I like the annual cycle of gardening with a big rush of activity in the spring followed by steady work until, hopefully, a big veggie harvest in the fall (and hopefully not too long of a winter). It provides nice routine and rhythm to each year. But it also means that spring can feel overwhelming.
I’ve been trying to avoid the spring overwhelm by moving as many activities to the fall season as I can. I try to clean my beds up reasonably well in the fall so that they take less work in the spring. I turn my old compost in the fall, and start a new pile each winter. When I need to test my soils, I ideally do that in the fall too.
I even tried planting potatoes in the fall last year! My thinking was: When I accidentally leave potatoes in the ground over winter, it leads to great volunteer plants the next year. So why can’t I just plant potatoes in the fall? The results this year were mixed, and It’s probably worth trying it again this fall.
This brings me to garlic. Or rather, GARLIC! I think that garlic might be my favorite vegetable to grow because:
- Garlic is easy to plant and grow.
- The garlic that I grow has cloves that are bigger and easier to peel than store-bought garlic.
- Garlic is planted in the fall and dug up at the end of the next summer, so it avoids the spring overwhelm.
Garlic means that by October, I can feel good that next year’s garden is already started.
The Basics of Growing Garlic
1. Selecting Good Seed
When it comes to growing garlic—and all plants, really—the source of the seed makes a huge difference. In the case of garlic, the “seeds” aren’t really seeds at all. They are garlic cloves, but ones selected specifically to grow lush, new plants. It’s important to get high-quality seed from a trusted source, which could be a seed company or a local garlic grower. Garlic seed can be pricey up front, but the investment is worth it—after your first year of growing garlic, you’ll be able to save your best garlic bulbs for the following year’s crop.
Be sure to consider your local climate when selecting your garden seed, as there are two types of garlic. Hardneck varieties are named such because they have a very stiff stem. These varieties tend to be better-suited to cold climates and produce scapes, which can be eaten. Softneck varieties don’t have a stiff stem, and so these are the types that you may see sold braided at farmers’ markets. These varieties do better in milder climates and tend to have smaller cloves. Grocery stores sell softneck garlic varieties (but don’t use garlic from the grocery store for your seed, as it won’t grow well).
If you purchase your garlic from a non-local source, the seed company will be able to provide details about individual varieties. Two companies that I’ve purchased garlic seed from in the past are Great Northern Garlic and Seed Savers Exchange, although there are many great independent growers to choose from.
2. Preparing Your Soil
Garlic grows best in a sunny site with moist, well-drained soil. Rotate your garden crops and avoid planting garlic in any area that grew garlic, onions, or leeks in the previous year.
Garlic has a relatively small rooting zone and will benefit from having soils have have been prepared to give the bulbs room to grow. Be sure to weed the garden area well. Use a tiller or digging fork to loosen the top 6-8 inches of soil, and add compost if it is available.
Garlic is planted in the fall because the bulbs (especially hardneck varieties) require a cold period for bulb formation. The ideal timing for planting is about 6-8 weeks before the ground freezes. (You can look up your last frost date here if you are in the US.) The garlic planting season starts around mid-September and runs through about mid-December in the the Northern Hemisphere. Here in Upper Michigan, I’ll be planting garlic before the end of September. In the Southern Hemisphere, planting occurs between mid-March and mid-June. In short, planting in colder climates should start around the fall equinox, and planting should occur by the winter solstice in warmer climates.
Individual garlic cloves (i.e., the seeds) are planted to become garlic bulbs. Cloves should be spaced 6-8 inches apart from each other and at a depth about 3 times deeper than the height of the clove (about 2-3 inches deep). You can use a stick to poke holes into the ground at the appropriate depth and spacing, and then place cloves in the holes, pointy end up. Tamp down the soil to cover the seeds, and water the soil if needed.
Finally, mulch the bed with 3-6 inches of weed-free hay or straw. The mulch helps retain moisture in the soil and minimizes competition from weeds.
Garlic is pretty low-maintenance during the growing season. The mulch should reduce the need to weed, but be sure to remove competing plants when they turn up. Feel free to apply an organic fertilizer (such as fish emulsion or fertilizer tea) once a month. The mulch will help retain soil moisture, but ensure that the soil is moist and water as needed. Begin to reduce watering in mid-July (or mid-January) as the plants start to wane because drier conditions in the late-season will help the garlic keep for longer.
Hardneck varieties of garlic produce scapes: these are twirly flowering shoots that emerge from the top of the plant in summer. Be sure to remove these by the time that they make 1-2 curls, as this will help the plants focus their energy on producing a nice, large bulb. Garlic scapes have a nice garlicky taste and can be used to make many recipes; pick them early so that they don’t get too tough.
Garlic plants will die back as the summer progresses, and plants are ready to be picked when most of the lower leaves have browned. Use a digging fork to gently life bulbs from dry soil. Be sure to set aside a few bulbs to eat now—it’s important to enjoy your harvest!
6. Storing Garlic
After harvesting, the garlic bulbs will need to dry (or “cure”) for longer-term storage. Lay entire plants on a flat surface in a dry place that is away from sunlight. Leave the plants dirty and unwashed at this stage, because the main purpose is to allow the remaining nutrients in the green parts of the stem to be translocated to the bulb. Ensure plants are spread out and have good air flow to prevent mold. This can mean laying plants out in trays, on shelves, or tying (or braiding softneck varieties) small bunches together and hanging them from the rafters of a well-ventilated shed.
After a few weeks, the bulbs should feel dry, At this point, you can snip off the leaves (leaving a few inches of stem) and roots. You can also gently brush off any dirt, but be careful not to damage the inner layers of the bulb because this will reduce its shelf life. Place the bulbs back on trays or place into mesh bags and allow them to cure for another month.
As you go through your garlic, be sure to set aside your biggest and best bulbs to use for your next year’s garden. Storing your seed garlic at a temperature between 50-65ºF (10-18ºC) is ideal, particularly if you live in a milder climate with a longer time between harvest and planting.
Store the rest of your garlic in a cool, dark, and dry place to keep it flavorful as long as possible.