Growing Garlic

growing garlicGarlic might be one of those culinary staples that you take for granted every day. However, the pungent taste of garden-grown garlic might be all it takes for you to consider growing garlic of your own. The vast majority of the world’s garlic is grown in China. There it is sprayed with chemicals and bleached white before landing on store shelves. Compared to homegrown varieties, these conventional bulbs are almost tasteless.

Growing garlic of your own couldn’t be easier. It takes a tiny amount of space and, after planted, can largely be left alone until harvest. Take some time to invest in growing this aromatic bulb and you’ll be enjoying financial savings and savory stir fries all year long.

Start Growing Garlic

Planting garlic is simple, but you have to make sure that you do it exactly right. Follow these steps to ensure that you have success.

When and Where Should You Grow Garlic?

Garlic is traditionally planted in the fall and in well-fertilized garden beds that have good drainage. You can plant garlic at any time of the year, but fall plantings allow the cloves to get the maximum amount of growing time they need, resulting in the largest bulbs.

Understanding Seed Germination for Garlic

Each bulb of garlic contains several cloves that each have the potential to grow a new bulb. Most types of cultivated garlic are sterile, meaning that they don’t produce true seeds or even flowers. Each garlic plant from the same variety is a clone of every other, each containing identical genetic makeup.

Occasionally a garlic plant will go to seed, and though it’s possible to cultivate garlic seeds, it takes several years to form bulbs and rarely survive to maturity. For this reason, most garlic is grown from cloves.

Preparing a Garlic Bed

To get a garlic bed ready for planting, locate a spot with fertile soil and good drainage with a pH level between 6.5 and 7.0. Don’t plant your garlic in a place where water tends to settle, as it can quickly cause the bulbs to rot. Garlic plants can tolerate some shade but greatly prefer full sun, unless you are growing in a very hot climate. Raised beds can be ideal because they don’t retain moisture in the same way that regular beds do.

As with any bulb plant, you need to make sure to prep your garlic bed well before planting.

Organic material is essential for garlic beds, so be sure to add some compost or manure into the soil when loosening it up. Dig through the soil carefully to a depth of 12 inches to ensure that clumps are broken up and that your cloves have room to expand. You will know your soil is ready when you can effortlessly push your hand in several inches.

Planting Garlic Cloves

Garlic is usually planted in the fall, often after the first frost of the year. Once the garden bed has been prepared and the soil is loosened, you are ready to plant your cloves. Carefully separate the cloves from the garlic bulb, being careful not to bruise them. It’s best to separate the bulbs immediately before planting because it prevents the root nodules from drying out, which means they will set roots quicker in the soil.

You should plant your cloves into the ground four inches deep and six to eight inches apart, making sure that the pointed ends are up. This is critical, as garlic planted upside down won’t grow nearly as big. Once planted, cover the cloves with three to five inches of organic mulch like hay or shredded leaves.

You’ll see shoots from your garlic start to grow through the mulch after four to eight weeks, but they will stop growing in the winter and only start again when spring arrives. Leave the mulch in place when spring arrives as it helps conserve moisture and suppress weeds.

Watering and Mulching Requirements

Garlic needs consistent water to grow well, usually about an inch a week. It’s especially important to water garlic plants well before the bulbs start to form in mid-May. If you are hand watering through the spring, stop in early June to allow your garlic bulbs to have time to dry out and firm up.

Mulching garlic can be crucial for its success. You can use compost, wood chips or hay to suppress weeds and increase the soil quality and nutritional content to benefit your crops. However, you don’t want your mulch to sit so heavily on your bulbs that it causes them to retain too much moisture and rot. Some people remove their garlic mulch in wetter years, especially when signs of stem rot (browning and sliminess around base of the plant) start to become evident.

You should also be aware that mulches can provide ideal habitats for rodents and other creatures that like to nibble on garlic. You’ll need to be especially vigilant to guard your patch if you lay your mulch down too thickly.

Harvesting Garlic Scapes

By mid-June, your garlic should have sprouted tall flowers that curl into long spiky tendrils as they mature. These are called the garlic scapes, and recent studies have shown that when they are removed garlic plants invest more energy towards growing large bulbs.

