Heirloom Expert: How to Grow Garlic

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Photo by Doug Oster
At harvest time, the bulbs should pull out easily by grabbing the base of the stalk, but sometimes will require the use of a garden fork. The bulbs will store better if you leave the stalks on.

I discovered “real” garlic while visiting a farmer’s market. I was amazed at the difference between it and store bought. Can I grow my own?

Welcome to the wonderful world of garlic! And yes, it’s a great crop for home gardeners. Be careful though; once you’ve joined the club it can be addictive. I’m a garlic fanatic and while recently appearing on a local PBS cooking show, I told the host I should have titled my Tomatoes Garlic Basil book, Garlic and Other Stuff.

Garlic is one of the easiest crops to grow with few pest or disease problems. It’s best planted in the fall, but the real trick is to find the right garlic. You can’t start with something from the store—it’s probably not hardy and often times are treated with something which stops the cloves from sprouting. Sometimes local grocery stores will carry varieties grown locally. You can save a little money if you can find something locally grown which is sold as food instead of seed. They are both the same thing. I buy my garlic from a nursery or from an online supplier. Baker Creek offers some of my favorite varieties.

The next most important thing is to improve the soil. Compost is king when it comes to garlic, and covering a bed with this organic soil amendment will go a long way to producing large bulbs. If you don’t have your own compost pile (and you should), it’s available from nurseries by the bag or truckload.

In my Zone 6 garden, the garlic is planted around the second week of October, under the dark of the moon. That doesn’t mean at night, that’s the moon phase. That’s the way I was taught to do it and it works. I’ve also planted a month before and after with great results too. The bulb is separated into cloves. Each of them will grow through the winter and spring to produce another bulb. The biggest cloves are planted and the rest go to the kitchen. It’s my experience that the bigger the clove, the bigger the bulb at harvest time. I like to plant them 3 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Some gardeners like more space between plants; experiment and see what works best for you.

The bed is covered with a thick layer of straw, usually around 8 to 12 inches. Don’t skip this step! Last year the east had the worst winter in two decades which devastated garlic that wasn’t mulched. Mine looked great in the spring. The mulch will compress a bit during the season and will help keep weeds down in the spring. Garlic resents competition, so keep weeds at bay by pulling and adding more mulch in the spring. Early in the spring, the greens will push through the straw in consort with the crocus. They are the most wonderful seasonal treat. I love picking the fat center sprout and eating it raw in the garden. Harvest the greens sparingly; they provide energy to the bulb.

Most gardeners grow the “Hardneck” variety of garlic which produces a seed head called a scape in early summer. That must be removed so the plant can concentrate on making big bulbs instead of seed too. The scape might be the favorite thing out of the garden for my family. It’s garlicky, but doesn’t have the same bite as the bulb. They are great for pesto and on the grill too.

In midsummer, when 50 percent of the greens turn brown, it’s time to harvest. When planted in good soil the bulbs will pull out easily by grabbing the base of the stalk, but sometimes will require the help of a garden fork. Hang the garlic in a warm, dry place for 3 weeks to cure. The bulbs will store better if you leave the stalks on. Over the winter they hang in a large onion bag and hopefully will last through the season. If not, you’ll know when the garlic starts to get soft as the smell will permeate the house. That’s when I’ll throw what’s left in the food processor with some olive oil and freeze it in ice cube trays.

‘Music’ is my favorite variety, but I plan to order a half pound of ‘Moroccan Creole,’ as it’s purported to be spicy and store well too. Home grown garlic is unparalleled in its complex, wonderful flavor.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.