How to Grow Garlic

You can always find garlic in grocery stores. So why grow garlic?

Just when you thought the garden season was ending…the garlic you ordered arrives and it’s time to plant it!

Garlic is one of the easiest herbs/food to grow but it does take up space in your garden for about 9-10 months so you have to grow around it in the spring and summer.

You can always find garlic in grocery stores. So why grow garlic?

Harvested a variety of hardneck garlic
Harvested a variety of hardneck garlic

Growing your own garlic opens up the world of garlic in ways that most consumers are not aware of. Garlic has over 600 varieties with subtle and not-so-subtle taste profiles. Garlic is pungent, even juicy when freshly harvested. You won’t find variety in our grocery stores because about 15 years ago China took over the American market by dumping/selling one variety – ironically, named California White –  at low prices. The episode, “Garlic Breath,” from the Netflix documentary series, Rotten, offers an in-depth look at how this happened and its impact on American garlic growers. It also exposes China’s use of forced prison labor to peel cloves – which is the #1 garlic product in America.

Another reason to avoid Chinese-imported grocery store garlic is the possible contaminants associated with some Chinese-grown crops; much of China’s agricultural lands are poisoned with toxins from the overuse of agricultural chemicals. And some smaller farms in China use human manure as fertilizer which, if not handled properly, can introduce diseases into the soil. 

 In this article, I discuss the types and varieties of garlic and how to grow them.

When to Plant Garlic

In northern gardens where winter visits, garlic is traditionally planted in the fall, ideally 3-4 weeks before the ground freezes solid. But I planted garlic as late as Thanksgiving weekend and though the bulbs took a bit longer to grow they still produced a worthy yield. Garlic can also be planted in early spring but some of us have a few feet of snow on our beds in early spring! In milder climates, where the ground does not freeze, garlic can be planted as late as February.

Seed Garlic

Seed garlic is not seeds as we generally know them. Seed garlic is simply heads of garlic that are selected for vigorous reproduction. This garlic can be certified virus-free garlic if you’ve ordered from a seed or garlic supplier or it can be garlic you’ve saved from your summer harvest (until this year, I have not purchased seed garlic for nine years.) When we plant cloves from the previous harvest or purchase seed garlic, we are using a vegetative cloning strategy.

Individual cloves are planted and develop into bulbs (also called heads).

Warning: Seed garlic is expensive! It is sold by the pound and if you order ½ pound, it could be just two large bulbs! But remember that garlic is a gift that keeps on giving: you can plant cloves from each year’s harvest and never buy seed garlic again.

I don’t encourage planting supermarket garlic as it could carry a virus that can contaminate your garden soil or more likely, it has been sprayed with a growth inhibitor. I have the same concern about virus transfer if you plant garlic from other people’s gardens (or you could try the soaking strategy described below).

Order Sooner, Not Later

I think it’s a wise strategy to order plants, seeds, and garlic that have been grown in your region under similar climate situations. They have adapted to the climate which ensures a higher rate of success with germination and growth. There are many small-scale garlic growers in the US and Gourmet Growers has developed a list of some of them. You can also check your farmer’s market for a professional grower in your region. Note that retail suppliers often sell out of popular varieties long before they ship in the fall. Order in the spring or early summer to have the most choices.

After unearthing the theft-by-critter of my garlic this spring, I planned to order from Adaptive Seeds in Oregon, an organic seed supplier that is focused on restoring biodiversity by seeking out less popular varieties that grow well in the PNW. Time and memory got away from me and by the time I went to order seed garlic from them, they were sold out! Instead, I ordered two varieties, Music and German White, from Filaree Garlic Farm in Washington State.

For the last nine years, after my garlic has cured, I selected the largest and healthiest-looking heads from the harvest and planted them for the following year’s crop. Cloves should be firm and show no signs of disease.

Types of Garlic

Garlic is divided into two categories: hardneck and softneck. Within those two categories are sub-groups that host many varieties, each one offering different tastes, spiciness, size/ number of cloves, and storage potential. You could spend many years growing different varieties and finding ones that appeal to you.

Hardnecks (Allium ophioscorodon)

Types: Creole, Purple-Striped, Asiatic, Porcelain and Romachole 

Varieties: Spanish Roja, Music, German Red, German White

  • Hardnecks are ideal for northern regions where vernalization (the cooling of seed during germination) for at least 40 days below 40F degrees.
  • Hardnecks produce a tall leafless flower stalk called a scape in late spring/early summer. They will begin to flower if not cut, taking energy from the bulb growth.
  • The bottom of the scape is in the bulb (head) and it dries to a hard “neck.” Hardnecks are not meant to be braided.
  • Hardnecks form a ring of larger cloves between 4 and 14 to a bulb.
  • Varieties tend to be stronger and sharper in flavor, with more diversity of flavors.
  • Storage potential is 6-9 months.

Softnecks (Allium sativum)

Types: Artichoke, Silverskin

Varieties: Inchelium Red, California White, Nootka Rose

  • Softnecks excel in areas with warmer winters (several varieties have California in their names) and maritime regions.
  • It is the most commonly grown variety on a commercial level.
  • They do not produce a flower stalk so can be easily braided.
  • Storage potential is 9-12 months.
  • Softnecks can make several rings of cloves, with many small cloves (I find them a bit of a hassle to use.)
  • Overall milder tasting than hardnecks but is familiar to many as the taste of garlic.

Fall – Prep & Plant

Garlic prefers full sun, well-drained loamy, loose soil, consistent moisture in the fall and spring, and a warm and dry early summer to produce the best bulbs. Heavy clay or boggy soils will hamper the size of the bulbs. Like other Alliums, garlic is a heavy feeder but is an inefficient one. Prep your garlic bed by adding a lot of organic matter like aged manure and/or compost which will also help with drainage and reduces the potential for compaction. Because garlic spends nine months in the garden, soil preparation is key to growing good garlic.

