I grow homegrown garlic each year because it has ten times more flavor than garlic in the grocery store, which has often been shipped across the world. After discovering the unparalleled taste of growing your own garlic, you’ll want to grow it and share it with others, season after season. Bonus, it’s easy to grow – all you need is patience.
Let’s first talk about the ease of planting garlic. Having a few years of garlic growing under my belt, I’ve come to think about it as a “set it and forget it” crop because once it’s planted, it doesn’t rely on you for much. Garlic grows effortlessly in containers, raised beds, or in-ground beds. I plant garlic at a family member’s property, an hour away from my home, and you can bet I don’t drive up there just to water the garlic bed. Once it’s planted and mulched, I rely on Mother Nature to do most of the watering for me. And guess what? The garlic always grows beautifully. The thought of garlic as a high-maintenance crop may have deterred you before if you consider yourself a “lazy” or a hands-off gardener. If this is the case, you’ll be happy to learn that garlic doesn’t ask for much more than time (nine to ten months to be exact).
Before we dive deep into the garlic-growing details, here’s a crash course in the difference between hardneck and softneck garlic.
Softneck garlic varieties have a soft stem and grow a double layer of cloves. I think about it as, “cloves on cloves.” Softneck garlic is the variety that you often see braided. Whereas, hardneck garlic has a stiff stem, that gets even stiffer as it dries. Its cloves grow in a single layer around the stiff stem. Hardneck garlic produces scapes whereas softneck does not produce scapes. Scapes are edible and delicious, and why I particularly like to grow the hardneck variety (also I garden in zone 5/6 and hardneck are more winter hardy and does better in colder climates).
How To Plant Garlic
1. Get the “Seed”
When planting garlic, the cloves are often referred to as “seed” and are not to be confused with true garlic seeds which form if you let garlic go to flower. Buy garlic to plant from your local garden centre not grocery store because garlic “seed” has been specifically grown to be planted. It will be disease resistant and of high quality.
2. Prepare the Soil
Garlic loves loamy, well draining soil. Garlic will rot if it sits underground in water for too long. Garlic is a heavy feeder, which means it needs to be planted alongside rich, nutrient dense soil. Mix compost and/or worm castings deep into the soil. Work the soil until it’s loose. This will help speed up your process when planting.
3. Prepare the Seed
Break the bulb up carefully. Keep the papery skin on. Select the largest cloves to plant as they will grow into large bulbs. Save the smaller ones to cook with. Don’t cut corners and do this ahead of planting or you run the risk of having the cloves dry out a bit. Rather, do this step right before you are ready to plant.
A side rant: Many people will tell you not to “waste your time” with the small cloves because they don’t grow large bulbs but sometimes I plant them anyways. It’s for your personal consumption not the garlic growing olympics! Growing garlic is a fun process with a delicious reward at the end, even if it’s a small bulb – I’ll still find use for it.
4. Get Planting
There are many different planting patterns and formations. Many people like to plant in straight rows every 4-6” inches apart and wide. To save space, I often plant in a star-like formation such as 2-1-2.
The pointed end of the clove is the top. It helps if you visualize them fully grown, where the pointy end is the sprout and stem and the bottom is the roots.
I’ve learned that the most effective way to plant garlic is to prep the entire planting area first. Loosen up the soil and amend it, then break up the bulbs and lay out the cloves in their respective spots. Once the soil is worked and soft, the bulbs are broken up and the cloves are placed, planting is a breeze. Simply wiggle them about 2” inches down into the soil. You can do two at a time, moving along swiftly. After they’re all in the ground, cover the holes with soil and lightly pat down.
After the cloves have been planted and covered, lightly water over top.
Cover the planted garlic with mulch or what I like to call, a “warm blanket” for winter. Straw, mulch, grass clippings or leaves are all good options. Since garlic is planted in the fall, leaves are often readily available. Whatever medium you decide to use, pile it on about 3-4” inches deep.
How-To Harvest Garlic
Harvesting hardneck garlic is broken into two parts: harvesting garlic scapes and harvesting garlic bulbs. Scapes develop first and bulbs come second. The two are connected and the bulb development relies on the removal of the scape. If you’re a garlic newbie, you might find yourself wondering, what is a garlic scape and why do I need to harvest it?
Part I: Scapes
When: Around mid-June. Scapes will be ready to harvest when they form a curl or spiral, and/or grow taller than the stalk and leaves.
What: The scape is a tender light yellow-green shoot that grows from the center of the stalk. They can be somewhat camouflaged but when you look closely, you’ll see it is much different than the garlic leaves. Enjoy them in a homemade pesto, sauteed or grilled on the BBQ!
Why: The scape is the beginning of a bud that would eventually flower. This is where all of the “true garlic seeds” would grow. If the bud were to be left intact and allowed time to form, the plant would concentrate its energy to form the flower instead of directing its energy down to form a big, juicy garlic bulb.
That being said however, why not leave one to go to seed? This experiment will allow you to see the plant through its full cycle and how it impacts the bulb size forming in the ground. Experimentation is always encouraged in the garden.
How: With sharp clean pruners, snip the bottom of the shoot right above the leaves. Be careful not to clip anything off but the scape.
Part II: Bulbs
This is the moment you’ve waited ten precious months for. If you’re a newbie and have noticed that people tend to plant a lot of garlic at once, it’s because it takes so long to grow yet is used so quickly in the kitchen.
When: Around July or August, keep a close eye on your garlic. When a couple of the bottom leaves start to turn brown and dry out, it’s harvest time. Don’t wait until the whole stalk dries out because each leaf on the stalk is connected to the bulb below the ground. When the leaves die off, the layer that corresponds with the bulb breaks down which means if they all break down, the bulb would be sitting exposed without it’s papery wrapping and will be susceptible to disease. No good.
How: Be very careful while digging around underground, as hasty harvesting will lead to damaged crops that will not store well. A pitchfork is my favourite garden tool for harvesting garlic. The goal is to loosen the soil AROUND the garlic. Then gently dig around with your hand to find the bulb and gently pull up. Keeping the bulb and stem attached is important. Lightly dust off any loose dirt. Garlic in this state is quite fragile, handle with thought and care. Repeat until all of the garlic is out of the ground.
How-To Cure Garlic
In order for long-term storage of your garlic, it needs to cure. Curing means preserve. Basically you are just playing the waiting game of waiting for the moisture to evaporate. The best place to cure is in a cool, dry, well-ventilated space, and out of direct sunlight. Find somewhere that you can spread out and provide enough room between the bulbs for air flow. I hang mine in a garage. I tie the ends together and hang them on clothing hangers. They don’t need to be hung, you can easily lay garlic out in a single layer in a basement room (as long as it’s dry!). Depending on the curing conditions, garlic will take anywhere from two to five weeks to dry. After they’ve finished curing, lightly brush away the dried soil and a layer of the casing, trim the roots and cut down the stalk keeping several inches intact, this will help lengthen the shelf life even longer.