Roasted garlic, pesto sauce, buttery garlic bread – there’s nothing like the aroma of fresh garlic in the kitchen. And if you like garlic, you’ll love home-grown garlic even more. Garlic is a low-maintenance plant that can be grown in a traditional vegetable garden or tucked into flower and herb beds. Fall is a great time to plant garlic, so check out these tips for planting and growing this aromatic bulb.
Garlic has been cultivated for thousands of years, and is prized for its medicinal qualities and culinary uses. A cousin of onions, garlic (Allium sativum var.) is a true bulb that can be grown all over the U.S. There are many varieties of garlic available, including:
- Softneck or “Common” varieties: These are the familiar white cloves most commonly grown for mass production. Softneck varieties do not produce a flower stalk – instead, all their energy goes toward growing a large bulb. They tend to do better in warmer climates, although there are some cold-tolerant varieties, and they store well. The main types are Artichoke and Silverskin.
- Hardneck varieties: Considered the closest cousin to wild garlic, hardneck varieties produce a flower stalk and propagate very quickly, resulting in a greater number of smaller bulbs. They can be difficult to store but are often better suited to cold climates. Examples include Purple Stripe, Porcelain, and Rocambole.
Garlic cultivation is not standardized, and some varieties will behave differently, and even have different flavors, depending on the climate. The best way to choose a variety is to plant several and see how they do, or seek advice from a local grower.
To learn more about varieties of garlic, check out Gourmet Garlic Gardens’ Garlic Overview.
When to Plant Garlic
The ideal time to plant garlic is in the fall, so it can receive the cold necessary for its growth cycle. It will send up leaves in the spring, then focus on bulb development before being harvested in mid to late summer. Plant garlic about a week or two after the first killing frost so the roots will develop before winter, but the soil is cool enough to prevent the green sprouts from breaking the surface until spring.
Though it will vary by climate, the traditional garlic grower’s calendar is:
- Plant on Columbus Day (middle of October)
- Cut off flowers on Memorial Day (end of May)
- Harvest on Independence Day (early in July)
For year-round supply, you can also plant in the spring and harvest in the fall, but the bulbs will likely not be as large or well-developed.
How to Plant Garlic
Step 1: Garlic is most easily grown from cloves, rather than seed. Buy garlic bulbs from a commercial supplier or local farmer’s market. Don’t use garlic from the grocery store as they are often treated to prevent sprouting.
Step 2: Break each head of garlic into separate cloves. Use the larger ones for planting and the smaller ones for eating.
Step 3: Prepare the space you plan to plant garlic where it will receive full sun. It’s also important to have well-draining, nutrient-rich soil. A commercial soil conditioner will help both with drainage and supply needed organic matter. For best results, the soil pH should be between six and seven.
Step 4: Plant each clove about two inches deep, making sure that the pointed end is facing up, and at least six to eight inches apart.
Step 5: Cover the cloves with soil followed by 2”- 4” of mulch to prevent extremes or rapid changes in temperature and moisture.
Step 6: Hang in there – you should see aboveground sprouts by around March or April. The leaves of garlic are long and strappy, and while they aren’t extremely showy, they blend nicely in a flower or herb garden.
Taking Care of Garlic Plants
Here are some tips for taking care of growing bulbs and spring sprouts:
- Weed: Keep the area weeded since garlic doesn’t do well with competition.
- Water: Keep watered modestly until the last few weeks before harvest, particularly between May and July when the bulb is growing rapidly.
- Flowers: Remove garlic flowers if you want large bulbs. The flowers bloom atop a long stalk, or “scape.” Most gardeners cut it off when the flower scape starts to curl. There is some evidence that bulbs store better if you wait until the flower scape is woody in texture. If you’re growing garlic to propagate instead of eat, you can leave the flower stalk in place and the plant will produce many small bulbils that you can then save for planting next fall.
Harvest between June and August, depending on your climate, and stop watering about two weeks before harvest. When to stop watering and harvest, is a skill that grows with practice and experience.
Step 1: As the bulb matures, the leaves will begin to turn brown. When about half of the leaves are brown, carefully scrape back the soil to inspect a clove or two – you want good-sized bulbs with strong wrappers. You can also cut one open to see if the bulbs fill out the skins nicely. If your bulbs are starting to split open, you’re almost too late and should harvest immediately.
Step 2: Carefully loosen the soil around the garlic bulbs, and lift them out by hand, gently brushing off the soil. Be careful not to break the skins or bruise the bulbs. Leave the roots and shoots attached.
Step 3: Tie in bundles of 10-15 bulbs, and hang them in a well-ventilated, shady room for several weeks to dry.
Step 4: After they’ve dried, you can remove the outermost layer of skin if you want them cleaner, but don’t uncover the cloves.
Step 5: Cut off the tops about 1” above the main bulb, and trim off the roots.
Garlic is best stored in the refrigerator or a cool, dry place between 32º and 50º F. While it can be stored at room temperature, it will dry out faster. Stored garlic should last between 4 and 7 months.