Garlic is an easy-to-grow crop that requires little to no care, and if you set aside a head or two from each harvest for planting the next season, you’ll never have to buy garlic again.
Garlic is in the Allium genus, which also includes onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, chives and ornamental Alliums.
Because garlic grows throughout the winter, it is a great crop for keeping your garden in production year-round. Also, heads of garlic can last for a long time when properly cured and stored, so they can be used in the kitchen and enjoyed for months longer than many other vegetables from the garden.
Squirrels and other mammals hate the taste and smell of garlic and will leave your garlic plantings alone — and may even avoid nearby vegetables as well.
Rather than trying to grow garlic from garlic seeds (or, more accurately, garlic bulbils) it is much easier and much more practical to grow garlic from cloves, a process that I will explain below.
But before getting into how to grow, harvest and cure garlic, it’s important to know how to select the garlic varieties that will perform best in your garden.
Choosing Between Softneck and Hardneck Garlic
Softneck and hardneck varieties of garlic are so named because of their stalks. While softneck garlic has pliable stalks that can be braided for storage and an attractive display, hardneck garlic stalks are woody, stiff and not suitable for braiding. But the differences don’t end there.
Softneck garlic is better suited to southern climates while cold-hardy hardneck garlic fares better in northern climates.
And even though a softneck variety may be rated for USDA hardiness zones 7-10, that doesn’t mean that it will perform well in the northernmost reaches of zone 7. This is because day-length is another consideration when growing alliums.
While softneck garlic (Allium sativum sativum) usually has all-white bulbs, hardneck garlic (Allium sativum ophioscorodon) is more likely to have hues of pink and purple. Hardneck garlic is also known to have more intense flavor than softneck varieties.
After the stalks have been cut off, it is a bit harder to tell softneck and hardneck garlic heads apart. But once you break apart a head, you’ll notice that a hardneck variety has the base of the stalk running through it while the stalk is absent from a softneck garlic head.
Hardneck garlic cloves have the benefit of being easier to peel, and hardneck heads are typically bigger than softneck heads. Even though softneck garlic tends to have more cloves per head than hardneck garlic, softneck garlic cloves are smaller.
Softneck garlic lasts longer in storage than hardneck. Including the curing period (more on curing later) softneck can last for six months or even longer, while hardneck typically lasts from three to four months.
Hardneck garlic also grows a flower stem called a scape — and garlic scapes are like a bonus crop. In spring, the curly garlic stem will bloom into a flower if left to grow, but this is not what’s best for your garlic.
Instead of the plant putting that energy into flowering and setting seed (or bulbils, in the case of garlic) it’s better to cut the scape off so that energy goes into producing a larger head.
And that fresh scape is a delicious treat that you can enjoy many weeks before the garlic head is ready to cook with.
You can mince garlic scapes to make pesto, grill them, saute them, mix them in with stir-fry — or even use them in soup. And garlic scapes can be a substitute for green onions in almost any recipe that calls for them. The texture is like asparagus, and the flavor is mild yet unmistakably garlic.
Most varieties of hardneck garlic fall into one of three categories: Rocambole, porcelain and purple stripe, but there is even more diversity than that, including Creole and Asiatic.
Most softneck garlic varieties fall under the artichoke or silverskin categories.
Meanwhile, elephant garlic, which is particularly large, is a different species altogether and can be grown successfully in the North or South. Rather than Allium sativum, elephant garlic is Allium ampeloprasum, the same species as leeks and pearl onions.
How to Source Garlic
Garlic heads intended to be separated into individual cloves for planting are referred to as “seed garlic.”
The garlic that you find at your local grocery store is almost always from China or California and, though it depends on where you live, there is a good chance it is not suited to grow in your region. While you can experiment with growing grocery store garlic, there are surer paths to successfully growing garlic.
To find garlic suited to your region, first look to your local farmers and growers. A farmers market or farm stand that carries locally grown garlic is a great source for seed garlic that will produce well where you live.
