How to Plant and Grow Garlic

Planting | Over Winter | Garlic in Spring | Harvesting | Storing

Garlic is a member of allium or onion family. It can be easily grown in small plots or long rows. The bulb grows under ground. A long, stiff stem protrudes from the ground with several spear-like leaves at the top. There are two types stiff-necked and soft-necked garlic. When the stiff-neck matures, a single hard stem rises from the center of the plant, and a cluster of bulbs form on the top of the garlic after a short serpentine length. The base will have a grouping of garlic cloves clustered around the bottom of the stem. The soft-neck type will not have the stiff, rising stem. There will be more, but usually variable-sized, cloves at the base. They have more layers of parchment so keep a bit better than stiff-necks. The soft-necks are the type of garlic that is usually seen braided and displayed in the kitchen or pantry.

Garlic in the Garden

Most garlic needs a winter exposure to temperatures below 40° Fahrenheit (4° Celsius). So it may be necessary in warmer climates to refrigerate garlic bulbs prior to planting. In most northern climates, garlic is resistant to the cold if sufficiently mulched so there should be no problem leaving it to over-winter in the garden. The best time to plant is in the autumn, although spring planting is possible (if the bulbs have been chilled).

Planting Garlic

Choose a sunny spot in the garden where the soil is well-composted and well-drained. The rich soil should be at least six inches deep to accommodate bulb growth as well as the roots. Raised beds are nice, but not absolutely essential. When preparing beds far in advance, be sure to cover the soil with mulch to hold in the moisture and let the microbes and earthworms do their work. Garlic can repel many garden-pests. So planting it near other crops can be used as a means of organic pest control. Consider planting enough to make a solution from surplus to spray on vulnerable fruits and vegetables.

When ready for planting, break the individual cloves from the bulbs. As a preventive measure, the gardener may soak the cloves for 24 hours in baking soda to help get rid of worms and fungi. Just before planting, the skin can be removed and the clove dipped in alcohol for four or five minutes. Then plant immediately. Place the cloves 1-3 inches in the ground, pointy side up, about 3-inches apart in rows separated by 12 to 24 inches. The row can then be covered over with a layer of mulch to help retain moisture.

Garlic in Winter

Throughout the winter months keep an eye on the temperature. In the North, cold weather below -10° Fahrenheit (-23° Celsius) for more than a week or two could kill the bulb. In most climates this is an unusual circumstance, but it can happen. In tropical climes, if there is not a consistent 4-6 weeks below 40° Fahrenheit (4° Celsius) the bulbs may not properly form later. During this time simply make sure sufficient moisture (not too much) is present.

Springtime for Garlic

Fertilizing by compost in the spring will give garlic's growth spurt a little boost. Nevertheless, in already well-composted soil, this will probably not be necessary. Do not fertilize garlic once the bulb begins to swell. This will cause the strength of the plant to go to the leaves and bulb development to be lackluster. The stiff-neck variety will grow a long stiff stem, called a scape, which will get bulbs on its end. It is thought that cutting off the scape early will make for bigger bulbs, but leaving them on will make them store better.

Harvesting Garlic

The scape will form about a month before the garlic is ready to harvest. Depending on the climate, garlic can be harvested from May through about mid-July. When the outer leaves begin to turn brown, it is time to pull the garlic bulbs. Do not wait for all of the leaves to turn brown. As the leaves die back so do the wrappers, which can expose the outer garlic cloves. Nevertheless, leaving the bulbs in a little longer can give them a more pungent taste.

When harvest time is near, hold off watering to dry out the soil a little. It is easier to pull garlic in dry loam than in mud. In most gardens the easiest way to harvest is to simply pull the garlic plants by their necks. If the soil is a bit stiff, use a garden fork or shovel to get under the bulbs and "lift" them out of the soil.

Though garlic appears pretty hardy when it is being pulled out of the ground, unless you are going to use it immediately, you will want to handle it with care. Lay it gently in a basket or wheel barrow. Rough treatment can actually bruise the garlic causing long-term problems during storage.

Storing Garlic

Once the garlic has been harvested, much of the remaining moisture in the leaves will retreat into the bulb or evaporate. This takes a couple of weeks, depending on the temperature and humidity. The process is complete when cutting a leaf or stem does not result in a whiff of garlic. If you cut the leaves and stems off while they are still green it can expose the plant to contaminants and fungi. Soft-neck garlic can be braided while it is still green. The dried leaves may also be trimmed and removed down to about 1/2-inch of stem. Roots can be trimmed back to 1/4-inch.

Garlic should not be stored in plastic bags or any kind of sealed container. At moderate humidity (40-60%) garden grown garlic should be stored at between 55° and 68° Fahrenheit (20° Celsius). If temp and humidity remain constant, most garlic varieties can last up to six months. Small amounts can simply be kept in paper bags, larger amounts in bins. The chosen location should get a bit of airflow. Ultimately, the best advice is to look for a dark, cool, and dry place.

Next Page:Garlic Varieties

Gourmet Garlic Gardens is an excellent resource for information on garlic in general, planting and harvesting in particular.

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