I have a confession. We had so much going on this spring that we didn’t even plant a garden. I am so disappointed in myself, but life… it had other plans. We were incredibly overwhelmed with a lot of things going on, plus the weather absolutely sucked. But, that being said, I am absolutely going to have a fall garden this year. The tilling has already begun, and garlic will definitely be gracing us with its delicious scrapes next spring.
Garlic is one of the best things to plant in a fall garden. While it can technically be planted in the spring, fall garlic results in bigger and more flavorful plants. Garlic requires a dormant period and does best when overwintered. When it is planted in the fall, it begins to root before the temperature drops. Then it goes dormant during colder months and kicks back up growing in the spring. It’s also incredibly easy to grow, especially in the fall, and takes up very little space.
Varieties of Garlic
Unbeknownst to me until I got into gardening, there are actually two varieties of garlic. And… did you know elephant garlic isn’t even garlic?? It’s a type of leek! Mind blown… but anyway. On to the two different types (that aren’t elephant garlic (leek).
Softneck garlic is called such because in the summer its top flops over signaling it is ready for harvest. The cloves of these are a little bit harder to peel than their hardneck relatives, but they are easier to grow and store better. This variety is what you typically find in the grocery store.
Softneck varieties grow best in southern climates and require little to no covering. They have few scrapes to enjoy….
Hardneck garlic is a little more finicky and requires a little more maintenance than softneck varities, but these do best in colder climates. This variety’s stalks stay upright and rigid, even when they are ready to harvest which gives them their name “hardneck”.
It needs the cooler temperatures to develop a bulb. This variety can be grown in the coldest of climates. However, if you have permafrost, you may need a greenhouse to grow it.
These varieties offer more flavorful and larger bulbs than softneck varieties and provide you with delicious scrapes to enjoy.
Where to Get Seed Garlic Cloves
Before you ask, yes, you can technically use the garlic you get at the store. But, they aren’t selected for their disease resistance, they’re not selected for their growing capabilities, and you often don’t know what variety they actually are. Instead of using what you find at the store (that came from heaven knows where) you can easily purchase seed garlic from a nursery.
Seed savers exchange has several varieties of seed garlic available for sale and they ship them out to you based on your location.
When to Plant Garlic
Don’t Plant too Early!
Like I said, garlic is best planted in the fall and a lot of people make the mistake of planting too early. August comes around and everyone is skipping out to the garden to get the last of their harvest and plant garlic, but here in zone 5 that’s still way too early.
The basic rule of thumb for planting garlic in the fall is about a month before your first expected hard frost. In southern regions of the United States garlic can technically be grown year round, but is usually planted late October to early December.
The earliest planting in zone 0-3 would be Somewhere around late August to mid-September just to give you an idea. Everywhere else falls in the middle of that. Here in our zone 5 climate we generally plant mid to late September.
How to Plant Garlic
Garlic Needs Full Sun
Pick a full sun, or close to full sun area in your garden to plant garlic. If you have no choice, make sure that it still gets a lot of mid-day sun and don’t expect big huge bulbs when you harvest next spring.
Garlic Likes Loose, Well Drained Soil
Like most root crops, garlic needs loose, fertile and well drained soil in order to grow. If your soil isn’t loose enough the bulbs won’t be very big. If your soil is real compact and full of clay, add some compost to it to help add some beneficial draining capabilities to it.
Garlic absolutely loves compost and manure. For these guys, there is no such thing as too much of a good thing.
If your soil isn’t drained well enough, garlic will generally throw a huge fit and rot. Garlic can be very difficult to grow in humid wet climates because it has a tendency to rot.
If your garden space just isn’t what it’s meant to be, you can always utilize a raised bed or container to grow your garlic.
Preparing to Plant
Garlic is not generally started from seed, it’s difficult and not near as prolific as propagating your crop from cloves. So, when we start it we use the same cloves we use when we cook with it. The bigger cloves are going to result in bigger garlic come harvest, so those are the ones I generally choose. You’ll separate them from the bulb just like you do when cooking if they came as an attached bulb. Some nurseries ship them already separated.
Prepare Your Soil
Turn your soil about a foot deep when you’re preparing your bed. You can mound up your beds to keep it from being directly on the ground so that the soil can drain properly and the garlic is less likely to rot. This is what we do instead of having an actual raised bed. Just like any other root crop, if you raise the soil bed up off of the ground a little bit, it will help the soil drain well and prevent rot….
Amend soil with some compost or manure that is high in nitrogen. Like I said, garlic loves the stuff.
Plant Your Garlic
Make rows about a foot apart and dig an inch deep crevice to place the garlic cloves into. When planting, the garlic should be about 6 inches apart. Plant garlic with the pointy side facing up!
Go back through and cover the cloves completely with loose soil taking care not to step on them and compact them down into the soil.
Mulch Your Bed
Don’t skip this step, especially if you’re in zone 7 or lower. But, don’t skip it anyway. Because weeds and garlic don’t mix.
