Planting, Harvesting and Caring For Garlic in the Garden
After just a little soil prep, plant garlic in fall and harvest the following year. Here’s how.
By Lynn Coulter | Photos By Temmuz Can Arsiray
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Pungent garlic adds flavor to foods, and the smelly bulbs may even be good for us, helping strengthen our immune systems and prevent colds.
It’s also easy to grow, but it’s wise to prep before you plant, says Jerry Ford, a grower and network coordinator with Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota. Because garlic is in the allium family, you should find a spot where alliums have never grown. By doing so your bulbs are less likely to be damaged by any pathogens already in the soil.
It’s also a good idea to improve your soil by first growing a cover crop or “something that digs down deep and draws the nutrients up, like Daikon radishes. In addition,” Ford says, “Garlic loves nitrogen, so you could plant legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil.”
There are two main types of garlic you can grow: hardnecks, which thrive in cold climates, and softnecks, for warm-winter regions. Look for varieties rated for your zone when you’re ready to plant.
In general, garlic is planted in the fall. Kentucky grower Tom Scanlan, co-owner of Salt River Garlic Company, plants in November, about four to six weeks before temperatures stay consistently in the 20s. “You want the garlic to establish a good, strong root system before it goes dormant,” he says.
If you’ve never grown garlic before, Ford recommends, no matter your climate, starting with hardy hardnecks like Porcelain or Purple Stripe. Don’t plant grocery store cloves, he warns, which are usually treated to inhibit growth. Buy from trusted sellers or locals whose stock is free of garlic bloat nematodes—pests that can’t be eradicated once they infest your soil. Then work good, organic matter into your garden spot, and do a soil test to see if you need amendments.
Ford plants his cloves thumb-deep, with the tips just below the surface. He adds up to 6 inches of mulch and keeps it in place throughout the growing season. The plants push through the mulch, while weeds are suppressed. Scanlan uses about an inch of mulch, if any, to control weeds and retain moisture. The amount of mulch to use, Ford says, depends on how cold your climate is, whether you’re trying to moderate the moisture in the soil and how much weed control you need.
Garlic needs full sun and well-drained soil. If wet soil is a problem, try it in raised beds. While some gardeners apply foliar fertilizer, garlic usually doesn’t need feeding. Thanks to its deep roots, garlic doesn’t need a lot of watering either, unless your soil dries out some 3 or 4 inches deep.
Harvest your garlic when the bottom three leaves of the plants turn brown. Ford pulls his bulbs in July; Scanlan, from May to June. If you use a fork or spade to loosen the soil, be careful not to injure your bulbs, or they won’t store well.
Few pests bother garlic, but Scanlan sprays a little Neem oil each summer to deter burrowing insects. With proper handling, your harvested bulbs will keep for months.
WEB EXCLUSIVE: How to Store Garlic
If handled correctly, harvested garlic bulbs will keep for months.
“Garlic tastes very different when it’s green, versus cured,” says Jerry Ford, who grows organic garlic and other crops, and serves as events coordinator for the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota. Used green, the cloves have a burn that “will make your eyes water and blow the top of your head off.”
Most of us, however, eat garlic after it’s been cured—it offers a richer flavor and that’s how it is sold in most grocery stores.
Start by brushing off any clumps of dirt. Then tie the bulbs into small bundles with string, and hang them in a spot that gets good air circulation. You can also store them in netting, and tie knots between them. Another option: put them in a single layer on top of a screen or wire grid. “They’ll ‘outgas’ at first,” Ford says, so don’t put them where you’ll have to smell them until the fumes dissipate.
Some gardeners braid softneck bulbs, but trying to braid the stiff stalks of hardnecks, Ford says, “would be like braiding twigs. It’s more like basket weaving.”
Keep the bulbs in a cool, dry place. If you don’t have good airflow, run a fan or dehumidifier. “Keep them out of direct sunlight, but not totally in the dark, where you might have mold issues,” Ford says.
Ford recommends letting the roots and leaves remain on the stored bulbs. “The leaves have a lot of energy in them that they’ll keep putting into the bulbs. The roots will take moisture from the air and put it into the flesh, so while the wrappers are drying, the flesh gets richer.”
Once the leaves turn brown, and no fluid leaks out when you cut the stalks, snip the roots to about ¼” long. Cut the leaves to an inch above the tops of the bulbs. Your garlic should keep for months.
It’s also easy to preserve garlic by dropping the cloves—whether peeled or unpeeled, chopped or whole, cured or not—into freezer bags, and storing them in the freezer. See the USDA-funded National Center for Home Food Preservation for more about preserving garlic.