Garlic is one of the easiest and most rewarding plants to grow in your vegetable garden. Planted in autumn, garlic requires virtually no effort until the following summer, when it can be harvested, cured and stored for use in the kitchen well into winter. You can also save and replant your garlic year after year.
Types of Garlic
There are two main types of garlic: hardneck and softneck.
1. Choose a softneck type if you live where the winters are mild. Softneck varieties usually have smaller, more pungent cloves, and keep well in storage. These varieties are also able to be braided for storage (see more below).
2. Plant a hardneck type if you live where the winters are cold. Hardneck varieties have bigger cloves that are prone to split in warm weather. Their stiff central stem makes them hardier and also produces a garlic scape — a flowering stalk — that many gardeners cut back (more on that below).
Depending on where you live, you may be able to grow either type. There is also a third type:
3. Elephant garlic, though not a true garlic and more related to leeks, is grown similarly to regular garlic but has extra-large cloves, is less winter hardy and doesn’t store quite as long.
Can You Plant Grocery Store Garlic?
When planning to plant garlic, you may be tempted to save cloves from grocery store bulbs and plant those, but it’s not the best choice. The bulbs at grocery stores may be treated to prevent sprouting or stunt growth. Instead, buy the bulbs at a garden center or via mail-order catalog.
When to Plant
The success of your crop depends in large part on when you plant. Autumn is the best time, aiming for a planting window that's early enough to achieve good root development before the ground freezes and not so early that you have significant top growth. Usually that means planting garlic about the same time as spring-flowering bulbs. You can plant in early spring, but cloves may not have enough time to develop into bulbs.
- Separate the bulbs into cloves the same day you're going to plant them. If you wait longer than a day, the cloves will dry out.
- Choose a site that has excellent drainage and receives full sun. Till or spade the soil six to 10 inches deep.
- Dig a trench two to four inches deep. It's helpful to line the bottom of the trench with bulb food. Garlic is a heavy feeder.
- Space the cloves four to six inches apart and position the pointed tips up. If you're planting elephant garlic, space the cloves six to eight inches apart.
- Cover with soil so that the tips are about two inches below the soil surface, and water well.
- Provide a generous layer of mulch for the winter, especially if you live in a colder climate.
Tips for Growing
- When new shoots emerge the spring after planting, remove the mulch. Apply a foliar fertilizer such as seaweed or fish emulsion every two weeks when leaves begin to grow, and keep fertilizing until mid-May, when the bulbs start developing underground.
- If rain is scarce, water your garlic with an inch of water each week while it’s actively growing. Stop watering in early June, or when the leaves turn yellow, so the bulbs can start firming up.
- Most gardeners who grow hardneck garlic cut the scapes, which are curly, flowering stalks, when they appear around mid-June. This is believed to help direct energy to the new bulbs. Some gardeners leave the scapes and say they don’t see much difference in their yields. You might experiment with your crop.
- If you do cut the scapes, be sure to eat them — they bring wonderful garlic flavor to the kitchen. Sautee them with young summer squash, add them to summer marinades or whip up a feisty garlic pesto. Young scapes are tender; older ones become woody and tough to chew.
Companion Plants for Garlic
Garlic and other onion family plants make great companions for many other vegetable plants, as they act as a natural fungicide. Plant tomatoes, potatoes and brassicas (such as cabbage, kale, broccoli and cauliflower) near garlic. Rose gardeners also swear by planting onion family plants, including garlic, near their roses to deter aphids.
Even professional garlic growers say that knowing when garlic is ready to harvest is a skill to be honed. Harvest too soon, and bulbs won’t be fully formed. Harvest too late, and bulbs will be splitting open, with cloves starting to separate from one another. Digging at the wrong time means garlic won’t store well into winter. Here are some tips for knowing when to harvest your garlic:
- Read about the kind of garlic you’re growing to know when to harvest. There are early, mid-season, and late varieties, but hot weather can make the bulbs grow faster, while a cold snap can delay their growth.
- For hardneck varieties, cutting scapes also signals the time to stop watering and start thinking about harvesting. Give plants one more deep watering after you cut the last scapes, and then let soil start drying out. When it’s time to harvest, it’s better if soil is dry.
- Most garlic plants produce from six to nine leaves. Each of these leaves extends down the stem and wraps around the bulb, forming part of the papery layers that cover and protect cloves. When the lower two or three leaves turn yellow or brown, bulbs are ready to harvest. If you wait too long beyond this point, your bulbs won’t have as many protective layers around cloves, which means they won’t store well.
- At the same time, the remaining leaves will probably be showing yellow or brown tips. When about one-third of the plant’s seven to nine leaves—including the lowermost ones, which may be fully brown—are showing signs of yellow and brown, that means the plants are reducing how much moisture and nutrients they’re shifting from roots to shoots. That’s a clue that leaf growth is drawing to a close and bulbs are ready to harvest.
- Fat stems make it tempting to grab and pull garlic from the ground, like an onion. Do not do this. Instead, first loosen soil with a garden fork, and gently pull bulbs from soil. Some professional garlic growers recommend using a small spade to avoid accidentally spearing bulbs. Don’t clean soil from bulbs until they’re cured.
- After harvesting bulbs, set aside the largest for replanting in the fall, then store the rest for eating. Replanting your next garlic crop from your current crop means you’ll never have to buy new seed garlic again — unless you just want to.
Curing and Storing Garlic
Garlic needs to cure, or dry. Properly curing your garlic ensures a longer storing time, meaning you’ll be eating homegrown garlic all autumn and winter, even into spring. Put the whole plants, dirt intact, in a single layer on a screen, or hang the bulbs in small bunches, in a dry spot out of the sun. When the outer skins turn papery, or in about four to six weeks, brush off the dirt and remove the roots. Try to keep the papery skins intact, and don’t wash the bulbs until you’re ready to use them. Store your garlic in a moderately humid, well-ventilated area and don’t put the bulbs in plastic bags, where moisture may cause rotting, or in the refrigerator, where the cold causes sprouting.Softneck garlic can be braided for storage, making a pretty and practical display.