Bulbils, or top sets, offer an alternative approach to growing garlic that is economical and avoids soil borne disease. Growing from bulbils also seems to increase the vitality of strains that are not living up to their potential.
Bulbils form when a scape is allowed to mature. The scape is the stalk growing out of a bulb. Although it is sometimes referred to as a ‘garlic flower’ it is not really a flower. Like cloves from a bulb of garlic, bulbils propagate garlic vegetatively and the bulbs that grow from them are clones of the parent plant.
The bulbil capsule, or umbel, can contain from ten or less to a few hundred bulbils, depending on the variety and the conditions.
For more of Henry's pictures of bulbils and of our experience growing bulbils
visit his photo gallery.
See also our Growing Rocamboles from Bulbils page.
Bulbil Sizes Differ Greatly
Under most conditions Rocambole garlics produce some eight to twenty, even thirty, bulbils that are huge by comparison with the bulbils from Porcelains. Rocambole bulbils can be as large as the tip of your baby finger and are strongly coloured. Most Porcelain bulbils are pale and closer in size to a grain of rice, with more than a hundred bulbils to a capsule. If the bulbil capsules are left on the plant until after the usual harvest time for bulbs of that variety even a Porcelain will produce some plumper bulbils with a blush of pink. The various Purple Stripe varieties produce bulbils which are between Rocamboles and Porcelains in size and quantity. Standard Purple Stripe bulbils vary a lot in size within a single capsule. Marbled Purple Stripe bulbils are more evenly moderate in size - see the picture of the Metechi bulbils on this page.
When they produce scapes, Weakly Bolting Hardneck varieties also produce bulbils. Creoles produce small bulbils, Turbans produce moderate sized bulbils and Asiatics produce a few huge ones.
Softneck do not grow scapes. However, when stressed a softneck may produce neck bulbils above the bulb and these may be planted.
Pros and Cons of Propagating from Bulbils
The obvious advantages of propagating from bulbils are two-fold. First, there are many more bulbils than cloves in true hardnecks and so you can increase your planting stock faster. Secondly, since the bulbil capsule does not touch the earth you can avoid soil born diseases and pests. We also find that the progeny from bulbils often outperform the parent bulbs.
The downside is that it takes several years to grow full sized bulbs from bulbils and you need to harvest and replant each year of the propagation process.
When the scapes are left on the bulb for the bulbils to mature, the bulb will often be considerably smaller, although we are finding that with enough soil nutrients the garlic plant can produce both a large bulb and a healthy crop of bulbils. We leave the bulbils to grow for a few weeks beyond the normal bulb harvest date. This extra time allows the bulbils to mature and get bigger and it also allows the bulb to continue growing. The late harvested bulb has stained and deteriorating wrappers and so it is not desirable for selling or keeping. It is fine for your own planting or for short term storage for home consumption.
Our Experience with Bulbils
With Rocamboles we find it takes about two years to produce a decent sized bulb from bulbils, sometimes longer to reach full size. Usually the larger bulbils will produce small bulbs with about four small cloves the first year and the small cloves will in turn produce medium sized bulbs the second year. We have been pleasantly surprised by the size of some of our second year Rocamboles when they are well nourished and the weather is favourable. See our Growing Rocamboles from Bulbils page.
With Porcelains it takes at least three years to produce decent sized bulbs. At the end of the first growing season we harvest teardrop-shaped rounds of varying sizes. When these are planted the next harvest usually consists of small bulbs. When the cloves from these are planted they are on the way to decent sized bulbs in the third harvest. It may take a further year or more for the bulbs to reach their full potential in your farm or garden. Recently we grew excellent sized Susan Delafield and Northern Quebec in just three years. We high graded at each stage, planting first the larger bulbils, then the larger teardrops in the second year, and then the larger cloves in the third planting.
Beginning in 2000 we grew one of our favourite Porcelains, Leningrad, up from bulbils and it was worth the effort. Our Leningrad is very well adapted to our farm and we achieved a substantial seed stock for very little cash outlay. Since the Porcelains have fewer cloves on average than the other hardnecks, it takes many years to build up a commercial seed stockstarting from a modest number of bulbs alone.
We now grow a substantial number of bulbils each year from a selection of cultivars from all the hardneck garlics. We do it to increase the vigour of the cultivars that are disappointing, to increase the stock of ones that are in great demand, and to refresh our stock. Many growers find that over time some garlics produce smaller bulbs. We find that if we grow some new stock from bulbils it is likely to outperform the parent bulbs by the time it has reached full size. It has become our policy to refresh our stock from bulbils every five to ten years.
In 2009 we planted some bulbils in the spring in our small greenhouse and by the end of the season they were easily twice the size of their field grown counterparts.
Bulbils will grow even when they are not fully mature. We like to leave the bulbils on the plants in the field until they have burst open the umbel sheath around the bulbils and before they risk touching the earth.
We cut the fully mature bulbils on long stalks before harvesting the bulbs so that there is no contact of the bulbils with dirt. We tie the stalks in bunches, hang them until well dried, snip the bulbil capsules off and store the capsules in brown paper bags.
When and How to Plant
With the first Leningrad bulbils we acquired we planted the bulbils in the spring and then the first-year, teardrop-shaped bulbs the following spring. We have also planted Rocambole bulbils successfully in the spring.
Now we do almost all our bulbil planting in the fall. The advantage of fall planting is that you don’t have to be concerned about the bulbils drying out or getting moldy over winter if you do not have ideal storage conditions. On the other hand, we have lost a few to rodents.
We mulch our fall planted bulbils once the ground is hard and the rodents have made their nests elsewhere. In the spring we pull back the mulch.
Small bulbils, all Porcelain and standard Purple Stripe bulbils and the smaller ones of other varieties, are so small that the first year we plant them shallow. We cover them with a little dirt or potting soil, close together in a bed of several rows so they are easier to find and weed. They will not be producing scapes the first season and they are fine planted upside down or on their sides. They are shallow rooted the first summer and so they need frequent watering. One missed watering on a hot day can stop the growth for that season. It is a good idea to harvest them before the tops have died down completely or else they are hard to find in the soil.
The larger bulbils from Rocamboles, Marbled Purple Stripes and Weakly Bolting Hardnecks can be planted more like you would cloves - an inch or so deep at 2 to 4 inches apart. They prefer to be planted right side up, with the place they were attached to the scape downward.
See our Growing Rocamboles from Bulbils page.