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How to Grow Garlic: A Guide for Planting, Growing and Harvesting Garlic

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Garlic, it’s a must-have in most kitchens. An ancient, bulbous flowering plant, garlic is very easy to grow, grows pretty much anywhere, and is a perfect crop for beginners and seasoned gardeners alike. Let’s learn how to grow garlic, step by step from clove to bulb in this guide.

Homegrown garlic is superior to store bought.

Choosing Garlic to Plant

While there are tons of varieties of garlic a gardener can select from, there are only two types of garlic hardneck or softneck. Elephant garlic is actually not garlic, but a leek. Choosing the right type of garlic is dependent upon your climate. There are some basic, key differences between the two types:

Softneck Varieties

Softneck garlic varieties contain several small cloves that are tightly wrapped, making them more difficult to peel.

Softneck varieties are what you typically find in the grocery store. These do best in mild climates with mild winters and little, to no frost. While they can be grown in colder climates, down to USDA zone 3, they perform best in USDA zones 8 to 12.

Softneck garlic produces a large bulb with a lot of smaller cloves that are slightly difficult to peel. But, since the individual cloves are wrapped fairly tightly, softneck stores very well, up to 9 months.

Hardneck Varieties

Hardneck garlic varieties contain larger, more loosely wrapped cloves, which are easy to peel, but these characteristics decrease its storage capabilities.

Hardneck varieties do really well in climates with cold winters. So, if you live in a cold climate with a short growing season, like our zone 5 here, these varieties will do really well for you as they require a long period of vernalization, or exposure to cold weather, to grow.

Hardneck garlic produces larger cloves and usually has more flavor than its softneck cousins. However, the shelf life for hardneck varieties isn’t as long. That being said, there are different varieties that will keep fairly long, we’ve stored hardneck garlic for several months without issue.

These varieties also produce an edible, flowering stem, known as a garlic scape. These scapes are harvested and can be used for many things. If you don’t harvest them, your garlic harvest will be small as the plants energy will go to the flower (scape) instead of the bulb.

Where to Get Seed Garlic

Garlic seeds are actually individual garlic cloves. An individual clove will turn into a full garlic bulb. There are several places to get garlic seed. Including Bakers Creek, Seed Savers Exchange, and our personal favorite Keene Garlic.

While you don’t plant garlic until the fall, you need to purchase early. You’ll want to order your garlic when they open up for pre-orders in the late summer. They’ll charge you and will ship the garlic based on your climate, but they tend to sell out pretty early.

We generally order from late July to early August to make sure we get the varieties we want. You can also buy one year, and save your best bulbs for next year if you choose.

How to Grow Garlic

When to Plant Garlic

Garlic has a very long growing season. Generally, planting time is in the fall sometime between late September all the way to late November, depending on your climate. A good rule of thumb is about a month before the ground freezes. Of course, knowing when exactly that’s going to happen in any given year is a crap shoot.

Here in zone 5, we generally plant in late September. This usually gives the garlic enough time to root, which is essential to producing a large crop.

In zones that don’t typically freeze, you can technically grow garlic year-round, but generally, most folks plant it in late October to early December.

If you order seed garlic, the company will ship it based on your location so you’ll be able to get it in the ground at the right time, take note in your gardening planner so you can adjust it a little if necessary in subsequent years. You could also succession plant (within a week of each other) a few plants just to see if one does better than the other.

Preparing Garlic to Plant

One to two days before you want to plant the garlic, you’ll need to carefully break the garlic bulbs apart into individual cloves doing your best to leave the outer skins on each clove. If you have enough, try to select the largest cloves for planting as these will produce the largest bulbs and smaller cloves will result in smaller bulbs.

Each of those individual cloves will produce a whole head of garlic containing another 5 to 12 cloves, based on the variety and growing conditions.

Let them sit for a day or two, then they’ll be ready to put in the ground.

Where to Plant Garlic

Garlic requires full sun and loose, well-draining soil. If you don’t have a spot that meets those requirements, you can still grow it, but your harvest will be much smaller.

You can also grow garlic in containers, if you don’t have the space, or the right space, to grow it. Try planting it in a wide, shallow container as opposed to a deep planter without much surface area. Growing in a container will require a bit more maintenance and mulch to keep your garlic happy, but not too much.

You’ll want to avoid planting garlic in the same spot year after year. Utilizing good crop rotation practices will help prevent disease, nutrient deficiencies, and pests.

Preparing Soil for Growing Garlic

If you’re not planting in a raised bed or container, plan to work your soil down about a foot when you’re preparing it.

