How To Grow Garlic

How to Grow Garlic

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First of all, I need to tell you that my experience stems from years of growing garlic in northern New England. So, if you live in different regions of the country, I’ll point out some resources that might help you better than I can on this.

I got the inspiration to write this post because here – early August – we’re about to harvest the latest crop! The leaves are dying off, and in digging up a few bulbs, they are looking ready.

Why do I plant garlic each year?

This is an easy question to answer! Why? Because for me it’s pretty much a fool-proof crop, and it lasts all winter (stored properly). Where other garden plants take a lot of weeding and care, there are few crops that I know of (personally) that just grow so well.

If you look at the image of the garlic patch above - that's our crop from several years ago - it looks pretty much exactly the same each year. If you look carefully, you should see anywhere from 10 - 12 plants in a row, and there are probably 11 - 12 rows in all. That's a good crop right there! And that means lots to share, too!

There are other reasons to plant garlic:

  • It’s good for you
  • It keeps very well over the winter (keep it cool, and away from direct light) The photo below shows the LAST 2 BULBS from our crop of 2018. And it's now August 2019. We just used those last 2 bulbs (yes, they were a touch dry, but they were still good!)
  • It’s one of those crops where you can really feel accomplished – you can grow your own seed crop, and cultivate its descendants year after year.
  • It is super easy to grow
  • Garlic is also pretty much “bug proof” since I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything go after it.
  • It makes me feel like a real gardener and takes my mind off my other gardening failures (ahem, we won’t talk about those right now).
How to grow garlic - Last 2 garlic bulbs from the 2018 crop

When to plant?

Up north, the rule of thumb is that I get it into the ground in the fall – sometime after Columbus Day (mid-October) and DEFINITELY before the ground freezes hard or gets covered by snow (which happened in 2018). Generally speaking, I get my bulbs planted by the end of October.

I’ve had friends in the south who have said they are going to attempt growing it, but my guess is that they’ll have to put it in the ground in the springtime since there is no “winter” frosts and snow to harden and cover the bulbs.

If I discover anyone who has had good luck with this down south, I’ll put in an update here! In the meantime, I'll list out a few resources at the end of this article as well.

Finding Bulbs ("Seed Garlic") to Plant

When we first began growing garlic, we went to the Common Ground Fair (a fair put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association – MOFGA – every September) and purchased several pounds of “seed garlic.”

By the way, if you are ever in the area at the end of September and want a REAL country fair – no carnivals or anything like that – just an amazing fair with tons of speakers, organic foods, and fascinating displays with a wonderful homesteading bent – please find a way to put the Common Ground Fair on your calendar. It’s held in Unity, ME.

It's not the easiest or most straight-forward place to get to, but worth every mile, and every second. Here’s their website: www.mofga.org/The-Fair

Also, you can look at Fedco Seeds, a REALLY reliable source for almost anything you can think of for gardening and homesteading. A lot of people in the northeast use them. Some people make a pilgrimage to their location in Clinton, ME each year. I have absolutely nothing to gain by sending you there - they are just fantastic. Here's their site: https://www.fedcoseeds.com/

Believe it or not, I found a source for seed garlic on Amazon. I can't vouche for it, because I have always sourced my planting garlic more locally. But you can give it a look!

Anyway, I got a little off track there.

Back to the Garlic.

Types of Garlic

Garlic pretty much falls into one of two types: "Softneck" (the type you can easily braid) or "Hardneck" which is pretty much what we grow - and this is the type that creates a "scape" - a shoot that grows from the center that will turn into a seed pod (I mention that below). 

So, the “seed garlic” is pretty much just whatever garlic I can source from other growers or catalogs. I’m honestly not even sure why they call it “seed garlic” because it always looks like regular garlic. We have had good luck planting garlic even if the “seed garlic” comes from a farmer's market (no one - including me - recommends that you use garlic from a grocery store because it may not grow right in your region, and even organic garlic may have some type of treatment on it).

I won’t get into the different types of garlic – there are many! I remember originally getting some “Russian Red” and some other variety.

Hey, I just plant the stuff.

