Tips for Growing Garlic
Choose locally adapted seed stock
Garlic does not produce viable seed, so it must be propagated by planting individual cloves. Mail-order catalogs can be excellent sources of planting stock, but regional suppliers should not be overlooked. Local farms, farmers’ markets, specialty stores, and food festivals are all potential sources for native garlic that is already have adapted to our climate and growing conditions.
Late summer into early fall is the best time to buy seed stock. The whole bulbs can then be stored in a cool, dry location until planting time.
Avoid using garlic from the supermarket as seed stock. Besides tasting mundane, most commercial varieties have been developed to grow under highly controlled conditions. Moreover, some commercial varieties are sprayed to prevent sprouting, which can hamper germination in the garden.
When selecting seed garlic, keep in mind that larger cloves yield larger bulbs. Don’t be disappointed, however, if the small diameter bulbs you got at the farmers’ market produce something quite smaller. It often takes a year or two for newly acquired strains to acclimate in the garden.
Plant garlic bulbs in late fall
First weed aggressively to give garlic a chance to establish itself.
Because garlic requires a lengthy growing season and benefits from a winter dormant period, it is typically planted in late October. This is early enough for the cloves to send down roots that will anchor them against cold soil temperatures.
Break garlic bulbs into unpeeled cloves no more than a day or two before they are to go into the ground, so they won’t become dehydrated. Place the pointed end of the clove up during planting and the blunt end down. If you plant cloves upside down or sideways, the plant will expend considerable energy twisting around underground before sending up shoots, resulting in small, misshapen bulbs. Cloves are typically planted 1 in. to 2 in. deep and spaced a minimum of 4 in. apart in the row, with the rows set at least 1 ft. apart. One of the best things about garlic is that yields come in a factor of ten. Plant just 1 lb. of cloves, and you’ll harvest 10 lb. of bulbs.
Give garlic a dose of soybean meal
Garlic grows best in rich, well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter. To enrich the soil in garlic beds, grow a cover crop such as buckwheat intersown with soybeans, and turn it under before planting. Cover crops feed microorganisms that consume decaying organic matter and produce nutrients, which in turn feed growing plants.
At planting time, amend the soil in garlic beds with soybean meal, a high-protein livestock supplement available at feed stores. Apply 30 lb. of soybean meal per 100 ft. of bed, a bit more than 1 oz. per square foot.
Soybean meal is an ideal fertilizer for overwintering garlic because the breakdown rate of soymeal protein into nitrogen and other nutrients is temperature dependent. The warmer the temperature, the more nutrients are released. Soymeal applied in the fall gets into the root zone and then lies in wait during the cold winter, ready to release nutrients as the soil warms up in the spring, right at the time most of garlic’s stalk growth takes place.
Mulch after planting to protect the young cloves from winter damage, to suppress weeds during the growing season, and to promote the consistently cool, moist soil conditions that garlic enjoys.
If you use a heavy mulch after planting, you may have to pull it back in the spring to allow the ground to thaw and to give the new sprouts an early start. Later you can tuck the mulch back around the stalks. Even when mulched, garlic suffers from competition with weeds for sunlight, moisture, and nutrients. Keep the garlic beds weed free.
Harvest the scapes and then the bulbs
Sometime in late June, the hardneck varieties earn their name. They send a stiff central stem high above the leafy stalks, ending in a curlicue and topped by a false seed head, called a scape. Remove the scapes, because removing them redirects the plant’s energy into bulb formation, resulting in larger bulbs with enhanced storing qualities. It’s quite easy to snap off the scapes, but pick them before they uncoil and straighten or they will be too woody. Scapes provide impatient garlic lovers with a taste of the coming harvest, whether diced and stir-fried, added to salads, grilled whole, or used as a garnish.
The softnecks tend to mature a week or so before the hardnecks, around mid-July. Eventually, the leaves of both softnecks and hardnecks begin to turn brown and die, one at a time from the lowest leaf up. When approximately 40% of the leaves have died back, it’s time to harvest. If left in the ground too long, the over-mature bulbs can split open, leaving them susceptible to molds and dehydration.
Softneck types are best for braiding because their leafy stalks remain pliable. Each stalk is an above-ground extension of the paperlike bulb wrapper.
Hardneck types tend to have fuller flavor than softnecks, perhaps because they’re closer to wild garlic. Along with leafy stalks, hardnecks develop a stiff stem at their core.
Most commercial garlics are softnecks, which keep longer than hardnecks do.
Cure garlic indoors
Garlic should not be laid out and cured in the sun. Bright sunshine can literally cook exposed bulbs. The proper curing method is to hang garlic inside for two to three weeks. Choose a cool, well-ventilated area, out of direct sunlight.
Garlic has cured sufficiently if there’s no apparent moisture when the bulbs are cut from the stem. To store cured garlic, cut off the stems, leaving a 12-in. neck, trim back the roots, and place the bulbs in net bags. Garlic stores best at room temperature and 50% to 70% humidity. Storing garlic in the refrigerator tends to cause sprouting. Hardnecks keep from three to six months and should be used first. The longer-lasting softnecks keep for six to nine months.