Since garlic loves loose, well-draining, fertile soil, you’ll need to amend it if it’s compact, clay soil by working in several inches of organic compost.

You can also add a little bit of fertilizer at this point, but keep it to a minimum and plan to add more in the spring.

How to Plant Cloves

Plant cloves with the pointy end facing up.

Once you have your bed and individual garlic cloves ready, go ahead and count them to figure out how much space you’re going to need. One point of hardneck garlic will typically provide approximately 70 cloves, which will fill a little more than a 4’X4′ bed.

You’ll want to make rows 12″ apart and plan to space the garlic 4-6″ apart to give it enough room to grow.

You can poke the holes in your designated bed first, then simply place the individual cloves, pointy end up, flat, root end down, into the holes and loosely cover them with soil making sure not to compact them into the soil.

Mulching the Garlic Bed

In cold climates, zone 7 and lower, you’ll need to heavily mulch the top of your garlic bed with at least a 6″ layer of a loose mulch. You can use leaves, hay, straw, untreated, hardwood mulch, or even more compost.

If you live in an area where you have very wet, mild winters you may want to skip mulching too heavily, as the mulch can result in rotted garlic, and no one wants that.

If you’ve mulched and see garlic sprouting up before the weather has broke, you can add a bit more to the top to cover them. The cloves are good at protecting themselves, but the green, tender sprouts are not.

Caring for Garlic

Garlic sprouting in the spring.

Garlic is generally one of the first things to sprout above the surface in the early spring, and it’s a wonderful sight. A promise that warmer weather is well on its way.

Once you see this, and the threat of frost is over, you can pull back the mulch. I like to keep a layer around the plants as it helps control the weeds.

Garlic is a pretty heavy feeder, so it will require some fertilizer. You can add another layer of compost once it has sprouted and again later in the spring, before you harvest or you can add slow-release fertilizer in between the rows and water it in.

As far as watering goes, water deeply but infrequently allowing the soil surface to dry out down about an inch between each watering. If you have precip during the winter whether it’s rain or snow, you don’t need to water it. If you water it too much, the bulbs will rot.

How to Harvest Garlic Scapes

If you are growing a hardneck variety of garlic, it will produce a flower stalk, known as scapes, in the spring. These scapes need removed so that the energy will go back to growing the bulb of garlic instead of the flower. If you leave them, your garlic will be much smaller.

Garlic scapes can be harvested anytime after you see them sprout up, but it’s best to wait until they curl over one time. These flowers are edible and can be used much like a garlic clove. We enjoy using them to make green garlic powder and Garlic Herb Compound Butter with Garlic Scapes.

To harvest, you simply cut them off where the base of the scape meets the plant.

In the spring, your garlic will begin to flower. These are called scapes. 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 sauté ours or throw them in recipes. 

When to Harvest Garlic

Harvest time for garlic is typically midsummer. The leaves will begin to turn yellow, shrivel and begin drying up. If you’re growing softneck garlic, the leaves will begin to flow over much like onions do. Hardneck varieties don’t flop, but when the plant is about a third to a half yellow, it’s time to harvest.

How to Harvest Garlic

When you think it’s about time to harvest your garlic, stop watering for one to two weeks. This will help make the harvest easier, and drying much easier and less time-consuming as well.

To pull the bulbs up, you’ll want to loosen the soil around the bulbs, using a small trowel if you need to. Avoid damaging the bulbs and don’t pull too hard on the greens, either.

Don’t wash the garlic, but brush off the excess mud and dirt immediately and clip the roots at the end.

How to Cure & Store Garlic

You can use garlic straight out of the garden as soon as it is harvested. However, curing garlic is essential if you want to store it long-term.

To cure garlic, do not remove the greens or roots, you’ll want to store it in a well-ventilated area out of direct sunlight for about 2 weeks. You can remove the soil as it begins to dry.

If you have a softneck variety, you can use the greens to braid your garlic. We often hang our hardneck varieties using twine. Alternatively, you can place the garlic on screen or other breathable surface in a single layer and let it sit, undisturbed for 2 weeks.

After your garlic is cured, you can remove the leaves and the roots by cutting them off at the end of the bulb. You’ll want to store the bulbs in a cool, dry, and dark place. Check on them regularly and quickly use any that are beginning to sprout or going soft.

Garlic is very easy to grow and doesn’t take a lot of work to produce homegrown garlic that will taste far better than anything you can get at the grocery store.

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