I love growing garlic. I think I love growing it so much because it is really easy and the payoff is pretty big for the effort when compared to most other plants in the garden.
Garlic is planted in the fall. It grows in two stages – the roots and foliage grow through the fall and winter, and the bulbs start to develop and grow as the ground warms in the spring and summer. At some point in the summer the foliage will start to die back, that is when it is time to harvest.
More on that later, but what I love about planting in the fall is as you are tearing down your garden, building your soil, and thinking about the upcoming winter, you get to plant these little cloves that are like a promise that summer is coming back. It just makes me happy.
A little bit about garlic.
Garlic is a member of the allium family which also includes leeks, shallots and onions. Individual cloves act as seeds.
Softneck vs. Hardneck
Garlic is split into two “families” – hardneck and softneck.
Basically, softneck garlic is what is found in most grocery stores. They grow best in mild climates and keep longer than hardnecks, but they are more likely to make small cloves. They are called softneck because the green plant dies down to pliancy, leaving nothing but the bulb and flexible stems that are easy to braid. Hardnecks do best where there is a real winter and actually do not do so well in mild climates. This type has a stiff stem in the center that terminates in a flower that is a cluster of little bulbs (more on this later). It later dries to a stiff stick that is impossible to braid.
So how do you grow this stuff?
The first thing you need to do is find some good growing stock. Do not use garlic from the grocery store – those bulbs are often treated with a sprout inhibiting agent. They will sprout (as you have probably found when chopping garlic and finding little green things inside), but it isn’t the best way to go.
What I plant now is from garlic I have grown for the past 5 years. I choose my biggest bulbs and use the biggest cloves from those bulbs to plant. I bought my original bulbs from Fedco, but there are some other great resources out there (two great ones are Filaree Farm and Hood River Garlic.) Filaree and Hood River have many varieties of garlic to choose from.
After buying your first “stock” of garlic, you will have enough (if you don’t eat it all) to plant for the following year, so really, the investment is minimal.
After you find some bulbs, you need to determine where you want to plant it.
Like most vegetables, Garlic does best in a sunny spot. And like all bulbs, it needs a well-drained soil. If your soil is a heavy clay type soil then I really would recommend raised beds. Honest, it is worth the effort if you have a clay-type soil.
I like to add lots of organic matter like grass clippings, leaves, and composted manure to my soil. I do this to my entire garden in the fall, to build the soil, but I always start this process on my garlic bed.
I pretty much use any organic matter I can find to build my soil. I pick my spot in my garden, make the bed, and then I pile on the organic matter.
Then I use a spade to dig it in. Now ideally, if you were a better planner than I am, you would have done this sometime in September so the soil has a chance to settle after you worked it.
But I am not that great of a planner. So I did it all in one morning.
Once your bed is all prepared, go ahead and grab your heads of garlic and break the cloves (officially they are called corms) away from each other. Each bulb will have between 6 and 20 cloves, depending on the variety you are planting.
My rule is that the bigger cloves get planted and the smaller cloves get eaten.
Now comes the easy part. Take a clove and push it into the soil with the pointy end facing up. Push it in so it is about twice as deep as it is tall.
Allow 6 inches between cloves and about 10-12 inches between rows. I measure it like this:
Repeat. After preparing the bed, I planted 80 cloves in about 30 minutes or so.
Then I mulch it with straw. This provides some protection from frost heaving, weed protection, and moisture regulation in the summer. After applying mulch I basically just walk away from the whole thing until spring.
In the spring…
Move the mulch away from around the emerging garlic tips to free up any that might be stuck under the mulch, then replace the mulch close to the stems. Usually at this time I will add some organic nitrogen source, either blood meal or fish emulsion – it gives them a little boost.
If you planted hardneck garlic, sometime in June it will shoot up a flower stalk that is called a scape.
They grow up and curl around. I recommend cutting these little guys off because if you do not, you are likely to get smaller garlic bulbs. You can eat them – they make a really nice pesto, compost them, or dry them.
If you decide to leave them on, you can harvest the top-set bulbils to plant in the fall. These will produce a garlic “grass” the following summer that is really yummy in salads, or it will produce a full sized garlic bulb in two years.
Harvesting and storing
Sometime in late July or early August you will notice the garlic tops turning brown. That is the time to harvest, when the bottom leaves are yellow and the top has a few green leaves left. I recommend loosening/digging these with a pitchfork – if you try to pull it out from the top you will end up with a garlic top in your hand and a bulb in the ground that is difficult to locate. Handle with care, be careful not to bruise the garlic when harvesting.
After harvesting, I usually tie the garlic up in a shaded airy place to let them cure (dry).
You can eat the garlic right away, but for it to keep for any amount of time, it needs to cure. If you eat it right away, the skins covering the cloves will not be dry. This is not a big deal, just be aware that you should still pull that skin off before eating. Do not field cure or set bulbs out in the sun for an extended period of time. It usually takes a few weeks to get them dried out.
There is no science to telling when garlic is dry. Well, actually, I am sure there is, but I just don’t use it. One day when I think of it I cut the top off of a hanging bulb with scissors. If it looks dry, I use a pair of scissors and an old toothbrush and clean and trim the bulbs. I separate what I plan on using for seed stock from what I plan on eating at this time, always reserving the largest bulbs for planting.