. The soil pH should be between 6.2 and 7, and if planted in the spring you'll want to protect from deep sudden frosts as the shoots are just beginning to emerge.

Russian Red Bulbils in Field
Russian Red bulbils growing in furrows
Porcelain Bulbils in Spring
Porcelain bulbils growing in furrows

What to Expect


We've received many inquiries in the early spring from growers who are wondering just exactly what they should be looking for in their bulbil patch. Does it look like regular garlic but smaller? How does one tell them apart from weeds? Things like that. Very good questions and we'll list the answers here.
  1. Bulbils typically emerge two to three weeks later than their clove counterparts.
  2. Bulbil shoots are much smaller (depending on the cultivar) than their clove counterparts. They look very much like a blade of grass so be careful when weeding (see our NOTE above about weeding).
  3. Bulbils can be left in the ground until the top growth has turned brown. With most cultivars you'll end up with what's called a "round" the first year. It could be anywhere from 1/4" diameter up to 1" or more. A round is a bulb that consists of just one clove, typically round. The exception to this is the Rocamboles, the bulbils of which are quite large. We get full bulbs (though small) with 5 or 6 cloves in the first year from our German Red.

Planting Bulbils - Year 2


Once you've achieved a successful harvest of 1st year bulbils you'll most likely be turning around and putting them right back in the ground. This doesn't mean you should just leave them in the ground to grow another year... for two reasons:
  1. They're probably way too close together for the 2nd year and you'll want to separate them more.
  2. Shame on you for even thinking to plant an allium in the same soil two years in a row!  Allium chemistry attracts diseases specific to alliums and that problem will grow worse if soil is planted in alliums repeatedly year after year.
Marble sized rounds (1/2" diameter) should be planted about 3 inches apart for the 2nd year. 3/4" rounds need a bit more room, perhaps 5 inches or even the full 6 or 7 if you've got the space. Plant the rounds right side up and the same depth as your cloves (about 2" to the top of the clove/round, typically).