6 Steps to Growing Amazing Garlic

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:

  1. Garlic is easy to plant and grow.
  2. The garlic that I grow has cloves that are bigger and easier to peel than store-bought garlic.
  3. 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.

3. Planting

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 in early spring.

4. Tending

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.

5. Harvesting

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!

My 2018 garlic 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.

Where can I buy gardening seeds?

Someone recently asked me where they should go to get garden seeds. Fortunately, there is no shortage of places where you can buy high-quality garden seed—in fact, it is more likely that you will have trouble deciding among the many options that are out there!

If you’re bitten by the gardening bug, you may end up with a mailbox full of beautiful catalogs and have a hard time figuring out which company is the best for you. The good news is that there isn’t a single answer– it’s more important that you pick something that you will plant, so that you can start gardening and learn what works for you.

When it comes to gardening in colder climates, the major factor is to focus on varieties of plants that can successfully grow within the amount of growing season that you have. When you can, look for seed companies that are specific to your region because they will be tuned into the conditions closer to where you live.

When you are comparing different varieties of the same plant, favor species that have a smaller number of days to maturity. Even a difference of 5-10 days can have a tremendous influence on the success of your garden.

Buying Seeds from the Store

For many people, the simplest thing will be to buy seeds from a local store, whether it’s a big box store or a local garden or “feed and seed” store. This is a great option, it and is certainly more convenient that wading through piles of catalogs. Seeds sold at stores are often going to be from larger companies, which means that the selection may not be tailored to a specific climate. If you are purchasing seeds packets from a display at a store:

  • Pay special attention to the number of days to maturity to ensure that the plant variety can be grown in a shorter climate.
  • Look for words in the description that suggest that the seeds are better for cold climates, such as: short-season, early-maturing, or northern gardens.
  • Avoid the cheap seeds. Some stores carry cheap “generic” seeds that are $1 or less per packet. Seeds do not need to cost an arm and a leg, but do avoid any that seem suspiciously cheap because the quality is likely to be poor.
  • Double check that the seeds have been packaged for the current year. This is typically stamped on the back of the package, and ensures that you’re are getting the best quality.

Can I reuse old seed?

Yes. If you have seeds leftover from last year and they were stored in a dry place, you may be able to use them this coming season. Seeds can be stored for years and years if they are kept in the right conditions—generally in a dry and dark location that is kept at a consistent (and preferably cool) temperature. Exposure to moisture, heat, and light cause seeds to germinate prematurely or loose their viability. Personally, I’ve even had reasonable success with vegetable seeds that have been stored in less-than-ideal conditions when I accidentally left them in the damp, unheated garage over winter.

Over time, however, the quality of the seed does degrade, and the germination success (the percentage of seeds that successfully transform themselves into teensy seedlings) does decrease over time. If you aren’t sure about the quality of your seed, it is pretty easy to do a germination test and find out before you plant them.

Where I Buy Seeds for My Gardens

Some people go bananas about seed catalogs, sifting through a dozen or more catalogs to see what’s new and exciting. I am not one of those people. I only have a few seed catalogs that I look at each year, generally focusing on companies from the Midwest. Here are the primary places that I go to for purchasing seeds and plants:

  • Seed Savers Exchange (Decorah, IA): This company specializes in heirloom and heritage seed varieties that were passed on by generations of gardeners and farmers before the industrialization of agriculture reduced the variety of crops that are commonly grown. Vegetables, herbs, and some flowers. Also seed potatoes.
  • Jung Seed (Randolph, WI): This family-owned company is very close to where I grew up and has an immense variety of plants for all types of gardeners. Vegetables and flower seed, seed potatoes and garlic, live plants (flowers, fruits, trees, etc.)
  • Prairie Nursery (Westfield, WI): Another company from near where I grew up, specializing in perennial native plants for the Midwest.
  • Dixondale Farms (Carrizo Springs, TX): A few years ago, I switched from buying seed sets to buying seed starts—baby onions that are ready to plant into the ground in early spring. My onions have never been better, and this company has onions suitable for regions across the entire US.
A few of my favorite catalogs!

Other Companies

As I said earlier, the options for seeds are pretty much endless. I’ve highlighted a few companies here that are recommended by other northern gardeners, but I don’t have personal experience with these companies. Ask gardeners near you or seek out a local gardening group to get suggestions for what works best for where you live.

  • Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Maine): An employee-owned company recommended by many gardeners I know for vegetables, although I haven’t tried this company yet.
  • Territorial Seed Company (Oregon): A family-owned company with a variety of vegetable seeds and perennial flowers and plants that has also been recommended to me by a few people.
  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (Missouri): Notable for rare and heirloom vegetable seeds, and fun pictures in the catalog.
  • Denali Seed (Alaska) : Noted by several bloggers for seeds in Alaska and other cool/cold-climate locations.
  • Prairie Garden Seeds (Saskatchewan): A great variety of vegetables and grains for cold climate regions in Canada and beyond.
  • Garden’s North: Noted by several websites for selling seeds worldwide.

This is only a small amount of what’s available. The Cold Climate Gardening website has a more extensive list of companies providing seeds, plants, and materials for gardening in cold climates.

Don’t Overthink Things

Don’t get bogged down with the many options that are available. Pick one or a few companies (or just go to the store), select a few plants to grow, and start gardening! You’ll do great!

What about you? Where do you get your garden seeds?