As an added bonus, this unique plant part is delicious sauteed or as a garlic pesto, and can be incorporated into a wide range of dishes.

Companion Planting and Rotation Considerations

Garlic is a fantastic companion plant for a wide variety of species because it takes up so little room and because it often acts as a natural pest and fungus deterrent. Rue and chamomile can help to improve the overall growth of garlic, but be sure to keep your plants away from asparagus, beans, peas and parsley as they can be negatively affected by garlic.

Common Pests and Diseases for Garlic

There are several pests and diseases that enjoy snacking on garlic that are described below.

  • Onion thrips: these little bugs like to lay eggs near the stalks of garlic plants and chew on the edges of the leaves. You can keep them away from your plants by mowing down their habitat around your garden to prevent them from invading. Sticky tape and biological pesticides can also be helpful against more damaging infestations.
  • Onion root maggots: a bigger concern in areas where onions have been grown for the past few years, onion root maggots lay eggs around the base of young plants and their offspring chew on the roots. You can work to prevent them by dusting your planting area with diatomaceous earth in the springtime when females are busy laying their eggs.
  • Fusarium root rot: this rot affects the base of the garlic stalk and can cause big problems for its long term health. You can avoid it by growing your bulbs in well drained soil and being careful not to injure the plant roots through weeding which can produce openings for the disease to enter in.

Harvesting and Storing Garlic

Garlic is usually ready to be harvested by mid-summer, or when the soil around each plant is dry and over a third of plant leaves are brown and withered. You can use a digging fork to loosen the soil and then hand pull the bulbs. You want to be gentle with the fresh bulbs because they can easily bruise when battered around.

Each bulb will need to dry out in a warm, dry spot with good airflow that is protected from the sun. After two weeks, you can brush the soil off each bulb and clip the stem off of hard neck varieties with a garden shears. Soft neck varieties can keep their stems, which are traditionally braided together to make for easy storage. Don’t remove the outside papery layers of the garlic, as these are essential for preventing the cloves from rotting.

After the initial drying period, garlic can be stored at 60 degrees Fahrenheit for up to eight months or more. A smart way to store them is to hang your crop from the rafters of a cool, dry storage shed or basement, either in mesh bags or as braids.

Saving Garlic Seeds

The garlic you grow yourself becomes adapted to the climate conditions you are growing it in, so it’s a smart idea to save your own garlic cloves from one year to the next for planting. This both saves you money and helps you to get a bigger, better crop over time.

After you harvest and dry your garlic crop, set aside the biggest and best bulbs that you harvested for replanting in the fall. Keep them stored with your other garlic and be sure to not break the bulbs open until just before you are ready to plant.

Choosing the Best Garlic Seeds for Your Climate

There are hundreds of different types of garlic, but they all can usually be split into hardneck, softneck, and elephant varieties.

  • Softneck garlic grows best with mild winters and don’t produce garlic scapes. Softneck varieties tend to have a stronger flavor and their pliable stems make them great for braiding. Popular varieties include Creole and artichoke.
  • Hardneck garlic is better suited to handling cold weather and they always form scapes in the early summer. They have a hard, woody stem and a much more mild flavor and larger bulbs with fewer cloves. They don’t tend to store as long. Some popular varieties are porcelain, purple stripe and rocambole varieties.
  • Elephant garlic produces large, mild-flavored bulbs that have no more than six giant cloves. This variety is hardy enough for zone 5 if mulched deeply in the winter.

Additional Growing Tips for Organic Garlic

Every gardener will have their best-tested techniques for growing a great garlic crop. You can follow these tips for a good chance of success.

  • Don’t be afraid to experiment with different types and varieties, as all garlic bulbs react differently to varied climate conditions. Experimenting will help you find what works best for your garden.
  • If you want to grow garlic greens for cooking, you can plant whole bulbs a foot apart in the fall, and then harvest the greens in the spring when they are ten inches tall. Each plant should give you at least two cuttings.
  • Always separate the cloves just before planting to ensure that the root nodules don’t dry out.
  • To start your garlic cloves off strong, soak them in a jar of water with a tablespoon of baking soda and a tablespoon of liquid seaweed just a few hours before planting.