Let's Grow Garlic! It's Easy and Tastes Great!
By Eric Durland
When there are ghosts and goblins and fall leaves in the air then it is that time of year again—nope, not time to find a costume or to rake leaves into your garden! It is GARLIC PLANTING SEASON! Garlic is a favorite food and it is super easy to grow, even without much space. Let's get down to it and we can go through the steps of growing garlic.
For anyone who has never grown any food before and/or thinks they have a brown thumb, garlic is a great place to start. It’s super easy. If you don't read any more of the information in this article, all you need is this sentence to get started:
"Buy a bulb of garlic; in October-November, separate the individual cloves, and plant each clove in a sunny non-soggy location about 2-3 inches deep and about 5-6 inches apart. And then, next June will you have big tasty bulbs!"
Now a bit more detailed step by step guide, then followed by even more detailed information.
Step 1 – Buy some garlic bulbs from a local farmer or a local organic market. For most areas in the US, you have until about the end of November to get garlic in the ground. See below if you have trouble finding locally grown garlic.
Step 2 – Find a sunny place in your garden with well drained soil, although anywhere not soggy will generally work (they will rot out if sitting in water for days on end). Think outside the box, plant them in your front yard around ornamentals and in containers, anywhere with sun and water drainage.
Step 3 – Divide bulbs into cloves, leaving the “skin” on (the papery encasing around each individual clove), and plant each clove about 2-3 inches deep and about 5-6 inches apart.
Step 4 – Water them. Generally they won't need extra water except when it doesn't rain for a week or so. Be sure to let the ground mostly dry out in between waterings so the garlic don't rot.
Step 5 – Weed them. In spring pull weeds (any other plants that spring up around your garlic) by hand around your garlic at least a couple times; by removing the weeds that would otherwise compete for water and nutrients, you are helping the garlic grow bigger.
Step 6 – If you have the hardneck variety, harvest the scapes sometime usually in May. May is also a good time to weed one last time. Be sure to enjoy the scapes! (See below on more about scapes, hardneck vs softneck and a simple, tasty scapes recipe)
Step 7 – When the bottom leaves of the garlic turn brown—usually sometime in June—it is time to harvest! Pull one of the garlics up and look at it. Does it look like one at the store? Then it is done. Gently pull each garlic plant out of the ground by hand. Let them dry by laying them out for a couple days then clean them up with a brush (old toothbrush works) to remove dirt. Cut off the roots and stem. Take off the outer layer of “skin” as well.
Step 8 – Put aside the largest bulbs for planting next year (sorry, you don't get to eat these). You get about 8-10 cloves per bulb from most varieties, so 1 bulb this year will yield about 10 bulbs next year. Put aside those largest bulbs in a paper bag and label it something like “Seed Garlic – Harvested 6/2022).
Step 9 – Store garlic bulbs in a cool, dry space. They will keep for at least 6 months and usually 12 months or so, although I either eat them or give them away by then.
Step 10 – ENJOY!
Here are some more details:
First, some information on garlic (Allium sativum). Originally garlic is from the Middle East and Northern Iran. Because garlic is so easy to grow and store, and adds so much flavor to foods, it has spread everywhere around the world. There are two types of garlic: softneck and hardneck. Softneck garlic tends to be white while many of the hardneck varieties have some purple or a lot of purple in them. One main difference between them is that the softneck type does not produce scapes while the hardneck does. What are scapes, you ask? Scapes are a flower stalk that shoots up from the growing hardneck garlic and produces garlic seeds. When the scapes grow to about a foot long, you will want to cut them off using garden pruners or kitchen scissors as far down as you can without hitting the leaves of the plant. By cutting them, the plant redirects its energy from the scapes and into the bulbs. Another reason to cut the scapes is because they are delicious. Scapes can be a bit tough but when cooked, they are excellent. After years of trial and error, I've found this to be the best method of cooking scapes.
(If you have other recipes, please leave them in the comments.)
Simple Garlic Scapes Recipe
Handful of Garlic Scapes
Olive oil - 2 tablespoons or so
Salt and pepper to taste
Put scapes in a bowl; if scapes are much longer than say, you can cut them to about 6 inches long or so. Pour olive oil into bowl and sprinkle salt and pepper on and mix to coat the scapes. Put grill on medium to medium high and place scapes directly on the grill or use some kind of grilling basket to keep the scapes from falling through the grate. Cook until they are soft and slightly blackened about 10-15 minutes. Keep an eye on them especially the first time so they don't burn completely. Great when served on steak, or I usually end up just eating them on their own.
