How to Grow Your Own Garlic
Enjoy the ease of growing garlic while warding off tomb robbers, vampires, and the Plague…Posted Aug 31, 2016
Historically known as the “leek spear” or “stinking rose,” garlic is one of the earliest plants documented for its medicinal and culinary uses. Found in ancient Egyptian tombs and given in a ration to pyramid builders, garlic has long been desirable for its pungent aroma, unmistakable flavor, and ability to ward off disease. Today garlic is a staple in many gardens. One of the easiest crops to grow and store, it also comes in a wide variety of delicious cultivars suitable for almost any location.
Garlic can be planted in the Spring with your other summer crops, but it can also be planted in Fall where the roots will develop through winter and send up well-established sprouts in Spring. Many gardeners favor Fall planting for garlic.
Choosing Your “Seed”
Although garlic can be grown from the small bulbils that sprout from the plant’s central stalk, most garlic growers use the individual cloves for a faster, more reliable crop. Growing from bulbils takes several years of successive replanting to produce the same size garlic bulb. Although this method of propagating garlic is thought to reinvigorate seed stock and reduce the transmission of soil borne diseases, it’s worth starting your garlic growing with cloves for an introductory experience.
To choose cloves for propagating, select firm, robust bulbs free from mold or disease. Larger cloves will usually produce larger bulbs, so save any small specimens for cooking. It’s also worth selecting for your region, since different varieties of garlic perform better in different climates. Locate “seed” garlic through local farmers or local seed suppliers with garlic varieties known to perform well in your area.
This includes deciding between ‘hardneck’ and ‘softneck’ garlic, or some combination of the two. Hardneck garlic varieties generally produce fewer, larger cloves around a central hard stalk. They send up scapes in the summer (more on that below), and store for a limited period (although we have found them to last quite a long time under the right conditions). Softneck varieties have more and smaller cloves, and tend to store longer than hardneck varieties. Because they don’t have the same hard, central stalk, they don’t send up scapes in the summer and are also good candidates for garlic braids.
Once you have secured your bulbs, separate into individual cloves by removing the outer skin and working the cloves apart. You can pry them open with a blunt-ended knife, but be careful not to puncture since it’s best to leave the individual clove skins intact if possible. Separate your garlic no more than 24 hours before planting.
Since garlic does best in loose, fertile soil, prepare your garden beds ahead of time by spreading 2-3 inches of organic matter over the soil area and then digging this in. Like all plants, garlic needs a combination of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, and other nutrients to grow. Cow or poultry manure, along with alfalfa meal or pellets can provide your plants with the nutrients they need to form robust bulbs. Garlic also grows best in soil with a fairly neutral pH. If you aren’t sure where your soil stands, take a soil sample and test it yourself or send to a reputable lab.
The ideal time to plant garlic in most locations is about 3-6 weeks before the ground freezes. Your goal is to get some good root development before winter comes, but not so much that the plant’s green tops grow high above the ground. In colder climates, the plants may be damaged by the cold or even killed if they are too far along in their life cycle. For this reason, it’s best to plant closer to your freezing date so sprouts stay safely underground if you live in an area with cold winters.
To prepare your rows, use a pipe to lay shallow furrows in the ground approximately six inches apart. If you are planting a lot of garlic, you can also fashion a device with wooden plugs spaced where you want to drop your cloves. We use a board fit with plugs spaced 4 inches apart in rows six inches apart. The board is just as wide as one row. Each year we place this on the surface of the soil and step on it, making a neatly spaced series of planting holes up and down the row.
Drop cloves into the planting holes or furrows with the pointed end up. Cover so the clove is about two inches below the soil surface.
Tending Your Garlic Crop
About a month after planting, spread mulch over the soil surface. This will give the earth a chance to cool off and retain some of the moisture of fall rains. The mulch will go on to moderate soil temperature and keep the ground evenly moist come springtime. If no green tips have yet emerged, ensure your mulch won’t form a dense mat while rotting. Chopped leaves, straw and alfalfa hay are all good choices for mulch, although some people avoid straw because of problems with mites in certain locations. Check with your local extension office if you’re uncertain.
In spring, dose your garlic with liquid fish fertilizer. We do this twice, approximately one month apart. Water your garlic evenly, ensuring soil doesn’t dry out or stay too wet. Mulch helps keep ground temperature and moisture consistent. It’s best to stop watering 3-4 weeks before harvesting.
Around midsummer, hardneck varieties will send up a tall flower stalk known as a ‘scape’. With most garlic varieties, gardening wisdom says to remove (break off) the scapes so the plants will put its energy into making robust bulbs. Government sources indicate bulbs will be significantly smaller (about 30%) if the scapes are left on. A general rule is to cut scapes as soon as they have formed one or two curls but before the stalks have straightened. Experimenting will tell you what your varieties prefer.
Pests and Diseases
Although garlic can be affected by a variety of pests and diseases, practicing a strict crop rotation of at least two years between plantings can help halt the effects. This rotation should include other plants in the allium family, such as onions, leeks, and shallots, many of which are affected by the same pests and diseases. In cool, wet areas, ‘garlic white rot’ can be a serious concern. This soil-borne fungus has been known to stay alive in contaminated fields for more than a decade. Cleaning garden tools after harvest and destroying infected plants can help halt the spread of the disease.
When two thirds of the plants’ tops have turned brown, your garlic is ready to harvest. Anxious for fresh garlic, we always dig a few sample bulbs a little earlier than this to see how the bulbs are forming. When your bulbs have formed individual cloves and have a nice outer skin, they are ready.
Loosen the soil around each bulb with a digging fork or flat spade, taking care not to puncture the bulbs. After pulling from the ground, shake loose soil from each bulb and lay in a tote or bin. Your goal is to remove as much dirt as possible while still preserving the papery outer layers of each bulb. These will preserve the bulbs longer in storage. Transfer bulbs, with rest of the plants still attached, to a drying rack set up away from the sun and rain. You can also bundle or braid garlic and hang to dry, although make sure air can circulate freely around the bulbs.
After 2-3 weeks of drying, the bulbs will be ready for storage. Clean each bulb by trimming and brushing remaining dirt from the roots (we use a dry bristle or vegetable brush). Peel off damaged or dirty outer skins where necessary, preserving 2-3 layers where possible. Trim the tops of the plant off several inches above the bulb and store in burlap sacks hung in a dark, well-ventilated location. Aim for a storage temperature of 32°F -40 °F (0°C-4°C) for eating garlic and 50°F-65°F (10°C-18°C) for planting stock. If stored at room temperature, hardneck varieties will last about 4 months and softneck varieties up to 8 months. Storage life will increase substantially in controlled conditions.
Fall is the Best Time to Plant Garlic – A helpful guide to selecting, planting, harvesting and storing your own garlic crop.
Shannon Cowan is an author, editor, and teacher who lives on six acres of land with her husband, daughters, and backyard chicken flock.