Want to learn how to grow garlic, but not sure where to start? This fall is a perfect time to start your first patch. It's very easy to grow and pest free – you can even use it to make a pest deterrent spray. This fall's planting will yield green garlic scapes (from hardneck varieties) in late spring and bulbs in mid to late summer.
Where do I Get Garlic to Plant in My Garden? Can I Plant Garlic from the Store?
Store garlic may be treated with sprouting inhibitors to increase shelf life, which could lead to the cloves rotting before they sprout. Store garlic may also have been grown in a very different climate and may not be well adapted for your area. You can plant garlic from the store, it just wouldn't be my first choice.
The best option for garlic for planting is to get some from a local grower. That way you know you'll have stock that is adapted to your climate. I got my first bulbs for planting from my friend, Deb, who lives just a few miles down the road from us.
If you can't find garlic from a local friend or market gardener, or would like to try different varieties, check online or at your local garden center. Fedco Bulbs carries garlic (but they stop shipping at the end of August). Seed Savers Exchange also carries a good assortment of garlic. Southern Seed Exchange also carries softneck, hardneck, Asiatic and Turban and garlic assortments. Amazon.com even features nurseries with softneck and hardneck varieties.
What are the Different Types of Garlic?
Hardneck or stiffneck garlic (Allium sativum var. ophioscorodon) has a stiff stem surrounded by a ring of cloves. Stiff neck varieties are often more hardy. I grow a stiff neck type in my northeast Wisconsin garden. Southern Seed Exposure recommends stiffneck types for areas from Virginia northward. Best suited for zones 3-6, some 3-8.
Softneck garlic (Allium sativum var. sativum) has a smaller, flexible central stem, often surrounded by layers of cloves. This is the type that can be braided, and these are also the types that are typically sold in the grocery store. They tend to produce larger yields than hardneck types, but may be less cold hardy. For zones 3-9.
Elephant garlic (Allium ampeloprasum) is not really a garlic at all, but a type of leek. It has a few large cloves and mild flavor that some people like and others do not. My mom grew it once and said she wouldn't bother doing it again.
How to Grow Garlic – Planting
Garlic is planted in fall, typically after first frost has hit but before the soil has frozen completely. I select my biggest garlic bulbs to replant each season. (Eat the smaller bulbs.) Over time this will provide you with your own private stock of garlic that is well adapted to your garden growing conditions.
You planting area should get at least 5 hours of sun. Those in very warm areas may benefit from late afternoon shade. Soil pH should be neutral to slightly acidic (6-7). Work the planting area thoroughly, digging in some compost or well rotted manure (not fresh manure!), and sprinkling on a light layer of bone meal or other natural fertilizer. If your soil is very light and fluffy, you may be able to stuff the cloves right into the dirt with your bare hands. My preferred method is to dig trenches across the width of the bed, 6 inches apart and 2 – 3 inches deep. I then place individual cloves about six inches apart down the length of the row. Each clove will grow an entire new bulb. (You don't replant a whole bulb in one spot, just single cloves.) Cover the bulbs with soil and gently tamp down the earth.
Before the ground freezes, cover your garlic patch with a nice thick layer of straw or leaves. This will act as insulation, protecting your bulbs from the freeze/thaw cycle and preventing the frost from heaving the bulbs out of the ground. In spring, you can pull back the mulch to warm the soil and speed growth, and top dress with more compost if you have some available. Little green shoots should start popping up around the same time that other spring bulbs make an appearance.
Once the soil has warmed, I generally put some mulch back in place to keep weeds down and hold in moisture. Garlic doesn't need much watering unless it is very dry. Less water = more concentrated flavor.
How and When to Harvest Garlic
Hardneck garlic will produce flower stalks called scapes in late spring. It's best to remove these to increase the size of the main bulb. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange states: “For highest yields, remove the scape (or “seed stalk”) at the junction of the highest leaf as soon as the scape has uncoiled from its 360° turn. Each week the scape remains after this stage causes a yield reduction of approximately 5%.” I have noticed in my garden that the scapes I missed did indeed have bulbs that were noticeably smaller in fall.
Once removed, these green scapes can be used to make garlic scape pesto or add garlic flavor to other recipes such as stir fries. You can also let the snipped scapes sit in an out of the way corner and the flower bulbils will mature into miniature garlic bulbs. I like to use these mini-cloves in pickling recipes, such as garlic dill pickles. You can plant the little bulbils, but they will take at least two years to grow into standard size bulbs.
Garlic Scape Pesto from Allrecipes.com
- 1 pound garlic scapes, cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 1/4 cups grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- ground black pepper to taste
Blend all ingredients in food processor until smooth. Serve over pasta, as a spread, or add to sandwiches for a real garlic punch.
Garlic bulbs should be harvested in late summer when the lower leaves start to turn yellow and/or the tops tip over. If you wait until the tops are entirely brown, the papery covering of the bulbs will get thin and the bulbs are more likely to fall apart in storage instead of staying like nice, attractive bulbs. (Ask me how I know…) They still taste fine, they just don't look as nice. Around here, we often get fall rains after a dry summer, and that may cause the bulbs to rot, too, if they are left in the ground too long.
Loosen the dirt with a good garden fork and gently lift the bulbs from the ground. Unless your soil is really loose, just trying to pull the bulbs by the stems is likely to leave you with a bulb still in the ground and a handful of stem. (Not that I would ever do this…ahem…)
How to Cure Garlic Bulbs
If you want your bulbs to last in storage, you must cure them. Curing is simply the process of removing excess moisture and toughening the outer skin of the bulb. Spread the bulbs in a single layer (stems can crisscross, but don't stack the bulbs) on a screen in a dry area with good air circulation. I like to spread mine out in my greenhouse and cover them with a piece of burlap. A garage, outbuilding or covered porch may also work well. Avoid large amounts of direct sunlight to prevent sunscald. You probably don't want to cure them in the house if you can avoid it, as they will be very fragrant.
Let the bulbs cure until the skins are dry and the necks are tight. You want a dry, sturdy little package. Moisture will lead to rot and mold. Once they are dry, brush off loose dirt and outer layers of skin with dirt attached so you have a nice tidy bulb for storage. You can clip the tops and store them in a bin in a cool, dry location out of direct sunlight, or if you have the softneck type you can braid them and put them on display. Remember to safe your biggest bulbs to replant. Don't send your teenage son to clean bulbs without supervision, lest you find him washing off the dirt in the sink and ruining the curing process. (Thankfully I caught him when he was on his first bulb.) Snip the roots off close to the bulb's base. Set any damaged bulbs aside to use first. I have kept bulbs in my basement from one season to the next, although by the end they are starting to sprout. Most sources I've read suggest that they should easily keep for 3-6 months.
If you need longer storage, garlic may be sliced, dehydrated and ground to make garlic powder, but be warned – it is very fragrant while drying.
How to Braid Garlic
I have never braided garlic, as I only grow the hardneck types, but this video from Gardenerd provides a simple, well demonstrated look at the process.
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