The freshness, the pungency, the spectrum of flavors from raw to sautéed to roasted, the subtle difference between garlic varietals: there was no going back to generic dehydrated garlic.
As devoted gardeners, the natural next step was to grow our own garlic. Lacking expert tutelage, we were discouraged at first by small bulbs or struggling plants. But lack of variety, quality, and high prices at our local markets encouraged us to keep trying.
Particularly where summers are hot and dry, spring-planted garlic can suffer when hit by a heat wave before firmly established. The solution? Plant it in the fall! Garlic is photoperiodic, meaning the plant senses and responds to the relative length of daylight. If planted in spring, it will still flower when the days reach a certain length, even if it hasn’t had time to mature its bulb sufficiently. Fall planting gives garlic a crucial head-start, as the cool-loving shoots stretch and expand quietly below the surface, sleep peacefully through the cold, and wake up refreshed on their own schedule in spring. Plants will be stronger and bulbs will be bigger at harvest.
Most garlic growers are passionate about what they do and eager to share tips with beginners. For the serious student, Ron Engeland’s Growing Great Garlic is a worthy bible for this craft. The biggest challenge, if you’re used to planting everything during one gardening marathon in spring, is getting in the habit of seeing fall as planting time as well as harvest time. But as more of us are adding overwintered cover crops to our yearly maintenance plans, garlic fits naturally with the rhythm of year-round food production.
Choose a variety:
The first choice you will encounter is: hardneck (Ophioscorodon) or softneck (Sativum)? If you want garlic that will keep longest through the winter, try softneck: the pliable stems can be braided for hanging (braided garlic makes a beautiful gift) which anyone can use. Most commercially sold garlic is softneck, due to its milder flavor and good keeping qualities: you can recognize it by the layers of up to 20 cloves around a soft stem which may be almost unnoticeable. Softneck also has a reputation for being easy to grow, particularly in cooler climates. Those in growing zones 7-10 may be best advised to choose a softneck, such as an Artichoke or Silver Skin variety.
Some foodies, on the other hand, maintain that hardneck garlic is superior in flavor and intensity, and the cloves are larger and easier to peel. Hardnecks also produce wonderful scapes in spring, which can be cut and used culinarily for savory pestos, soups, and stir-fries. The cloves are fewer but often larger than softneck, and surround the woody stem in a single ring. If you live in the cooler zones 1-6, hardnecks should be a good choice, including Porcelains, Rocamboles, and Purple Stripes.
There are exceptions to every rule! Creole hardnecks may keep as long as softnecks. A few Artichoke softnecks can also do well in the cold, including Polish White, Red Toch, Susanville and Transylvanian. Some hardnecks can also work in warmer climates, such as Marbled Purple Stripes and Turbans. Elephant “garlic” is not a true garlic at all, but actually a variety of leek!
Hardnecks were the “original garlic” — softnecks were gradually cultivated through selection by growers. We may never familiarize ourselves with the 600 sub-varieties of cultivated garlic in the world. Your best bet is to ask your neighbors and local farmers at the market which types grow best in your climate. They are likely to have a few choice favorites and some advice on their relative merits.
Where to plant:
Give your garlic its own bed that will remain undisturbed in spring, where the soil is loose, loamy, and well-drained.
Always rotate your crops for best results, but don’t put garlic in the rotation after other onion-family crops, or vice versa. Also avoid putting parsley and celery in the rotation with garlic, as these plants can host nematodes which linger in the soil to prey on garlic. Rotating balances nutrients and minimizes plant diseases by giving specific pathogens time to clear out of the soil when their preferred host is not present. When the garlic is harvested in midsummer, you may be able to replant the bed with lettuce, other leafy greens, or shell beans, depending on your growing season. Buckwheat can be planted in mid-summer as a cover crop: it grows quickly and will be ready to till into the soil in time for fall garlic planting, providing a wonderfully rich green manure.
Consider a raised bed for your garlic unless you live in a particularly dry ecosystem — raised beds improve drainage and minimize weeds (garlic is a poor weed-competitor). Raised beds are particularly important in areas with wet winters like the Pacific Northwest: if waterlogged, garlic can rot. Full sun is best, though some partial shade can be tolerated. Think ahead for sun exposure and air circulation: don’t plant garlic directly north of another crop that will grow taller and denser. Space plants generously, especially in wetter climates.
When to plant:
October is usually the best month to plant garlic in North America. If you live in an area with particularly early winters — the far north or in high elevations — your planting season may start in September. In the Deep South and parts of California, garlic can be planted into November and even as late as December.
Make sure all your helpers know to plant each clove “pointy-side up”! Garlic pointed upside down will have a tough time getting started, having to make a U-turn to find the sun; the plant will never really catch up.
Selecting and “popping cloves”
Handle your seed garlic with care! Separating bulbs into individual cloves for planting is known as “popping cloves”, and a popper will quickly get the hang of sloughing off the outer bulb skin and gently pulling the cloves apart. Do this within a day or two of planting, as the separated cloves will start to dehydrate and prepare for growth immediately: if left too long, they will exhaust themselves before getting into the soil.
Ron Engeland reminds us that garlic will bruise, and “every bruise is an easy target for fungal and disease organisms in the soil.” Discard any bruised or damaged cloves. Choose firm, unblemished, medium-to-large cloves for best results. The smallest cloves will produce noticeably smaller heads: if you have plenty of space, feel free to plant all the tiny ones as well, but growers interested in a robust, consistent product may wish to prioritize the larger cloves. Engeland advises that if any rot or mold is visible on an unopened garlic bulb, stop and carefully discard the unopened bulb, and wash your hands. Opening the wrapper and trying to salvage the unaffected cloves is a great way to spread disease organisms over an entire batch of seed garlic — it’s not worth the risk.