Hardneck versus Softneck Garlic
I have always grown hardneck varieties for several reasons, scapes being one of them. Hardnecks also tend to have a bit more flavor than the softneck varieties. Hardneck varieties do better in colder climates. Softneck will grow up north but is harder to grow and may need mulching and other measures to keep it warm in the coldest of winter. Most garlic sold in grocery stores is softneck because it holds up better in storage. Softneck varieties have been bred over the years for storage and not for flavor or other benefits. Generally, just growing hardneck varieties is my recommendation. (Nothing against softneck. For those with experience with softneck, please feel free to add to the discussion in the comments. Thanks.) Even though softneck is supposed to hold up better in storage, I have not had many issues with storage of my hardneck varieties which last in storage for generally at least 12 months when in cool, dry storage.
The picture at the top is of my hardneck garlic as of October 28, 2022.
What you are seeing is the smaller to medium size bulbs that I have kept for eating and giving away. I just planted the large ones in my garden (and forgot to take photos); it’s advised to plant your biggest bulbs each fall so they will produce the biggest and best bulbs next year.
Since Garlic is a bulb, like Daffadils, you plant it in the fall and it grows over the winter and spring and is ready to harvest usually sometime in June. First you need to find some garlic to plant. I recommend going to your local farmer's market and buying some bulbs from a local farmer. That way, you know it’s local, hopefully organic, relatively less expensive, and you can ask them what kind of garlic it is. Ideally, they will even know the specific variety. Be sure to write it down otherwise you will end up like me, not remembering what kind you have! Buy the biggest bulbs they have. Each bulb will break down into about 8-10 cloves for planting. If you are new to gardening, start with 1 or 2 bulbs. If you are a big gardener and just haven't planted garlic before, I say go for it and get at least 10 bulbs. I started out with just 2 bulbs my first year planting garlic. Those 2 bulbs turned into 20 bulbs. We ate about 10 of the bulbs that year, I then planted about 100 cloves the second year. It has expanded so that now I grow about 150-200 bulbs a year and we have not had to buy garlic in the past 10 to 15 years. This year I just planted about 150 or more cloves (I didn't count them...)
If your farmer's market doesn't have any garlic or the market is done for the season there are some other options, but they may be more expensive.
First, check some online sources like Johnny Seeds, Harris Seeds or others (and, of course, there is always Amazon...). If you order ahead, even in the spring from many of the seed companies, they will ship you the garlic at the time that you are supposed to plant it. Be willing to pay a bit more than what you buy at the grocery store, either from your local farmer or from a seed company, as they are most likely to be garlic that is disease-free and you will know that it is hardneck or softneck.
And if you still can't find garlic to plant, you can always buy organic garlic from your local organic market to plant. You might find some hardneck varieties in the store then go with that. Remember softneck garlic tends to be white while many of the hardneck varieties have some purple or a lot of purple in them.
And you can always use Whole Foods or your local grocery store, but note that garlic sold there is most likely softneck garlic grown halfway around the world in China, where 75% of all garlic on earth is grown. If grocery store garlic is all you can find right now, then just go for it but try to find organic if possible. Note that it is more likely to have fungal disease issues that you are bringing to your garden. Generally these diseases will only effect your garlic and if you end up getting different garlic next year, then you will just want to plant the new garlic as far away from that space as possible (usually 50 or 100 ft away) and stop planting garlic in that space for a few years.
Or, if that variety does well for you, just keep growing that same variety and don't worry about it! That will be fine as well. Garlic is generally very pest and disease resistant so it isn't as big of a deal as many other vegetables. The main thing here is that you get some garlic planted in the ground.
Garlic is the first food that I have become self-sufficient with in terms of growing my own food. It is that easy to grow and doesn't take up too much time and effort. I figure that there is no reason for me to get my garlic from China when I can just grow it in my yard for free.
Good luck with your garlic growing. Remember to get your garlic in the ground before the first freeze (or during the next warm spell after the freeze) and enjoy!