Our favorite bulbous storage crop: Garlic. Garlic is a part of the Allium family which also includes leeks and all types of onions. It is an essential ingredient in our kitchens and medicine cabinets - do not underestimate the magic of garlic. So if you’re trying your hand at growing it this year (or aspire to grow it soon), read on for everything you need to know!
Growing Garlic from Cloves
Garlic cannot be reliably grown from true seed that is produced by the flowers of the plants, but it can reliably be grown from the cloves of the garlic bulbs! While a bulb is the entire head of garlic you’d buy at the grocery store, the clove is the individual slice from that head. Meaning one head of garlic can grow anywhere from five to fifteen new heads of garlic depending on the type and variety!
Selecting Your Garlic
There are two main types of garlic that you can grow and those are hardneck and softneck. While specific varieties will have nuances of flavor and character, there are certain traits that you can reliably expect (or not expect) from the two main types.
Hardneck garlic has a smaller amount of cloves per head overall but these cloves tend to be larger. Hardneck garlic is well known for producing a late-spring edible “scape” which is the flower stalk of a garlic plant. These scapes should be harvested in order to concentrate the plant's energy back on bulb production. But, we love hardneck garlic because we get two crops for the price of one!
Hardneck garlic is highly cold tolerant and is most often grown in Northern regions. The protective outer bulb wrapper of the hardneck garlic is not particularly thick, meaning that hardneck garlic tends to not store for as long as softneck garlic.
Softneck garlic has more cloves per head than hardneck but the cloves are smaller. This type of garlic does not produce a scape though there are other valuable perks to it. With its papery skin, Softneck garlic stores for longer than hardneck and is the traditional braiding garlic. Further, it is the only type of garlic that can be grown in warmer climates, zone eight or above.
Elephant garlic is actually not a true garlic, but rather a form of bulbing leek. The bulbs can get very large and retains a milder garlic flavor that is great for roasting. Plant the cloves as you would for garlic but with increased spacing of eight to twelve inches. Sometimes the plants make a flower stalk. Snap these off if they appear and treat it like a scape or leek flower. Harvest the bulbs when the edges of the leaves begin to brown but are still quite green. Cure and store as you would garlic.
You’ll want to prep your garlic bed a few weeks before planting. Hoe or till the bed to kill any weeds and add a hefty layer of compost and organic matter. If your soil is heavy or your region is prone to a rainy spring, create hills or raised beds for planting. This allows for better drainage. Hoe again at planting time.
Garlic can bruise easily, so be very gentle when handling the bulbs during planting, harvest, and storage. Store your garlic in a cool, dry place until you are ready to plant.
When to Plant
For most parts of the US, you should plant your seed garlic in October. If you are very far north, you may need to plant in mid-September. If you are very far South, it may be December or January. You should check with your local Agricultural Extension Office for information about the best planting time for your region.
How to Plant
When you receive your seed garlic it will either be as loose cloves or whole bulbs, or some combination of the two. If it is in whole bulbs, you’ll want to “pop” the cloves. This means removing the outer paper and separating the individual cloves. There’s no need to fully unwrap individual cloves (as you would for cooking), but if the skin comes off, it’s still fine to plant.
Lightly squeeze the bulb to check for damage or softness. If you do find some, those cloves should not be planted - though they can be eaten! With any garlic bulb there are always one to three naturally occurring very small cloves. Only plant the big ones for bulbs and save the smallest for eating. You could also plant those tiny ones close together and harvest them early as garlic scallions!
Plant your garlic cloves pointy-end up and root-end down, about two inches deep. The cloves should be spaced six to eight inches apart.
You have the option of mulching heavily for winter. This is encouraged in colder areas but regardless of your location, helps to prevent weeds and keeps the soil nice and moist for the long nine months ahead.
Stages of Growing Garlic
Garlic takes nine months to reach maturity and thus goes through many stages of temperature and weather. Caring through garlic throughout this time is quite simple.
Because garlic is planted in the fall, it’s important to prep your young plants for the cold winter ahead. While their little green leaves won’t be popping out of the ground yet - rest assured that there’s tons of action happening under the soil’s surface that you want to protect.
Garlic remains dormant in the winter but this process actually helps them ultimately germinate come spring time! When growing garlic in colder areas, gardeners should mulch the beds heavily with straw or leaves over the winter and remove this mulch come spring time.
As the birds are chirping in early spring, your garlic starts to pop out of the ground! At this point it’s a good idea to fertilize with a high nitrogen fertilizer to ensure adequate growth.
