Garlic is one of the easiest vegetables to grow in the home garden and if you grow too much, it easily keeps all winter long. Plant some today.
Growing Garlic is Like Growing a Tulip
To understand how to grow garlic it is important to understand how the plant grows. Garlic is normally planted as a clove of garlic – one piece of the complete bulb. The clove is very similar to your tulip and daffodil bulbs and grows in the same way.
In fall, as temperatures drop, the clove starts making roots. These roots will grow as long as the soil does not freeze solid. More roots means bigger plants and bigger bulbs next year.
Soon after roots get established, the garlic clove will also start making green leaves. Depending on when the clove was planted, you might see these leaves poking through the soil, before winter starts. Don’t worry – the cold won’t hurt the garlic.
Over winter the plant doesn’t do much, except rest.
In spring, when the soil warms up, the leaves start to grow and the plant gets bigger. Once the leaves are fully formed, they start making plant food which is sent down to the roots, where it is used to grow a new bulb. Somewhere around early summer, garlic may starts to flower – not all types flower.
The purpose of flowering is to make seed. This process requires a lot of plant food which is taken away from the bulb forming process. If seed is made, it results in smaller bulbs. Since you eat the bulb, not the seeds, your goal is to prevent the plant from making seed. You want all of the energy (ie plant food) going into the bulb.
Types of Garlic
There are many varieties of garlic, which can be categorized as one of two types; hardneck and softneck. As you might guess, you can tell the difference between the types by looking at the stem. Softnecks have a soft stem which can be easily braided. Hardnecks have a hard stem which is difficult to braid. The picture above clearly shows the hard center stem.
I’ve discussed the difference between the two types on GardenMyths.com in a post titled Growing Garlic – Hardneck or Softneck?
Softnecks tend to be more popular in warmer climates, and hardneck in colder climates.
Growing Garlic – Planting
You can grow garlic in most soils, but it prefers a good draining soil with lots of organic matter – doesn’t everything?
I use the same planting bed for garlic each year. It is a long row outside my fenced in area. The deer never bother it.
You can order garlic bulbs online, or get some from a local market stand. Garlic from a grocery store may have been treated to keep it from sprouting, and it is likely to be a type that does not grow well in your area. Fresh garlic from a local grower works great.
Loosen the top few inches of soil. Take the garlic bulb and gently break it into cloves, but don’t take off the paper skin from the cloves. Each clove is planted separately.
My bulb source is last years harvest. I select the largest bulbs. I want big bulbs, with few cloves in each which makes peeling in the kitchen easier. Save the small cloves for the kitchen and plant the largest ones.
Pick up a clove, with the pointy end up, and push it into the soil so that the top is covered by about 1/2 inch of soil. Plant about 5 inches apart in rows that are 1 foot apart. If you plan to intercrop, leave more space.
When all of the cloves are planted, water well. Cover with a layer of straw or leaves which keeps the soil warm as temperatures fall. Remember you want the garlic to make as many roots as possible before freezing.
Once the ground freezes, I cover the soil with even more straw – up to 1 ft deep. This keeps the garlic warm and comfy all winter.
This video will show you how I plant garlic:
If you can’t see the above video use this link instead; https://youtu.be/NuCqoGZEcks
When Should You Plant Garlic?
That depends on where you live. If you have freezing weather for part of the year, then it is best to plant in fall so that the bulbs can make good roots.
In warmer climates, you can plant in spring for a summer harvest and again in fall for a winter harvest. For a more detailed discussion about growing in warm climates see reference #1.
Should You Amend The Soil?
Garlic likes organic matter, so adding compost or manure to the soil is a good idea. I keep my garlic bed covered with straw (leaves work too) all year long, so it is constantly being fed by the decomposing straw.I don’t add anything else.
Do not add bone meal as so many people suggest. The notion that you need to add bone meal when you plant bulbs is a complete myth and a waste of your time and money. For more details on this see Bone Meal Organic Fertilizer.
Even Moisture Produces Big Garlic
The whole goal of growing garlic is to grow big bulbs. To do that, keep the moisture level constant for the entire growing period. The best way to do that is to mulch the bed. Mulch keeps temperatures from fluctuating, and keeps the soil from drying out as fast.
About a month before harvest, you can stop watering and even remove he mulch. Garlic matures better if it gets less water for several weeks. To be honest, I usually forget to remove the mulch and my garlic grows just fine.
Some garlic will make flower spikes – called scapes. Hardneck does this more than softneck, but it does depend on local growing conditions, and the specific variety you grow.
Scapes rob the plant of energy, resulting in smaller bulbs. For this reason it is important to remove the scapes as soon as you see them. The picture below shows garlic scapes that could have been removed a few days to a week earlier.
I just drop them on the garden adding more organic matter to the soil, but some people harvest them and eat them.
Growing Garlic – Harvesting
In zone 5, I harvest in early August as the lower leaves start to yellow and get dry. The timing is not that precise. If you do it too early, the bulbs will be smaller. If you wait too long, the garlic bulb dries out too much and starts to split into cloves – see the picture below. The split cloves are certainly edible, but they won’t keep as long as garlic picked earlier.
You should be able to pull the bulbs out of the soil by just pulling on the leaf stock. If your soil is too hard, you might need to use a garden fork or shovel. Try not to break the leaf stock off the bulb.
You can start eating them right away, but for winter storage it is best to cure them first. Leave them sitting on the soil or in a pail. Some people hang them – but that seems like a lot of work. I put them in a pail, and put the pail in the shed so rain won’t get to them.
The green leaves slowly turn brown as plant food moves from the leaves into the bulb. Roots also start to die off.
Don’t wash them after picking them. Once fully cured you can knock the soil off, cut the leaves off and the harvest is done.
Store them open and cool. Don’t use plastic bags for storage as they trap moisture around the bulbs which can lead to rot.
1) Southern Garlic growers Guide: http://greyduckgarlic.com/Southern_Garlic_Grower_Guide.html
2) Photo Source for introduction picture: Jeremy Keith
3) Photo Source for garlic scape picture: Eli Duke