GROW: 5 Simple Steps for Growing Garlic
If you are new to growing food and herbs, there is nothing easier to grow than garlic. Why grow your own garlic? Because of the diversity…there are so many different varieties: some mild, some spicy hot, some with small cloves and others with huge cloves. We all need more diversity in our lives and the garden is a great place to explore this notion.
Garlic is traditionally planted in the fall and while some will argue that it MUST be planted in September or October, many of us simply don’t get it done until November. Between garden harvest and processing and wildcrafting and medicine-making, fall is my busiest time so I have planted garlic as late as Thanksgiving weekend and harvested beautiful and large heads the following July. You can also plant garlic in early spring but in my case I would have to trudge through several feet of snow, shovel snow off the beds and push the cloves into frozen soil.
I’d rather throw another log on the fire and sip some cinnamon-infused hot chocolate and look at seed catalogs. Wouldn’t you?
1) Purchase the best variety for your region.
Garlic is divided into two types, hard-neck and soft-neck. Hard-necks are ideal for northern regions where winter happens for several months. Hard-necks produce a tall leafless flower stalk called a scape in late spring. I cut these at the base once they do their curlicue thingy and use them in soups and stir fries. Cutting the scape redirects the plant’s energy to bulb development.
Soft-necks prefer warmer winters (several varieties have California in their names) and these are the ones used to make those folksy braids that we hang in our kitchens to collect grease and dust. Growing the right type for your region will produce the biggest bulbs but I know people who plant both in their gardens.
Order your garlic from garlic growers like Filafree Farms or check out the Garlic Seed Foundation for a list of growers in North America. If suppliers have sold out already (this happens every year), check with your regional seed suppliers. And don’t forget your farmers’ markets - there are many small scale garlic growers.
Can you plant grocery store garlic? The answer is yes but only if you can find organic garlic. Conventionally grown garlic is usually sprayed with a growth inhibitor…another reason to grow your own. And you would be missing out the many cultivars of garlic so I encourage ordering from a garlic farmer and taste the many tastes of garlic.
2) Make a comfy bed for your garlic.
Garlic prefers full sun but like us prefers a bit of shade in the hot afternoons. Garlic needs loamy, loose soil. Add aged manure and/or compost to the bed to increase the organic matter; this helps with drainage and reduces the potential for compaction. Heavy clay or boggy soils will not produce good garlic. Amend, Amend! No need to fertilize in the fall.
Heart Healthy Gophers?
I once had gophers eat almost 100 hundred fall-planted garlic cloves over the winter! If you have gophers you may need to use gopher baskets or wire at the bottom of a bed.
3) Plant the biggest cloves.
The garlic bed is ready and you have a bag of big garlic bulb heads. Create a planting row with a hoe or stick. Break the bulb into individual cloves and reserve the largest ones for planting. (You can plant the smaller cloves and then harvest those smaller bulbs as spring green garlic.) Push each clove, root side down, into the row. Plant 4-6 inches apart - this ensures enough space for garlic heads to develop.
How much garlic should you plant? A lot! It has wonderful medicinal and nutritional properties and I try to use 1-3 cloves per day. If you use 1 head a week then plant 75 cloves which will produce enough heads for a year and give you extras to make my absolute favorite seasoning, Dried Black Garlic.
Remember that garlic is a plant that keeps on giving. After harvesting and curing in summer, set aside the largest bulbs for fall planting. You may never have to buy garlic again but there are so many varieties to discover so why limit your exploration.
4) Garlic plays it cool.
Garlic likes cool a cool environment throughout its life. But it doesn’t like extreme cold, either. After planting mulch with a 3-4 inch layer of compost (best), aged manure (second best) or dried straw (easily available). This protects the garlic during winter extremes and will help maintain soil temperature in the spring and summer.
5) The gardener’s mantra: water and weed.
Infrequent or shallow watering will cause the garlic to grow smaller heads. Deeply water (meaning soak the soil) when the surface of the bed is dried out but avoid letting the bed completely dry out. Drip irrigation is ideal for this but checking the soil and watering every couple days works, too.
Keep the mulch on throughout the growing season as it helps maintain moisture by preventing evaporation and will keep weeds down. Using compost or aged manure as mulch feeds the abundant microbial life teeming in your soil which contributes to both the health of both your soil and your plants.
You can fertilize with an organic fertilizer in early spring but only do it once. It’s ok if you forget to do it; garlic seems to do ok without fertilizer, provided that your soil has abundant organic matter like compost or aged manure.
When to Harvest Garlic
Garlic tells you when it’s ready to harvest. When the bottom two leaves begin to yellow, stop watering. After about two weeks, harvest your garlic heads by lightly loosening the soil around each plant and then pulling the bulb out. Brush off soil but don’t wash them. DO NOT cut off the stalks or roots. They help with the curing process.
How to Cure & Store Garlic
Garlic needs to be cured for several weeks to toughen up for storage. Never allow your garlic to cure in the sun; it will turn to a rotting mush in a couple of days. (Trust me on this...I made this mistake many years ago). If you have space and tables lay them out to dry or rubber band them into small bunches and hang in a barn, shed, garage or covered patio, providing some air circulation but away from sunlight. Allow them to cure for a month. Once the stalks are completely dried, trim off both the stalks and roots, do a final brushing off of soil and store in paper bags or open weave onion bags (no plastic). Store in a cool space.
Repeat In the Fall
While trimming, select the biggest heads and set aside for planting in the fall. The cycle begins again.
Author: Sue Kusch
Sue Kusch, a former community college instructor and academic advisor, incorporates her experiential wisdom, expertise and science-based research garnered from her three decades of growing vegetables, fruit and herbs into her educational writing about plants and how people use them. In addition to her BA in Social Sciences and Masters in Education, she completed the Master Gardener training in 2011 and two permaculture courses in 2001 and 2014. She has studied medicinal and nutritional uses of herbs including studies at Herbmentor.com and East West School of Planetary Herbology since 1997. Sue currently serves as President and newsletter editor of her local chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society. An avid reader, lover of historical and folkloric information, and a promising storyteller, Sue writes about the intersection of plants and people at www.plantsnpeople.com.
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