Heads up:  Back in 2012, I discovered I had a gopher problem when they ate almost 100 hundred fall-planted garlic cloves over the winter.  Voles will also eat garlic. If you have tunneling critters in your area, you may need to use gopher baskets or hardware cloth at the bottom of a bed.

Planting Garlic

Do not separate your bulbs into cloves until you are ready to plant them immediately. After amending my garlic bed with copious amounts of composted manure, I create 4 rows, 10-12 inches apart, and plant each clove 3-4 inches deep and 6 inches apart. This kind of spacing will allow bulbs to fully develop.

In the past, I have planted two 4x8 beds of garlic which provides almost a year's worth of garlic and cloves for next year's crop.
In the past, I have planted two 4×8 beds of garlic which provides almost a year’s worth of garlic and cloves for next year’s crop.

Hardneck cloves are wrapped in papery skins and it is preferred to plant with those intact so no need to remove them. Plant only the largest cloves and use the smaller ones for cooking.

Place one clove, pointed end up, dried flat root end (looks like a scab) down into each hole. Once the bed is completely planted, cover the cloves firmly, and water.

Cloves for planting. Pointed end goes up!
Cloves for planting. Pointed end goes up!

In harsh winter areas, mulch protects the cloves from freeze and thaw cycles called heaving. After planting, mulch with 3-4 inches of straw or aged compost. This protects the garlic during winter extremes and regulates soil temperature and moisture in the spring and summer. 

Should I Soak Garlic Cloves?

Though I have been growing garlic for over 30 years I have never soaked or prepared my garlic cloves before planting. I recently came across multiple websites that recommend soaking your cloves in water with baking soda, then hot water, then in water with seaweed extract, and then a final dip into rubbing alcohol. Whew!

This procedure is recommended as a way of eliminating diseases and pests that may be present in your seed garlic. Garlic is subject to a variety of pests, and fungal and viral diseases so it seems like a reasonable idea. This preventative strategy is recommended if you grow in an area with higher amounts of rain and humidity. My challenges with garlic have been heavy clay soil and tunneling critters and I don’t see the need to do this. Still, it’s good to know because diseases and pests can enter a garden at any time and the extremes we are facing with our weather are changing the garden landscape.


Winter – Rest

If planted in early fall, the cloves will begin some root growth and then as the cold temps begin, the garlic will rest until spring. Good advice for the gardener, too.

Spring – Water, Feed & Weed (the scapes!)

In early spring, check under the mulch for any signs of mold or slugs. If using straw mulch, check it for mold and replace it with new mulch. I use composted manure as mulch because it also feeds the soil critters throughout the growing season while regulating soil temperatures and moisture. Mulch will help keep some weeds down but weeds compete for nutrients and water so remove them as soon as they pop up.

In early spring, feed with nitrogen-rich fertilizer to promote leaf growth.

I often sow lettuce in between the garlic rows: lettuce roots are shallow and appreciate the slight shade from the growing garlic. Scapes are starting to form.
I often sow lettuce in between the garlic rows: lettuce roots are shallow and appreciate the slight shade from the growing garlic. Scapes are starting to form.

Infrequent or shallow watering will cause the garlic to grow smaller heads. Deeply water (meaning soak the soil) when the surface of the bed is dried out but avoid letting the bed completely dry out. Drip irrigation is ideal for this but checking the soil and watering every couple of days works, too. 

If growing hardnecks, a flower stalk will begin to emerge in late spring/early summer. Called a scape, this stalk should be cut to return the plant’s energy to grow the bulb. With a light garlic taste, scapes can be sauteed, pickled, or made into pesto. 

Summer – Harvest, Cure & Store

Garlic tells you when it’s ready to harvest. When the leaves begin to yellow, stop watering. When 5 -6 leaves are still green (the bottom leaves have dried), it’s time to harvest the bulbs. If your soil is loose, you can gently pull the bulbs out. If they feel “stuck” in the bed, use a spade or hori-hori to lightly loosen the soil around each plant and then pull the bulb out. Brush off dirt but leave the stalks and roots intact.

Garlic is harvested when the top 5 - 6 leaves are still green.
Garlic is harvested when the top 5 – 6 leaves are still green.

Garlic needs to be cured for several weeks and toughen up for storage. Never allow your garlic to cure in the sun; it will turn into a rotting mush in a couple of days. (Trust me on this…I made this mistake many years ago). Rubber band them into small bunches and hang them in a shed, porch, or garage, providing some air circulation but out of direct sunlight. Or lay single layers on screens or a table. Once the stalks and roots are dried, trim them off, do a final brushing off of the soil, and store them in paper bags or open-weave onion bags.  Store in a cool space like an unheated room (55-65F degrees). 

Just harvested and headed to the barn to cure.
Just harvested and headed to the barn to cure.
Garlic harvesting is not a one day task; pull each garlic plant when it is ready.
Garlic harvesting is not a one-day task; pull each garlic plant when it is ready. Note that some of the garlic is already dried in this photo.

Check on stored fresh garlic each month for any kind of disease or decay but you are more likely to see new growth starting. Use these bulbs immediately or dehydrate them and grind them for powder. I also like to roast several heads at a time, squeeze the delicious paste into small canning jars and freeze.

Roasted garlic mellows the herb and is a great way to preserve older garlic.
Roasted garlic mellows the herb and is a great way to preserve older garlic.

In nature, plants and animals adapt to evolve. We will have to do the same. I believe developing a homesteading mindset, regardless of where you live, is the way forward. 

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