The Basics

Setting Up the Beds

You need a “bed” to plant in. Choose a spot that will get lots of sunshine. In years past, I created nice evenly spaced rows of slightly raised “mounds” (primarily so I had a good visual on WHERE I planted the bulbs). But you don’t have to do that.

What fertilizers should you use?

I suppose that there are a lot of opinions out there on this. Personally, we have always been told that you need a high nitrogen content in the soil, so we’ve always sprinkled a bag of blood meal over the plot before tilling. You will need the soil to be nicely turned, with all the composted manure and anything else you want to use to feed the soil well combined.

Because we know garlic to be a “heavy feeder” we also make sure that the soil is rich with composted manure, and nice and loose (we’ve used peat moss some years to loosen up the dirt). Make sure you don’t use “green” manure because you don’t want to “burn” the crop.

Some of my neighbors swear by composted horse manure, and in fact, some of the largest bulbs I have ever seen come out of the ground in my neighborhood were from soil that had horse manure added to it.

Prepping and Spacing the Cloves

I use a long piece of scrap wood to use as an edge to guide my planting efforts (so that I plant in a straight line).

If you have a bulb of garlic that has 5 individual cloves, each clove will be a seed for the plant. Plan on planting your cloves about 6 – 8” apart, and 2 – 3” deep.

How to grow garlic - garlic planted in snow and mulched with straw 2018

Once you know how many plants your garlic plot will be able to hold, carefully separate your cloves from the bulb. Keep the out layer (I call it the “paper”) on each clove.

The larger the clove you plant, the larger bulb you will grow.

The hardest thing for us has always been to save the biggest bulbs and not eat them! We like to save those for replanting each fall.

Planting the Cloves

As mentioned earlier, in New England, we plant before the ground freezes solid. For us, that is anywhere from Columbus Day in October into November.

Take a look at this photo of our current garlic patch right after we planted LAST October (2018). Notice that snow? Oy… It began snowing in the mountains on October 24, and Never. Stopped.

It was all we could do to carve out a window to plant at all – which we did. Barely.

Mulching and Maintaining the Crop

Notice the straw layer of mulch? Ordinarily we would be piling on mounds of fallen leaves (whatever leaves fell in the yard and grounds) for mulch. This last fall the snow pretty much put the kibosh on that. There was no way we could salvage any leaves, which is a real bummer.

Why? Because those leaves serve a bigger purpose than just protecting the freshly planted bulbs.

Over the course of the winter and then spring and summer, the leaves leach their nutritive goodies into the soil and further feed the growing garlic. In addition, the thick layer of leaves flattens out, and creates an amazing weed barrier.

Seriously, weeding that patch is a non-issue.

The mulch also helps the ground retain the precious water that garlic needs. If you haven’t had rain in a while, poke the ground under the mulch – if it’s getting dry, give your garlic patch a good drink.

With no leaves to mulch, however, we did the next best thing, and my friend (to whom this house now belongs since we sold it last fall) brought up the bales of straw.

Let the Magic Happen 

Watch for the Shoots to Come up in the Spring

One of the sure signs of spring is seeing those beautiful tender green shoots pop through the leaves (or, straw, this year). For us in the mountains of New Hampshire, that is late April.

Upon seeing those first shoots, head over to your garlic patch, and move any sticks or heavy debris away from the mulch that might impede the plants from coming up. Most of the time they will have no problem pushing themselves through the leaves or other mulch.

Some of the early shoots may appear yellow-ish and limp. Give them a few days of sunshine and you should see them liven up.

Keep an eye on the patch – watering when the ground gets dry, and weeding away any interlopers vying for the precious nutrients intended for your crop.

Clip the Garlic Scapes

Notice the long tendrils that come out of the center of the garlic plant in late June and early July? Those are called “scapes.” If you let them grow, the little “bulb” on the end will bloom into a seed pod! Yes, you can let them mature and then plant them – talk about garlic SEED! They are small, and by planting those, you will harvest SMALL little cloves or maybe a small bulb.

There is nothing wrong with that! It’s a wonderful way to begin cultivating seeds for coming seasons.

For the most part, however, you will want to snip those scapes – “nip ‘em in the bud” as the saying goes, because you want as much of the nutrition going to the BULB that’s under the ground, and NOT to creating that seed pod.