You can also try to find fellow gardeners willing to share a head of garlic with you from a variety that they have been saving and regrowing with great results year after year.
You can also order seed garlic from a seed catalog or an online seed vendor. Just be conscious of whether the garlic variety you are ordering is softneck or hardneck.
Seed garlic from reputable vendors should be free of pests and pathogens, but wherever you source garlic from, always check before planting for signs of damage or disease. A damaged garlic clove will not thrive and may rot before it produces a bulb. Diseased garlic will not only die, it will introduce pathogens to the garden bed and the viable garlic you have planted.
When and How to Plant Garlic
October is the most popular month to plant garlic, but depending on where you live, you could plant sooner or later.
In the North, late September or October are the best times to plant garlic cloves. It should be done at least two weeks before the first frost of the season, and must be done before the ground freezes.
In the South, October is an ideal time but you could wait until November, December or even January. However, it’s best to err on the side of planting early than late.
Garlic can be grown either in-ground or in a raised garden bed. Either way, garlic will grow best and produce the biggest heads when planted in soil that drains readily and is rich in organic matter.
But do not add fertilizer at planting time, as it may stimulate vigorous growth early on that will be damaged when winter weather sets in.
If you wish to fertilize, knowing the nutrient makeup of your soil first is always a good place to start. A soil test will provide that information.
While the natural inclination may be to add nutrients that are best suited for bulb growth and development (phosphorus), this nutrient is often already present in the soil at sufficient levels. In such cases, adding more doesn’t help.
Nitrogen, on the other hand, is a nutrient that is utilized quickly and does not persist in the soil as phosphorus does. Nitrogen is an important nutrient for garlic, especially in spring for foliage health, which is the main lifeline to bulb development below ground.
In spring, side-dress with a nitrogen-based fertilizer, such as blood meal, soybean meal or cottonseed meal, composted chicken manure, or another slow-release nitrogen source. Lightly work the fertilizer just into the surface so the soil microbes can get to work making the nutrients available to the garlic.
Alternatively, you could try a blended organic fertilizer mix specifically developed for garlic. Fruition Seeds Company offers such a product that they claim to have perfected over the years to emphasize bulb development in the fall and foliage growth in spring. It consists of alfalfa meal, kelp meal, feather meal and compost crumbles.
Wait until planting time to break up a head of garlic and separate the cloves. This is best done by pulling the head apart with your fingers, taking care not to damage individual cloves. Leave the “paper” on the cloves, and reject any cloves that have holes in them or other signs of damage. Choose the biggest cloves to plant, as they will produce the biggest heads.
Cloves should always be planted with the pointed side up and the root-end down, just like when planting flower bulbs.
Take a trowel and dig parallel furrows 2 inches deep and 1 foot apart. Space garlic cloves in the furrows 4 inches apart and cover them with soil so the surface is level once again, and then water in.
If you are working in an irregularly shaped space, don’t worry about creating neat furrows. Instead, while being conscious of the spacing requirements between cloves, make 2-inch-deep holes with your fingers in any pattern you choose.
Either immediately upon planting or soon before frost is expected, protect the garlic with a generous application of mulch.
Loose straw makes for a great, fluffy, insulating mulch, should be applied in a 6-inch layer. Alternatively, 4 inches of shredded leaves are just as effective. In warmer climates where the ground doesn’t freeze, all that’s needed is 2 inches of organic mulch to block weeds and retain moisture.
Do not plant garlic in a spot where garlic, onions or another member of the allium family has been grown in recent years. Changing up where garlic is grown (an example of crop rotation) is important for avoiding allium pests and diseases.
When planting, take note of the days-to-maturity of the variety, if known. Days-to-maturity is not exact, but it will give you an idea of when to look for signs that the garlic is ready to be pulled up.
