Learn how to grow garlic and learn all about garlic harvesting and proper storage!
Garlic is one of my absolute favorite crops. Not only is it an incredible culinary and medicinal plant, but it’s also easy to grow, hardy, and stores well for many months. When I have ample garden bed space, I like to grow enough garlic to supply my family’s kitchen and livestock needs for an entire year.
This post will guide you through the basics of garlic growing, storing and harvesting, and it has dozens of links for further reading!
How to Grow Garlic
When Should I Plant Garlic?
I think of garlic as a “school year” crop – I plant it in the fall and harvest it when school’s out for the summer.
Cloves are used to grow garlic bulbs. One new garlic plant / bulb will be produced by each clove. You can save from the previous year’s largest and best of your cloves, or buy “seed” garlic for planting.
In the fall, usually around late September or early October, I prepare a few beds in a sunny location by lighting digging in a bit of compost. I space each garlic clove about 6 inches apart, and push them into the soil about 4 inches deep, with the root side down. Then I lightly cover the entire bed with loose straw.
In more mild climates, you will find that garlic sprouts in the autumn, grows a few inches tall and overwinters at that height, whereas in colder climates (for instance, here in Vermont), your garlic may not sprout until early spring.
What Varieties of Garlic Should I Plant?
I like to plant a mixture of two types of garlic: Hardneck and Softneck.
Just like its name suggests, Softneck garlic has a more flexible stalk, allowing it to be braided for storage. It typically keeps longer, but grows better in more mild winter conditions. Inchelium Red and Nootka Rose are two of my favorite varieties.
Hardneck garlic is particularly hardy, and many say more flavorful. It produces scapes, or flower stalks, in the spring time, which are removed from the plant to produce larger bulbs. When I was first learning to plant garden, my mentor referred to Hardneck garlic as “Easy Peel,” as the cloves are quite easy to unwrap. Music is one of my favorite hardneck varieties.
Fertilizing and Mulching Garlic Plants
In the spring, the overwintered garlic will once again resume growing rapidly.
In mid-spring, I like to mulch my entire garlic bed with either compost, or bedding material from the barn. I’m not talking about fresh manure, but instead, the goopy, pee-laden straw that gets mucked out of the barn – it makes fantastic mulch!
I simply tuck the mulch around each garlic plant. This gives it a fantastic boost of fertility. You can do the same with compost or another type of well-composted manure. You can also use blood meal, or another organic fertilizer that is high in nitrogen.
What is Green Garlic and How Should I Use It?
If you are looking forward to your garlic crop and need a jolt of garlic taste, you should pick the young garlic plants or green garlic to consume much like a leek or scallion.
Harvested before the scape and bulb form, green garlic has an intense garlic-onion flavor that is perfect for stir-fries, salad dressings, and other recipes.
How to Remove Garlic Scapes and How to Use Them
Hardneck garlic will produce scapes in the spring. Scapes are the curled, unopened flowers of the garlic. It is important to remove them so the plant can focus on building larger bulbs, and not on flowering.
When the scapes begin to curl, as seen in the photo below, you can remove them by simply snapping the garlic scape off at its base.
Luckily, garlic scapes are completely edible and taste delicious. I like to chop them up in stir-fries and sautes, ferment them, or use them in place of garlic or onion.
Garlic harvesting is one of my favorite gardening tasks. Hidden beneath the ground is a garlic bulb, but you don’t know how big or how pretty it will be until you dig it up!
When Should You Harvest Garlic?
Typically, garlic takes about 9 months to mature (remember that school year?). A few weeks before your anticipated harvest date, reduce the amount you water your garlic to let the bulbs mature.
Because the garlic bulb, or the crop, is underground, it can be hard to know exactly when to harvest garlic. Too early, and your bulbs will not be completely mature. Too late, and bulbs can begin to rot in the ground, or the protective peel can crack.
I harvest garlic when the bottom 2-3 leaves have turned brown and the plant has started to look a little “spent.” I know this is a rather simplistic term, but you can usually tell when a garlic plant develops and is ready to harvest. Feel free to pull a crop as a tester from the surface.