Question: This summer, I bought some freshly harvested garlic at a local farm stand. What a treat! It was so much better than what I get at the supermarket. Now I want to grow garlic myself. How should I proceed?
Answer: Garlic (Allium sativum) is an easy, reliable crop that can be grown almost anywhere in the United States. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll want to grow it year after year, and you’ll never buy garlic at the grocery again.
Moreover, by growing your own garlic, you can enjoy kinds that you’d never find in the store—dozens of varieties selected for outstanding flavor, easy peeling, or good keeping quality. These varieties belong to two main types: hardneck and softneck. Hardneck garlics produce a head with five to ten cloves arranged around a stiff central stalk, whereas softneck garlics produce six to eighteen cloves around a soft center stem that’s pliable and easy to braid. Most commercially grown garlic is the softneck type.
Elephant garlic (A. ampeloprasum) is a related species that produces an apple-sized head of giant, mild-tasting cloves.
How to Plant it
Garlic isn’t grown from seeds; instead, you plant the cloves. In future years you’ll be able to save and replant your own stock, but you need some cloves to start with. Order them right away as garlic is usually shipped in October for fall planting. Or go back to the farm stand to buy more locally grown garlic and plant that. As a last resort, you can plant garlic from the supermarket, but it may not grow as vigorously.
Choose a sunny site with fertile, well-drained soil. Dig the bed deeply, work in some compost or composted manure and a dose of fertilizer, and rake the surface smooth.
Break apart the heads of your starter garlic and set aside the smallest cloves and any damaged ones. Use them for cooking. Press the largest, best-looking cloves, flat end down, into the soil, positioning them about 6 inches apart and 2 inches deep.
There’s some leeway in timing the planting of garlic. Where winters are cold (USDA Zones 6 and colder), most gardeners plant garlic in fall. It forms roots before the ground freezes and is ready to send up leaves as soon as the ground thaws in the spring. If you try this, cover the area with about 6 inches of straw or leaves over the winter to minimize heaving, then remove most or all of the mulch in early spring. You can alternatively wait until spring and plant garlic when the daffodils begin to bloom. It will grow quickly but matures a few weeks later and forms somewhat smaller heads.
Where winters are mild (USDA Zones 7 and warmer), you can plant anytime from late fall to early spring. Garlic grows throughout the winter where temperatures aren’t too cold.
Care and Harvest
Water as needed throughout the winter, spring, and early summer. Keep the area free of weeds. Garlic is rarely troubled by pests or diseases.
Sometimes a garlic plant will send up what looks like a flower stalk. It will reach 2 to 4 feet tall, coil into a picturesque spiral near the top, then produce a dense cluster of baby bulbs, or bulbils. You can eat the bulbils (they’re a chore to peel) or plant them, but most gardeners remove the stalks to direct all of the plant’s energy toward the cloves forming at its base.
When the leaves turn yellow or tan and flop over, in July or August, use a digging fork to lift each plant. Shake the soil off the roots and spread the plants in an airy building or breezeway for a week or so to dry. Set aside some heads for replanting, and enjoy the rest of your harvest.
Rita Buchanan grows garlic and many other herbs in her garden in Winsted, Connecticut.
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, PO Box 158, North Garden, VA 22959. (804) 973-4703. Catalog free.
Territorial Seed Company, PO Box 157, Cottage Grove, OR 97424. (541) 942-9547. Catalog free.