Maintenance and harvesting:
After planting, mulch well with dead leaves. Mulch should be left in place after the shoots are up, as it will help discourage weed growth — unless the soil becomes too wet. Mulched leaves are great to mix into the soil as well to improve texture and loaminess. Water early in the day, only when the first couple inches of soil feel dry.
In the late spring, after the plants are fully leafed, hardneck garlic will produce a succulent flower stalk, or “scape”. As it develops, the scape will form a distinctive loop, curving first toward the ground and then upwards. Most growers recommend removing the scape after this coil appears, breaking it off near the top of the first set of leaves. Save the scapes and enjoy cooking them either whole or pureed (pureed scapes can also be blended in olive oil and frozen in ice cube trays for a convenient fresh garlic addition to your winter cooking). If you leave the scapes on, they will often form additional coils before straightening out and maturing: your garlic will still be delicious, but bulb size may be smaller as the plant has put more energy into seed development.
Stop watering when bulbs have reached full size, usually around the summer solstice. Harvest the bulbs when a third to a half of the leaves have begun to yellow and dry out. If you’ve had some rain, wait a few days to let the soil dry out before harvesting.
After harvest, don’t wash off your bulbs — any excess moisture can cause mold to thrive. Always handle gently to avoid damage, and leave the skins intact. Bundle the plants whole, and hang the bulbs in a cool dry place away from sunlight (a basement is ideal) where it will be protected from freezing temperatures over the winter. After a few weeks of drying, any dirt will easily brush away.
Preventing and diagnosing problems and diseases:
Your best defense against plant diseases is always a healthy, vigorous plant. Good loam, good drainage, feeding and weeding will generally help your garlic fend off whatever unhelpful organisms lurk in your soil. Crop rotation and care in planting, as described above, are crucial. And yet even the most skilled gardeners are sometimes beset by problems despite their best efforts.
Garlic Rust (Puccinia allii)
Garlic Rust spreads by wind, and can easily travel from garlic to onions and leeks, or vice versa. Garlic Rust appears as small orangish bumps or pustules on the leaves. If it strikes early in the season it can kill a plant (or a whole crop), though if onset is later, the bulbs can survive and be harvested. At the first appearance of rust, cut off any infected leaves, dispose of them out of your garden (not in the compost!), and wash your hands and any tools. Even if all leaves must be removed, a stalk can continue to photosynthesize and mature a bulb. To avoid, water early in the day so that the plant can dry fully before nightfall. Make sure your crop has plenty of sun and air circulation.
Basal Rot (fusarium culmorum)
Basal Rot is slow to develop, first visible in a premature yellowing and dying back of the foliage. White fungal growth may be visible at the base of the stalk, and after harvest individual cloves or whole bulbs may rot. This is an opportunistic pathogen, so healthy plants are less vulnerable. Avoid damage to the basal plate (scab-like bottom of clove) as infection often occurs there. Most common at higher temperatures.
White Rot (Sclerotium cepivorum)
White Rot looks very similar to Basal Rot, except faster and more overwhelming in its effects. Fluffy white mold growth is visible on the stem and at the base of the plant, and small dark sclerotia become visible on the rotting bulbs. Climates with cooler summers (averaging below 75F) are most prone to White Rot. Sclerotia can survive indefinitely in soil in the absence of garlic, ready to germinate if it detects organic sulfur compounds.
Downy Mildew (Peronospora destructor)
Downy Mildew appears on the leaves rather than the stalk or base: it is also white and furry, causing yellowing of the leaves. If it strikes a young plant, Downy Mildew can be fatal; in a more mature plant it will stunt growth. Harvested bulbs will appear shriveled with a blackened neck. Wet conditions are ideal for spread of these spores, though they can survive dormant for many years in dry soil.
Penicillium Decay (Penicillium hirsutum)
Penicillium Decay can infect seed cloves; resulting plants will be sickly and stunted. It appears as a bluish-green mold on one or more cloves in a head. To avoid infection, discard any seed heads showing blue-green mold without opening, and also discard any with damaged basal plates. Try dusting cloves with bone meal before planting.
Stem and Bulb Nematode (Ditylenchus dipsaci)
Stem and Bulb Nematode is a tiny worm-like creature which invades the garlic stem, causing it to become swollen, spongy, and eventually rotten. Early signs of infestation include pale thick leaves on stunted plants. If nematode infection is suspected, affected plants should be carefully dug out, rather than pulled, and burned carefully. Disinfect all tools used. Avoid this organism by purchasing only disease-free planting stock from reputable growers.
Wetter climate growers may suffer from more garlic diseases. But no matter where you are located, your efforts to balance soil nutrients, rotate your crops, and take care to carefully dispose of any signs of pathogens with good sanitary practices. First and foremost, take care where you source your planting cloves! Filaree Farm of Eastern Washington (founded by Ron Engeland), Territorial Seed Co., and Hood River Garlic of Oregon all have decades of experience and solid reputations. Good stock can seem expensive at first, but the results of planting cheap infected stock can cost so much more.
Some experienced gardeners suggest caution in composting: avoid putting garlic scraps into your garden compost — or avoid using your garlic-containing compost on any beds which might grow garlic. Any garlic, from friends, farmer’s market, or supermarket, can carry disease organisms. Once well-established in your soil they will get comfortable, stay on, and ruin your future crops.
Fall-planted garlic will be in the ground longest of all your annual crops, but with a little practice it’s one of the easiest and most rewarding to grow. Set yourself up for success with these “best practices” hard-won through trial and error — others have shared their garlic lessons so you don’t have to make the same mistakes! Before long, you’ll be enjoying the rich flavors and health benefits of your home-grown garlic all year long.