The only thing that’s difficult about growing garlic is remembering to get out there and plant it before winter sets in. Garlic is one of those kitchen essentials that we can’t live without - but for some reason many vegetable gardeners don’t think of growing garlic themselves. I think it's because by the time its late enough in the season to plant garlic, the kids have been back in school awhile, the leaves are falling from the trees, and most folks are more in the mindset of carving pumpkins than planting in the garden.
But just like daffodils, tulips, and our other beloved fall bulbs, garlic is an overwintering fall crop.
Exactly when to plant it, as well as which type to grow, depends on where you live and when your first frost happens. A general rule of thumb is to plant garlic within 3 weeks after your first hard frost. In the northern areas of the US, this is usually somewhere between mid-September to late October.
Growing Garlic: Varieties
There are hundreds of varieties of garlic, but they all fall into two main categories: softneck and hardneck.
Softneck varieties are more common and are favored by commercial growers. The leaf tops wither down into soft, braidable strands, and they don’t send up a flower stalk. They are usually slightly more productive (and sometimes larger) than hardnecks, and they store better, for a longer period, throughout the summer.
Hardneck varieties come in a much greater variety of flavors, and they send up a firm flowerstalk which curls over into a beautiful “scape”, which itself is edible and delicious when young. These have become popular sellers at farmer’s markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture farms) and are sometimes used in flower arrangements because they are so graceful. Hardneck varieties are generally slightly less productive and don’t store quite as long as softnecks. Because the central flowerstalk dries into a rigid central stick, hardneck varieties can’t be used in garlic braids.
About the scapes: For the best eating, you should harvest the garlic scapes when they are only about 4” long. Or you can ignore them, letting them dry and form little clusters of tiny garlic cloves at the top. Cutting them off prevents the plant from putting energy into reproducing that way, but it doesn’t make as much difference to your final yield as you might think. Don’t sweat it if you let them go too long and you can’t harvest them to eat.
We love garlic at our house, and so we eat and grow a lot of it. I like to choose a couple of nice large-cloved softneck varieties for braiding and storage, as well as several hardneck varieties for the fun of playing with colors and flavors, not to mention eating (and serving friends) garlic scapes in stir fry or chicken curry.
Growing Garlic: Planting
There is nothing wrong with planting garlic from heads you buy at the ordinary grocery store… except that it will be a bit of a wild card. I have had both great success and great disappointment doing this, and have not been able to tell why sometimes they grew large and sometimes yielded only tiny heads. The point is, you don’t know whether the variety you buy for eating will be suitable for your climate.
A really good local nursery may be able to steer you to garlic varieties that do well in your climate, but only if there are people there who actually grow garlic themselves and know from experience. We have a great local nursery that grows all their own stock of perennial flowers, vegetables, and garlic, and everything they sell is locally proven – we are very lucky. If such a gem of a nursery does not exist in your area, there are many good seed catalogs and even garlic specialty catalogs that sell through the mail, with good descriptions of what conditions each variety likes.
My own endeavors in growing garlic begin around October 1, when I fork up the garlic bed and incorporate about an inch of nice, ripe homemade compost. I separate the head of garlic into individual cloves and plant them about 4 or 5 inches apart, in a hexagonal spacing pattern (offset rows). I plant them an inch or two deep.
I have never grown elephant garlic, because I prefer the stronger tasting varieties, but if you are growing elephant garlic, plant it farther apart and deeper, because it is a much larger plant. Plant it at a spacing of 6-8 inches between plants, with each clove 4-6 inches deep.
Growing Garlic: Harvesting
The only “pest” I have ever had bothering my garlic is fungus, and that was one time when I left the garlic in the ground way past harvest time, and it dried, split, and then started to rot. Harvest your garlic when the first few leaves at the base of the plant start to turn yellow, but the plant still has many green leaves at the center. In my climate, that is usually about mid-June. Put a digging fork straight in a few inches away from the garlic so you don’t damage the head, and then lift and loosen the soil. The garlics will then be easy to pull up.
Shake or brush off some of the dirt, but don’t go to town with this. Garlic stores much better with a little dirt on its skin. Cure the garlic for a week or so in a dry, warm, sunless spot. A little more dirt may brush off at this point, but whatever you do don’t damage the outermost skin, or you’ll damage its storage ability and have to eat it really soon. Garlic needs its outer skin to keep from drying out and splitting during storage.