We have chopped those scapes, and sautéed them in a little coconut oil until crispy. We salt them and eat them and it is a real treat! Try it!

There is no reason to waste them. You can also chop them and add them to your roasted veggies  - just top them with the chopped scapes before roasting. Yum! You can use them as chives as well.

Keep them in a plastic bag in the fridge and they should keep for a month or so.

How to grow garlic - snip off the garlic scapes
How to grow garlic - Garlic grows well here!

When to Harvest Garlic

Now – it is August 8, 2019 as I type this. Within the week we should be digging up the garlic, and we already know it’s a winning crop!

We always harvested by first eyeballing the leaves. Are they brown and wilting? Ok, let’s dig up a couple of bulbs and take a look. My neighbor who also grows an amazing crop of garlic swears by the “5 wilted leaves” rule. 5 of the leaves on the plant must be entirely brown before she digs them up.

Warning: Don't Wait TOO Long!

If you wait too long to harvest them (thinking, perhaps, that "just a few more days will be good") - beware! If you wait too long, the bulbs will split. This has happened to us. So, instead of getting lovely, clean, solid bulbs, you wind up with the cloves separating and splitting - and they aren't going to last as long. 

Are they still usable? Yes, but it's just not as good. The photo below shows as close to how it will look if you wait too long. I didn't take any photos of my own crop like that, so I had to find one online.

Once we dig them up, there are a few additional things you will need to do to ensure that they will keep well.

How to grow garlic - don't wait too long to harvest it


Wash – Dry (Cure) - Store

The first thing we do once the crop is dug up is wash the bulbs thoroughly. Get as much of the dirt and mud off as possible.

We do it with a hose and wheelbarrow at first, then lay the bulbs out on a deck and spray them all one more time. The picture below shows our crop from August 2018! That was after the first rinsing.

We let them dry for a day or so – make sure it’s going to be dry, since you don’t want them to start sitting in the rain for any length of time.

Then, I personally snip them down to the bulb, and put them on a framed piece of chicken wire, and bring them into covered area where the air will circulate and they can dry for a week or so.

How to grow garlic - our 2018 harvest ready to wash

For those of you who love the romantic idea of braiding garlic, here is a reference for you to show you how to do it. It's a famous and simple Storey's Country Wisdom Bulletin to growing garlic:  Note, however, that not all types of garlic lend themselves to braiding. Only those with soft, pliable stems will be good for braiding.

I’ve braided garlic, but quickly realized that I preferred to just snip them and store them. I wasn’t showing my wares at fairs and farmers’ markets where creating garlic braids might draw customers in. I’m all about cooking and eating the crop. (Sorry to sound so callous!)

After that, we bag them in mesh bags – we’ll hang them in the cellar, distribute them among friends, and of course – and very importantly – sort out the ones we are going to put aside to plant in October to start the entire process over again!

I’m going to post this now – but as soon as I have photos of the new crop, I will come back and add them.

Resources

Planting Garlic in the Spring

Because I honestly have never planted garlic in the spring, I had to look up some additional resources for you. Here is the info from the folks at Burpee seeds with some info -> Read the article at Burpee

Also, I found this article from the folks at SouthernStates.com that might be helpful to you if you live in the south or southeastern US -> Read the article at SouthernStates.com

Some Best Selling Guides on How to Grow Garlic

I saw three different books on Amazon about growing garlic that appear to be frequently purchased together. They are as follows (clicking any of the titles or images below will bring you right to the product Amazon page):

Growing Great Garlic: The Definitive Guide for Organic Gardeners and Small Farmers

The Complete Book of Garlic: A Guide for Gardeners, Growers, and Serious Cooks

Backyard Farming: Growing Garlic: The Complete Guide to Planting, Growing, and Harvesting Garlic.

I hope you enjoyed this post – again, I’m no garlic expert, but I can tell you that we have never had any complaints about our crops. Try growing some yourself! It’s a fun crop, and there’s nothing quite like home grown garlic!

It’s also a fantastic crop to plant with children since there isn’t a ton of work involved once it’s planted. Just make sure it gets plenty of sun and water, and watch those beauties grow! Thank you for reading!