Lay down about a 6 inch layer of mulch or hay over your garlic right after it is planted. This helps protect it from the cold, whenever it may arrive. And it helps prevent weed growth in the spring. You can go thicker than 6 inches, but I wouldn’t go thinner. Do this right after you plant because you never know when some freak cold snap may hit and while garlic is pretty hardy, it needs protected from extreme cold.
If you see sprouts coming up out of the mulch, add some thickness to it. The cloves can protect themselves, but the sprouts cannot. So make sure you keep an eye out and keep them protected.
How to Care for Mature Garlic Plants in the Spring
It’s a beautiful thing to see those stalks poking up in the spring!! One of my favorite sights.
Garlic does not require a ton of maintenance. It’s not overly finicky, though weeds and garlic never mix. Don’t let them take over or you’ll regret it and probably say a few choice words as you try to weed out your garlic beds….
Move Back the Mulch
Remove the mulch from around the sprouts after the threat of frost is over. This helps your plants grow straight and gives the sprouting cloves a little extra breathing room. I try to keep it around the plants, just not over them. Keeping it around them helps keep down on weeds.
Keep the Weeds at Bay
Like I said, mulch is your friend. But, beyond that make sure you stay on top of your weeds in the spring before they become a problem. Just go out and weed when you water, or pick a time once a week to go out and keep on top of it. Just do yourself a favor, and don’t let it get out of hand.
This next spring we plan on investing in a wheel hoe. Because I am awful at letting the weeds take over in our garden beds and then having a heck of a time finding the food later on. They are an investment, but everyone I know raves about how much easier it is to maintain your garden beds from weed overload with one, so we are investing. Besides… I’m tired of breaking my back. You’ll still have to weed some by hand, but these things make the work a lot easier.
Garlic doesn’t like wet environments. It rots. Unless you’re in a drought, you can pretty much let the Earth do the watering for you. If your garlic is looking particularly dry due to a dry spell, go ahead and water it. But this isn’t something that needs to be done very frequently at all.
In the spring, your garlic will begin to flower. These are called scrapes. They are delicious and you’ll want to remove them. Removing them helps send the energy back to the bulb to grow instead of sending it to the plant part. They are hotter than the garlic cloves and can be used much like a garlic clove. I like to sautee ours or throw them in recipes.
How and When to Harvest Garlic
When To Harvest
Garlic bulbs oftentimes will begin to pop up above the soil in the spring, but harvest is generally in mid to late July. There are a few tried and true ways to know when your garlic is ready to harvest, depending on the variety you have.
The easiest way is just to check in mid-July and see how big your bulbs are looking. If they’re looking about the size you want, it’s time to harvest. If they aren’t, you can leave them until September at the latest, but they will absolutely need harvested then whether they’re the size you want or not.
Another tell-tale sign for hardneck varieties is the yellowing or browning of the stalks. In softneck varieties you’ll see that same yellowing and browning, but more than that you’ll see the stalks flopping over. However, you don’t have to wait until this happens to harvest. If the garlic looks big enough to harvest while the stalks are still green, you can still harvest them and cure them.
How to Harvest Garlic
- Grab a spade and loosen the soil around the bulbs taking care to not actually hit the bulbs.
- Grasp the neck and pull. It should come out fairly easily. If it doesn’t, try loosening the soil again.
- Remove excess mud and dirt immediately. Clip roots to the nub.
How to Cure & Store Garlic
Curing isn’t necessary. You can eat garlic straight out of the garden as soon as it is harvested. However, curing garlic allows you to keep it for long periods of time. It’s essential for any garlic you won’t be using in the near future.
Tips for Curing
- Good ventilation is a must. Whether you choose to tie your garlic into bunches, leave the plant matter attached and lay it on racks, or remove the plant matter and lay it on racks. It needs good ventilation. We built racks to dry garlic and onions on made out of a wood frame and hardware cloth.
- If you nick or bruise a garlic, it needs used, it shouldn’t be dried.
- Save a few of your largest bulbs for planting next year.
- If you want to braid your garlic, keep the plant matter intact. If not, you can cut it back.
Step By Step How To Cure Garlic
- Tie your garlic in bunches or lay it out on well-ventilated racks. In a cool, dry place.
- The larger the garlic, the longer it will take to dry. Allow it to cure for at least a few weeks. Once the outer wrapper is papery, that’s generally a pretty good sign it’s dry.
- If you want to braid your garlic, you’ll need to leave the stalks intact. If you don’t and you haven’t removed them yet, you can cut them back once it is cured. Softneck varieties can be braided. It’s near impossible to braid hardneck varieties, though.
- Store garlic in a cool, dark place for 6-7 months.
Garlic is super easy to grow, even if it seems a little unorthodox to plant something when it’s about to start freezing for the winter. It brings delicious flavor to our foods and I absolutely love seeing it sprout up in the spring. If you haven’t tried your hand at planting garlic, make sure you do this fall. It’s always worthwhile.