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Quick Guide to Growing Garlic
GARLIC!!! One of the most fun plants to grow and by fun I mean extremely low maintenance, haha. If you know me by now, you know I’m a self-proclaimed lazy gardener, but lazy in the garden isn’t necessarily bad, in fact, it’s arguably the best way to be if you’re into nature and sustainability. But that’s a story for a different day…
Anyway, back to garlic!
Planting garlic is fast and easy and happens in the fall. I can plant enough garlic to last our family for the year months in about 30 minutes. I might put in ten minutes weeding in May or June, and I usually spend about another ten minutes cutting off the flower heads when they appear in early July. But, other than that, there’s nothing to do until the heads are ready to harvest. Low maintenance is my favorite!
Garlic is incredibly useful in the kitchen and surprisingly easy to grow in the garden. I truly had a BLAST with my garlic crop this year and I’m happy to say it was very successful, so I’m excited to share my quick guide to growing great garlic with you so you can maximize your harvest also!
1. When to plant garlic
Fall! Check specifics according to your USDA zone, for me in zone 6a cloves should ideally be planted in October. Cloves establish roots before the ground freezes so getting them in 3-6 weeks beforehand is best. When spring comes the plants are ready to charge out of the earth all told they take about 9 months to mature, so you’re in it for the long haul. We harvest around mid-July in my zone.
If you want to get really fancy you can read about planting garlic according to moon phases over on the Farmer’s Almanac website. Super interesting stuff and people swear by it! As for me I’m not that fancy yet, planting happens when I get the occasional 10 minute break from my kids!
2. Where to plant garlic
I’ll keep this one simple — plant garlic in a spot with full sun (8+ hours) and well-draining soil. Somewhere that won’t be bothered for nine months. We dedicate one full raised bed in our garden to garlic, it’s a 4′ x 8′ bed and we can fit up to 100 bulbs.
3. How to plant garlic
I plant about 100 cloves each year. This may sound like a lot, but it ensures that I have plenty for my own use, enough to plant next year’s crop, and extras to share (Christmas gift idea!). I usually set aside about 20 heads for next years crop, this year I am also giving 20 heads to my mom to plant in her garden.
You can space cloves relatively close together, I prefer 6″ spacing. I fit 8 cloves across my 4ft. wide bed and 12 cloves length wise. First I get all the cloves positioned on the soil surface (which has already been amended with 2-3″ of compost), then go back and start planting in place by just pushing the clove about an inch under, pointy side up. I then mulch over top with about an inch of compost (plus some bone meal and worm castings added in) and 6″ of seedless straw on top of that. Leave the skin on the clove and don’t separate the clove from the head until just before (~48 hours or less) planting.
A note if you are planting your own garlic from the previous year — choose the biggest, plumpest ones to go back into the ground, they will be the strongest to produce nice big heads come harvest time.
4. What variety to plant: Hardneck vs. Softneck Garlic
There are two types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. Hardneck is better for cold Northern locations, the bulbs are larger with smaller cloves, and you get scapes! Softneck garlic is better for mild climates, for braiding, and for larger cloves in a smaller bulb, they also mature more quickly than hardneck. For reference, I have only grown hardneck here in my NY zone 6a, a variety called ‘Music.’
5. Companion planting for garlic
- Do plant near: fruit trees, dill, beets, kale, spinach, potatoes, carrots, eggplant, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, roses, marigolds, nasturtiums, geraniums.
- Definitely plant near: chamomile (said to improve flavor), rue (said to drive away maggots), and yarrow.
- Don’t plant near: beans, peas, asparagus, parsley, or sage as the garlic may stunt their growth.
6. How to involve kids in garlic planting and harvesting
Just let them have at it, let kids get dirty and muddy! Some kids will eat dirt, some will rub it in their hair, or dump it into their shoes – that’s OK! It’s great for their microbiome anyways!
My three year old loves to help me in the garden, he helps us plant and harvest all sorts of things, garlic is no different. Let the kids play, they learn through play, and what better place than nature? The garden should be fun and experimental – a place to let kids be kids. Have fun and don’t worry too much about doing things “right”. Plants are more resilient than you think, much like our little ones.