Early summer is the most important time for making sure your garlic will bulb up to that glorious size. This means continuing to fertilize as well as keeping everything well-watered. A dry spring can result in small bulbs. Water well every three to five days, tapering off towards the middle or end of June. Tapering off watering at this point is in preparation for the coming harvest so that your bulbs will be ready to be cured.
Garlic benefits from being planted in good quality soil, high in organic matter. Most root establishment happens before winter arrives, but will continue slowly throughout winter. As mentioned, spring is when our top growth starts to pop out. This is an excellent time to begin fertilizing your garlic monthly until harvest time. Top or side dress your garlic with a nitrogen heavy fertilizer, such as blood meal, to encourage top and bulb development.
Harvest the scape (flower stalk) in spring by snapping off the tendril at the point where it comes out of the plant stalk. Do not let the plant flower or it will reduce the bulb size. These garlic scapes can be eaten and used similarly to how garlic or green onions would be used in the kitchen! Pull the bulbs when there are only five or six green leaves left on the plant. Don’t wait too long or the bulb will begin to split!
Softneck garlic does not produce a scape in the summer so there’s no extra labor! Simply wait until there are five remaining green leaves on the stalk and harvest. Softneck garlic can also split so be sure not to wait too long before harvesting.
Curing and Storage
When your garlic is pulled, take care not to wash the garlic. Simply brush off whatever soil is stuck to the bulb as well as you can. Leave the above ground stalk intact but trim the roots to the base.
Garlic needs to be cured in order to store well (though it can also be eaten fresh). Cure your garlic in a cool, dry place with good airflow. Your garlic can be laid out flat on the floor or be hung up in small bundles of four to six bulbs. A spare room with a ceiling fan works great. Airflow is super important in this stage to prevent mold from forming.
After about six weeks, when the plants are thoroughly dry, clip the stalk down to the bulb and brush off any remaining dirt. This garlic can now be stored in a cool, dark, dry place such as a cabinet. Avoid humid areas or overly cold areas like the refrigerator.
Garlic confit is garlic roasted in olive oil. It makes a delectable addition to toast, pastas, salad dressing, and more. Besides the creamy spreadable garlic clove you also get a whole lot of garlic flavored olive to cook with. Fresh confit should always be stored in the refrigerator and should be consumed within two weeks. The concoction can also be spread into ice cube trays, frozen, and stored for two to three months.
Garlic powder can be made by peeling the skin off of and drying garlic cloves. The subsequent flavor is a mild allium flavor rather than the sharp and spicy flavor of fresh garlic. This process is easiest with a dehydrator but can also be done in your oven on a low temperature. The plus side of garlic powder is that it doesn’t really go bad, though it can lose its flavor over time. Typically you’d want to use your garlic powder within six to eight months.
Because garlic is a low acid food, canning or storage in oil can result in what we know as botulism. While this won’t happen if the right steps are taken, garlic vinegar is a great way to avoid that potential issue altogether. By storing fresh cloves in oil, you’re providing a highly acidic environment where bacteria cannot grow. White vinegar or apple cider vinegar will make a delicious mixture that’s great when added to salad dressings or sauces.
Garlic can also be kept in the freezer! We recommend pureeing your garlic with a touch of oil and freezing in zip top bags. These large chunks of garlic can be cut into squares, making it easy to throw into any dish to cook with! This can be stored for up to six months.
Growing Garlic in Containers
Working in a small growing space or on your deck or balcony? Garlic can be grown in containers! Containers tend to cool down, heat up, and dry out faster than in ground beds. This means, when container gardening, you may need to keep a closer eye on your plants in the coldest winter months and as temperatures heat up, making sure that your soil is staying evenly moist.
But short of that, growing garlic in containers is about the same as far as planting date, days to maturity, and harvest time goes. You’ll want to select a pot that’s ten to twelve inches deep at least and not overcrowd the pot, allowing for the six inch planting distance not only between the cloves but also between the edge of the pot.
After harvesting and curing your garlic, keep the largest unbruised bulbs for seed stock. Avoid any bulbs that are soft or discolored. These bulbs can be stored in a cool, dry and dark place until the fall when you can break the cloves apart for planting - it’s that easy!
Article Written by: Hannah Gibbons
About the Author: Hannah Gibbons, an employee at Sow True Seed since 2020, has nearly a decade of experience in the agricultural industry. Their passion for environmental education and regenerative agriculture has been the cornerstone of their work, aimed at making gardening accessible to all.