Garlic Rust and Gardener Waterworks

Last year, Nick really got on board with the gardening thing. His support and assistance and enthusiasm is what has allowed my backyard garden to become our urban homestead. The gateway plant, the crop that drew him into the entire gardening ethos, was garlic.

Nick was so enamored of the way hardneck garlic scapes curl and twist, like the neck of some anorexic swan. He loved the alien puffball flower they’d make if you let them. He read up on the history of garlic, and it’s a long one, and learned all about the origins of Spanish Roja and Chesnok Red and Bavarian Purple. Most of all, he loved how wonderful fresh garlic tastes, how it stores for months and months, how one little clove becomes a big hearty bulb almost magically.

We had run into a few minor problems with the 2010 summer harvest – our neighbor had shared some volunteer garlic plants with us to fill an empty spot in the garlic patch where we had run low of seed stock, and we noticed some strange curling and distortion of the leaves from the starts she gave us. The scape would get trapped and form a tight little ball within the leaves, unable to clear the top of the leaf sheath. I would perform a strange kind of leaf surgery, freeing the scape and allowing it to unfurl. The plants were small, smaller than anything I’d ever grown, but I chalked both these things up to transplant shock, since the starts went in in early spring.

Still, in all the years we had grown garlic, we had always had a bountiful harvest (we grew a hardneck variety called Music, and on a good day it can sport cloves you might mistake for elephant garlic). We’d never run into any pest or disease problems, and considered garlic right up there with kale for ease of growing. And so last year, in the final days of my pregnancy and the first tired days of new parenthood, Nick eagerly planned our garlic selection.

Because of the strange curling of our 2010 garlic and a depressed harvest, we opted to start with all new seed stock. You know, just in case. Nick made the garlic selection based on what would be diverse, beautiful, and long lasting. I insisted we plant Music again, my old favorite, but other than that, Nick took charge. It was wonderful to see him so eager to participate in the garden planning.

At a not-insubstantial cost, we bought four pounds of seed garlic, all high-quality mailorder stuff. We planted it sometime in October or early November (those days are fuzzy to me), taking over 2 full beds with it and sticking extra cloves here and there.

All seemed well. I had noticed some tip browning on the garlic, but that’s hardly unusual, and honestly I didn’t give it much attention. And then last night I saw this: Garlic Rust.

I’d never seen it before, but somehow I just knew that I was looking at garlic rust. A quick Google image search confirmed my suspicion. I’m out in the garden almost every day, so I tend to catch these things early, and I swear this must have popped up practically overnight. Many of the plants had dropped multiple outside leaves and the junction between stem and leaf on most of the plants was just thick with orange rust.

Some internet sources said garlic rust was the garden equivalent of Typhoid Mary, others seemed to say it didn’t necessarily destroy the crop. All agreed that late, consistent rain makes for a bad rust year. This has been a bad, bad year.

In my garage I have the garden doctor’s kit. It’s not my first line of defense, but it’s the organic stuff I’m willing to pull it out if I need to: neem, BT, etc. I had a container of copper fungicide that claimed it controlled rust and I figured it was worth a shot to try to save the garlic crop.

The directions said to spray when 12 hours of clear, dry weather could be expected. Feeling time was of the essence in controlling the rust, and further figuring that it might be mid-August before I could reliably expect 12 hours of dry weather, I opted to just go forward with the spraying asap. I started my triage by pulling the most infected, outer leaves off the garlic. This is when I began to realize my rust problem was a problem.

The rust was deep into the stem-leaf junctions of the plant, and even a gentle tug of the garlic brought the plant up out of the ground. Although many of the inner leaves of the garlic looked okay at first glance, the vast majority of the plants had no root anchorage at all. They looked decayed and molded. The roots in many cases had completely withered.

I started yanking plants, one by one. As I did so, the bed so recently filled with proud, strappy green leaves emptied into a shell of soil pockmarks and weeds.

I pulled plant after plant and transfered them into our yard-waste container (I wasn’t composting the Typhoid Mary plants). I wanted to huck them into the municipal green plastic yard waste container angrily, to hurl them and throw them and stomp out my anger and frustration that the garlic had failed me, and had failed Nick.

I couldn’t. Rust spores are light and easy to disturb and my juvenile rage would only have shaken them to the breeze and furthered their destruction. And so, tenderly and deliberately and carefully, like I was handling pie dough, I moved the doomed garlic plants to the can.

When I was done, I sank down between beds, sat back on my heels and cried. I cried to think of so much money, garden time and bed space lost, and I cried for the enthusiasm my husband had for this garlic. Nick was working late, pulling another double shift, and so the duty of the destruction fell to me alone. I cried to imagine his disappointment when I told him at 11 at night that I had tossed an entire bed of his garlic.

Some things are worth struggling for. Some tender things you nurture because the reward is so worth it: children, melons, the good fight. Some things you have to give up on, have to tear out and knock down and pull up: prejudice, inequitable relationships, disease encrusted garlic. The garden doesn’t need any more water, not even from my tears. I know pulling up Nick’s garlic was the only thing to do. But that doesn’t make it easy.


