This article is part of our Guide to Garlic. Click here for recipes and cooking tips or click here to learn about garlic's health benefits.
Back in the dark ages, when I thought garlic was just garlic (without distinction), I purchased a few heads of the Rocambole cultivar ‘Spanish Roja’ at a local farmers’ market. I discovered a different garlic flavor—rich, sweet and complex—and I knew then that all garlic is not the same.
If supermarket garlic is all you have experienced, you too could be in for quite a revelation. Because of its adaptability throughout many areas of the world, garlic exhibits a wide range of characteristics, with differences in flavor; ease of peeling; cold hardiness; clove number and size; and storage properties.
By growing your own garlic, you can discover your personal favorites and save part of your stock for subsequent plantings—a wonderful ritual of culinary pleasure. You will find that garlic adapts to local growing conditions, often growing better and producing larger bulbs as time goes by.
Garlic is very easy to grow. For detailed information, please see my book, The Complete Book of Garlic (Timber Press, 2008). Use this guide as a starting point:
1. Start with quality stock. Obtain planting stock from a local grower or from a specialty producer of "seed" garlic. Separate the cloves and discard any that look unhealthy. Remember that one clove will produce one bulb at harvest; the biggest cloves will produce the biggest bulbs.
2. Plant cloves in a sunny location in fall, at least three weeks before the ground freezes. October is a good planting month for most North American climates. Plant cloves root end down, pointed tip up, 2 to 3 inches deep. Space the plantings 6 inches apart, with rows 10 inches apart.
3. Plant in loose, loamy soil with a near-neutral pH. Garlic does not need a lot of nitrogen, but adding composted manure to the soil before planting will improve soil structure and provide nutrients. Feed again in early spring with a liquid fertilizer or foliar spray.
4. If your winters are very cold or dry, mulch your beds to protect the garlic from freezing and drying. A loose mulch, such as straw, works well. If you have wet springs, remove the straw as soon as the weather warms to prevent problems with mold, slugs or snails. (See Fresh Clips for more about protecting garlic in winter.)
5. Keep garlic well watered but do not suffocate it in mud. Unless you have very muddy conditions, it’s best to err on the side of ample moisture rather than too little.
Try to let the soil dry out for about a week before harvest. Garlic develops rapidly just before harvest time, so do not cut off the water too soon.
6. Cut off the scapes (flower stalks of hardneck varieties) after they have curled down, but before they uncurl to grow straight up. If you don’t remove the scapes, the bulbs will be smaller. (Use them in stir-fry, soups or salads.)
7. Harvest garlic when about five to six leaves remain green. Garlic leaves die from the tip inward and from the lowermost leaf upward. To harvest, first loosen the soil with a spade or fork. Then, gently pull the bulb from the ground; gently rub the soil out of the roots. Keep harvested bulbs out of direct sunlight, and do not rinse them with water.
8. Cure bulbs in a well-ventilated area, out of the sun. With twine, tie the garlic in bundles of six to 12. Hang the bundles to dry and cure, bulb portion downward, for several weeks—until the leafy portion above the bulbs is completely dry. Trim the leafy portion about 1 inch above the bulb; trim the roots to about ¼-inch long. Brush soil from the roots with a toothbrush. Remove the outermost dirty bulb wrapper with your thumb or the edge of the toothbrush.
9. Store garlic in netted bags, such as those used for onions, so that air can circulate around the bulbs. Keep your bagged garlic in a cool, well-ventilated area but do not store it in the refrigerator or below 50 degrees or it will sprout. Ideal storage conditions are 56 to 58 degrees, with a relative humidity of 45 to 50 percent, similar to the conditions of a good wine cellar. If you don’t have these ideal conditions, don’t worry. Garlic stores reasonably well in a wide range of conditions, as long as the area is not too hot or too low in humidity.
Editor’s note: This article has been adapted from The Complete Book of Garlic: A Guide for Gardeners, Growers and Serious Cooks by Ted Jordan Meredith (Timber Press, 2008), available at www.TimberPress.com. Meredith’s previous book Bamboo for Gardens (Timber Press, 2001) was awarded the Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries Literature Award and The New York Times Editor’s Choice "Best Books for Gardening." Meredith has grown more than 70 garlic cultivars at his home in Washington.
Ready to try growing your own garlic? Please see "A Few of My Favorite Garlics."