When to Water Garlic
To achieve optimal bulb formation and reduce plant stress, avoid overwatering or underwatering garlic plants. Too little water can stress plants, and too much water can cause bulb rot.
In soil with ideal drainage, garlic requires between a half-inch and one inch of water per week. If it rains less than a half-inch in a week, make up the difference with supplemental watering.
It is best to water deep, but infrequently. Rather than watering a little every day, water once a week when rainfall hasn’t already done the job for you.
In the winter, when the ground is frozen or when the outdoor temperature is below freezing, cease supplemental watering until the ground thaws and temperatures rise again.
If growing hardneck garlic, you can stop watering after you have cut the scapes. For softneck garlic, stop watering a week before you expect to harvest.
When and How to Harvest Garlic
In Southern climates, fall-planted garlic may be ready to be pulled up as soon as May or June. In the North, harvest time will likely be around the middle of July or as last as mid-August.
When garlic is approaching maturity, the leaves running up the stalk turn yellow then brown, starting at the bottom of the plant and moving up. The leaves begin to lose their vigor and start to flop over. This is a good sign that your garlic is approaching maturity.
Popular advice is that the garlic is ready when the first four leaves, counting from the bottom, have browned. This is about a third of the stalk’s height. When at least half of your garlic plants reach this stage, cease watering for a week, then perform a test by pulling up one bulb.
Yanking the bulbs out of the soil forcefully may damage the plant. Before trying to pull up garlic, carefully loosen the soil around it with a trowel of a garden fork. Then the bulb should come out of the ground with ease.
If the first bulb appears much smaller than the variety was expected to grow to, water the remaining garlic and give the bulbs another week to grow, and then repeat the test. Be mindful that the smallest cloves planted will not catch up to the size of the bulbs produced by the biggest cloves.
The cloves of garlic bulbs left in the ground for too long will begin to separate and the protective skin may crack.
When garlic comes out of the ground, do not remove the stalk or roots. Garlic needs to be cured for storage first, or it will have a very short shelf-life.
Curing and Storing Garlic
After the garlic has been pulled up, shake off the loose dirt, but do not rinse or scrub the garlic. Keep the entire plant intact at this stage and don’t let it get wet. If it is a warm, dry day, the garlic will benefit from a few hours outdoors to dry out, but it’s best to avoid high temperatures over 90 F, bright sunlight, and if it’s wet out, it’s best to get the garlic indoors straightaway.
Curing is a process that will toughen up the bulb and ready it for storage, and it improves the flavor.
In a house or well-ventilated garage and out of direct sunlight, garlic plants can be placed on wire racks or hung, roots up. They should be spaced out to allow airflow so it dries quickly and does not get moldy. (Run a fan if you can.)
After 10-14 days, the outer skin of each head of garlic should be dry and papery. At this point, the stalks can be cut off and composted. In the case of softneck garlic, the stalks may be left on for braiding.
Garlic deteriorates faster once a clove has been broken off from the head, so it’s best to keep heads whole until cloves are needed.
Garlic should be kept in a dry, dark place to discourage sprouting. A garlic keeper jar, with holes for ventilation, or a paper bag works well. Never put garlic in a plastic bag or an air-tight container, as trapped moisture will cause mold.
At room temperature — assuming the room is relatively dry — garlic will last one or two months, if not longer. At cooler temperatures, down to 40° Fahrenheit, garlic will last its longest. Storing at a relative humidity of 60 to 70% with good airflow is ideal to prevent the accumulation of moisture.
If you set aside your largest bulbs each year and plant the largest cloves, you can repeat the cycle indefinitely and your garlic will continue to improve.
What varieties of garlic are your favorite to grow? Share with us in the comments below.
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Links & Resources
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Three popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; and seed starting!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Essential Gardening Fundamentals: The basics on healthy soil, planting, watering techniques, composting, raised bed and other gardening methods, fertilizer, the many benefits of mulch, and more.
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