  1. Dreaming of Jeanie says

    What a bummer! I definitely know the feeling. I think I have shed the same kind of tears when yet another loaf of homemade bread has burned or my husband hates the squash stew I spent hours making from scratch. I'm glad to know it's not just me. You inspire me, so keep your chin up and keep truckin', girl.

  2. says

    Further research has led me to the tentative conclusion that our garlic had a primary destructive infection of white rot and a secondary non fatal infection of rust, which the plants were more susceptible to because of the primary white rot infection.

    Here's more info on white rot. If anything it's WORSE than rust. That bed won't be planted in alliums for at least 5 years. ::sigh::

    Anyone who knows more about garlic diseases, your opinion would be appreciated. Thanks!

  3. says

    My condolences for your painful and expensive loss. The only thing I have to relate is when my kids' dogs destroyed my onions. Apparently, 400 beautiful and healthy onion plants are the ultimate temptation for them. I saved 24.

    But on the other hand, think about how much you have learned about the cultivation of garlic and the challenges it brings. You are much smarter now than before.

    Small consolation, I know. Cheer up, it'll get better. You wouldn't appreciate the good without the bad.

  4. says

    There is this interesting lesson in food security and geographic diversity here: our front beds (about 150 feet away from the infected bed) are so far OK. I wonder if we'll make a habit of planting two dispersed beds of key crops in the future or two half beds rather than one whole bed.

    Once the garlic is dead and buried (and carted away to Cedar Grove's high-temperature composting facilities), the real tragedy would be to not learn from the experience. In other words, as soon as the weather clears, I'm hitting the rest of the garden with a preemptive strike of copper fungicide…

  5. says

    Oh I'm so sorry. The time and energy you put into the garden truly makes it an extension of yourself. When something fails it stings. I'm sorry you lost all your garlic. Now I'm worried about mine. I better take a closer look and make sure all my healthy looking stalks don't have rust too. I appreciate you posting about this.

  6. Anonymous says

    Sorry about the Garlic disaster. My vegetable garden is sometimes referred to as my "third child" by others, so you know I get it.

    In coastal BC, garlic rust was bad last year. I had a mild case of it but didn't notice until it was time to pull them up anyway. Linda Gilkeson (an insect and gardening expert)had one of her newsletters on it. You can read the newsletters at

    The one on Garlic rust was July 4, 2010.

  7. says

    Erica, So sorry about your garlic. You try to do everything right, choosing the right plants for your area, planting specifics, and so on, and still things happen. I know how that is. My husband let Pig in the garden when he was younger and he thought he would help me "rearrange" the newly planted lettuce, onions, leeks, and spinach. By the time my husband realized this, Pig had pretty much prepared the raised bed for a new planting! All those weeks of starts in the house gone to waste. Things do happen, though, not only frustrating things but good things too! I replanted all the items lost and all are doing very well now. You can rebound from this. Hope the rest of your garden and chickens are doing well! Thanks for the great blog to read and learn new things from.

  8. Jen Teal says

    My beets just bit the dust. I wasn't even able to identify the disease. On the plus side, my 3 yr old had a great time pulling them all out.

  9. Anonymous says

    Understand your pain. I am going through the same thing. Somedays its easy to sit in your garden and cry. You might want to do some more research, everything I am reading says No Alliums for up to 30 years. And the stuff spreads like wildfire. You have to be very careful not to spread it on your shoes or tools. It just gets worse and worse. Garlic AIDS they also call it. We should start a support group.

  10. says

    A late reaction, I am relatively new to this great blog and keep finding past gems. Garlic is usually easy, as you say, like kale. AND it is prone to attacks of weird fungi that stay in the soil forever. The award winning grower I got my seeds from the last few years just lost 90% of her harvest to a garlic pest. I stopped saving my own seeds because I had it. I left the affected beds garlic-free for 7 years before I tried again. STILL there. This is a different fungus, I never saw rusty leaves. The perhaps cure: sacrifice a bed to the future. Cover it with plastic for a whole season, so the evil life form can get baked out of the soil. Will this work on the Wet Coast? Who knows. The advice came from California. I had one year of perfection: new seeds, ground that had never been worked before. Next year, in an adjoining plot, also virginal, I had about 15% rot. In retrospect, this may have been due to the seeds, the first signs of rot from the grower who later lost her crop. The crazy thing is that one can get some perfect bulbs right next to a rotted one. This fungus needs to touch the next bulb in order to affect it. Next move: plant cloves FAR apart. The cloves that looked fine stay good all year, right up to the next harvest.

  11. says

    We’ve had rust for the second year. We didn’t throw ours out, just picked them early. We’ve been following tomatoes. Nest year we’re going to try to spread out the cloves when we plant in the fall. Then try some companion plants like cabbages in the spring (between the plants)
    China Rose is supposed to be ready to harvest about 5 weeks ahead (late May). It’s worth a shot.

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