6. Extra tips for garlic (water, fertilizer, mulch, weeds, pests etc.)
Over here in the northeast we have pretty decent precipitation and humidity so I mostly let the natural rainfall do its thing and barely supplemented, it worked great this year. That said, a growing garlic plant is known to like ample water. I went by the Farmer’s Almanac rule of thumb — a goal of about 1″ of water per week, rain water included. Stop watering in July, too much at this stage could cause mold and rot.
For fertilizer I hit them once in the early spring when the shoots start breaking ground, this is when the plants and the hungriest and could benefit from a little boost. I use my tried and true Neptune’s Harvest fish emulsion, anything with slightly high nitrogen like alfalfa meal or bone meal would work great when applied in the fall during planting.
Keep weeds out of the garlic patch as best you can, I weed once maybe twice during the growing season, it’s not too bad! And mulching is always a good idea in the garden both to suppress weeds and to retain water. I will mulch with about 6 inches of seedless straw just after planting (it compacts down to about 2″ during the winter and then I’ll add another fresh, thin layer in spring.
Not too many pests bother garlic, but don’t plant it where you have had trouble with wireworms or nematodes in the past. Disease and fungus (mildew) are more of an issue in poorly drained soils.
7. The deal with garlic scapes
Super duper important if you’re growing hardneck garlic — you MUST, must, must harvest the scapes (the flower of the garlic plant) or else they steal energy from your garlic bulb development, aka your bulbs will be puny and sad. It only takes a few minutes, they snap right off with a very satisfying crack AND the best part is you can eat them! Chop them and add to salad, stir fry, soup, scrambled eggs, or any dish you want to enhance with a little garlic flavor. Throw them in the blender with a little olive oil and parmesan cheese, they make especially good pesto. This garlic scape pesto is the freaking BEST and nothing goes to waste!
Rule of thumb is to snap the scapes off when they’ve done one complete curl, like the photo below. This usually happens sometime around the summer solstice.
Some gardeners will leave one or two flowers on the plants to help them decide when to harvest when the time comes.
8. How and when to harvest garlic
Determining when garlic is ready to harvest is one of the trickiest parts about growing it. If you harvest too soon the cloves will be small and underdeveloped (certainly usable but not as big and plump as possible). If you wait too long, as the heads dry the cloves will begin to separate and the head won’t be tight and firm (also not a disaster, but the cloves will be more vulnerable to decay and drying out so they won’t store as long).
Though it depends somewhat on the growing season and where you live, garlic is usually ready to harvest sometime in July. When the lower third to half of the leaves have turned brown and wilted, but the upper leaves are still green. This is also where the couple of flower stalks you left can come in handy. If the leaves are starting to turn brown and the scapes uncurl and stand up straight, it is time to harvest.
Unlike onions, garlic bulbs develop several inches below the soil surface so best practice is to use a garden fork to lift them, or you can aggressively yank them straight out like my toddler does, haha, and they’ll still be ok. I simply shake or brush most of the soil off the bulbs, I do not wash or spray them down. The drier the better. Also, #lazygardener.
9. How to cure and store garlic
From the garden, the full plants go into bulb crates into the garage. I leave the full necks on the plants for at least a month. The key for garlic storage is to make sure there’s plenty of room for air to circulate around the heads. A porch, shed or barn works, too. A dark, dry, cool area is best, but as long as they’re not in direct sunlight or anywhere with high humidity and/or heat they’ll be fine. Some people swear by braiding and hanging but again, I am not that fancy nor do I have the time so this works for me!
Garlic bulbs are considered fully cured and ready for storage once the necks are almost completely dry. Hardneck garlic takes longer for the neck to get completely dry than it does for softneck garlic. Once the papery exterior and stem are good and dry, you can brush off the rest of the dirt and trim all but about an inch of stem. I usually trim off most of the roots at this point too because the bulbs are cleaner to handle in the kitchen.
Under optimum conditions of near freezing temps and 65-70% humidity, hard neck garlic will keep for five months and soft neck for eight months.
10. Where to buy new garlic heads for planting
Below are my favorite places to shop new varieties, ideally you’ll want to purchase heads during the summer months!
Remember to save your biggest cloves to replant for next year. Experienced farmers say that garlic “learns” because it adapts to your growing conditions and improves each year.
Ok friend! Thank you for reading this far, that is the quick and dirty my friends! I hope you enjoyed this quick guide to growing great garlic! Tell me your favorite garlic recipes below or if you have any amazing garlic tips for us!