Garlic is an easy and fun vegetable to grow at home, adding fantastic flavor to many savory dishes. Instead of buying garlic bulbs from the grocery store, you can learn how to plant garlic right in your own backyard garden. With just a little effort and this complete growing guide, you can cultivate a healthy garlic crop that will provide flavorful bulbs for months to come.
Choosing the Best Garlic Varieties
The first step is selecting which type of garlic you want to grow. Many diverse varieties of garlic are available, and certain kinds perform better in certain climates.
The major variety categories include:
- Softneck garlic – The most common supermarket garlic. Grow well in a variety of zones. Known for longer storage and making great braids.
- Hardneck garlic – Tend to thrive better in cooler climates. Produce large, robust cloves and have more intense garlic flavor.
- Elephant garlic – Actually more closely related to leeks. Have very large cloves and milder, more leek-like taste. High yielding.
- Silverskin garlic – A softneck variety with white wrappers. Particularly good for braiding.
- Purple stripe garlic – A hardneck variety with purple tinged wrappers. Stores well and has excellent rich flavor.
Talk to garlic growers in your local area to find out which varieties grow best in your climate. You can also check with nurseries, extension offices, and seed catalogs for zone-specific recommendations. Select one or two types to start with.
When is the Best Time to Plant Garlic?
Garlic is planted in the fall in most regions and then harvested the following summer. The exact planting time varies a bit depending on your climate:
- In mild winter climates (zones 8-9), aim to plant garlic in mid to late November, about 4-6 weeks before your first expected frost date.
- In more frigid zones with very cold winters (zones 3-5), garlic should be planted in September or early October, around 8-10 weeks before your average first hard freeze.
- In temperate zones (zones 6-7) with cold but not extreme winters, plant garlic in mid-late October, 6-8 weeks before ground typically freezes solid.
No matter your zone, avoid planting garlic too late in fall when the soil is about to freeze. The cloves need time to establish roots before winter dormancy. Garlic needs a good period of chill from winter cold to trigger bulb formation and growth.
Preparing an Optimal Garlic Planting Site
Because garlic will occupy the planting bed for close to a year, it’s important to prepare the growing site in advance. Garlic thrives in loose, fertile soil with excellent drainage. Dense, heavy, compacted, or overly wet soil will lead to poor bulb formation and increase disease risk.
Ideally prepare your planting beds 4-6 weeks prior to planting. Here are some tips:
- Loosen the top 8-10 inches of soil with a shovel, rototiller, or garden fork. Break up any compaction.
- Mix 2-4 inches of finished compost or rotted manure into the soil to enrich it with nutrients.
- Level the bed into a raised planting bed about 6-8 inches tall to facilitate drainage.
- Remove any stones or debris from the bed. Rake smooth.
- Test soil pH and bring into ideal range of 6.2-6.8. Garlic prefers slightly acidic soil.
- Choose a sunny spot that gets at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight daily.
Properly preparing the growing site in advance gives your garlic crop the best chance at growing strong and warding off diseases.
Step-by-Step Garlic Planting
Once you have prepped your beds and acquired your seed garlic bulbs adapted to your zone, it’s time to get planting!
Follow these simple steps when planting garlic:
- Break larger seed bulbs into individual cloves, leaving papery skin intact. Look for large, healthy cloves.
- Push single cloves into the prepared soil with their pointed end facing up. Plant 2-3 inches deep.
- Space the cloves 4-6 inches apart down the row. Allow 8-10 inches between rows.
- Cover the planted cloves with 2-4 inches of soil, leaving some of the stem and tip exposed above ground.
- After planting, water the bed well and add a 2-3 inch layer of mulch like straw or shredded leaves to retain moisture.
Some garlic growers like to soak cloves in water overnight before planting which can help stimulate growth. Only plant disease-free, certified seed garlic to prevent introducing soil-borne diseases.
Caring for Growing Garlic Plants
Proper care while garlic is growing includes:
- Keeping beds weed-free by hand pulling weeds or using mulch to block light from reaching weeds.
- Watering plants about 1 inch per week, adjusting as needed based on rainfall. Soil should remain moist but not saturated.
- Fertilizing garlic in early spring when bulbs first begin swelling with a balanced vegetable fertilizer or compost tea.
- Removing the slender, curly flower stalks called scapes that hardneck varieties send up in late spring. This allows the plant to focus energy on the underground bulb rather than seeds. Scapes are edible and can be used like garlic cloves.
Harvesting Garlic at Peak Flavor
Garlic is ready for harvest in mid-late summer when the bottom 2-3 leaves on the plants start yellowing and dying back. Waiting too long can cause bulbs to split.
Follow these steps for harvesting garlic:
- Use a digging fork to loosen the soil and gently lift bulbs from the ground.
- Gently shake off any large clumps of dirt, but don’t wash the bulbs yet.
- Spread out the lifted garlic in a single layer in a sheltered, dry spot out of direct sunlight.
- Allow the bulbs to be cured for 2-3 weeks until the outer skins are papery and firm.
- Once cured, use pruners to trim off the roots and cut the stems about 1 inch from the top of the bulb.
Curing helps dry out garlic for long term storage. Handle the bulbs carefully to avoid bruising them during harvest and curing. Damaged bulbs should be used immediately.
Storing Garlic for Year-Round Use
Cured garlic bulbs will last 4-8 months or longer if stored under the proper conditions:
- Keep bulbs in a cool (55-60°F), dark place with adequate air circulation. A cellar, panty, or garage can work well.
- You can braid softneck garlic or place loose bulbs upright in mesh bags or open crates.
- Check stored garlic regularly. Remove any bulbs that show signs of mold or rotting.
- Softneck varieties and elephant garlic store the longest. Use hardneck garlic within a few weeks after harvest for optimal flavor.
Avoid refrigerating bulbs, as the cold converts starches into sugars and causes faster spoilage. With the right curing and storage methods, you can enjoy homegrown garlic for most of the year.
Troubleshooting Common Garlic Problems
Garlic is relatively hardy and trouble-free, but may experience occasional issues:
- Small bulbs – Can result from nutrient deficiencies or overcrowding. Enrich soil further and give bulbs proper spacing.
- Rotting – Usually caused by overwatering, heavy soil, or humid curing conditions. Allow soil to dry out between watering and curing bulbs in a dry spot.
- Fungal diseases – White rot and rust may attack plants in wet conditions. Improve soil drainage and air flow.
- Pests like onion maggots or aphids – Use row covers to keep away maggots. Knock off aphids with water spray.
- Bolting – Hot weather can cause garlic to bolt prematurely. Mulch to keep soil cooler.
Practicing crop rotation and planting disease-resistant varieties can prevent many potential problems.
Enjoying Your Homegrown Garlic Harvest
The bulbs, cloves, and scapes of garden-fresh garlic offer incredible culinary versatility:
- Roast whole bulbs and spread them on bread or incorporate them into dishes.
- Infuse olive oil by slow cooking crushed cloves in oil.
- Pickle or ferment garlic cloves and bulbs.
- Whip up vinaigrettes, aiolis, and other dressings and sauces using fresh garlic.
- Make pestos, tapenades, and salsas using garlic scapes.
With this complete growing guide, you can plant garlic cloves this fall and harvest an abundant supply of flavorful bulbs next summer season.