Growing garlic is possibly one of the coolest things to do in your vegetable garden. Especially if you’re a garlic lover like so many people are! All it takes is time and patience, and you can grow an abundance of garlic in your own backyard. Garlic is planted in the fall and harvested in late summer or early fall of the next year. So plan ahead to get your garlic growing before the winter hits.
Picking your bulbs:
There are two main types of garlic, hardneck and softneck. And in those two types there’s an abundance of different varieties, all with slightly different flavours and strengths. Do your research about which flavour profile you want in your garlic, or go to a garlic festival (they’re everywhere in the late summer and early autumn) and buy a local variety. Here’s a list of North American Garlic Festivals. If you live in an area with harsher winters, it’s better to choose a hardneck variety. They tend to hold up better through the colder temperatures.
Preparing Your Soil:
Garlic needs a rich, well drained soil. It doesn’t do very well growing in pots, so plant it in deep raised beds or directly in the ground. In around mid October to late November work some good compost into the top 6” of soil in your chosen bed. Loosen the soil and aerate it with a fork or your hands. You don’t want to pack down the soil. If the soil has a pH lower than 6.0 then add some lime to make it less acidic.
Each clove of garlic will produce a full bulb next year. So once you’ve picked your varieties, separate each clove from the the bulb. Don’t peel them! You need to leave the papery skin on them to protect them.
Each clove has a root end and a pointed stem end. Gently press each clove into the soil about 4-6” apart until just the very top of the pointed end is visible out of the soil.
Keeping Garlic Cloves Warm:
After you’ve planted all your cloves, you need to insulate them for the winter. The goal of the insulation, isn’t necessarily to keep them warm. But more to prevent them from freezing and thawing. To do this you apply a thick layer of straw. I’ve heard of people using leaf mulch as well, but I’ve never tried that so I can’t give any thoughts.
I use about 4-6” of straw across the entire bed to give them a good thick layer of protection. This straw layer will also help prevent weeds during the growing season. Now say goodnight to your cloves and wish them good luck until the spring!
As spring arrives and the ground begins to thaw, it’s good to give your garlic bed a bit of a feeding. This will help the cloves get a jump start on healthy growth for the year. For this you just want to water them with a good liquid plant food or fertilizer. I use compost tea. After you’ve fed the bed it can go on the back burner once again.
As the season warms up you’ll soon see small sprouts poking up through the straw.
Again, you don’t actually do much with the plants for most of the season, so simply enjoy watching your yummy garlic grow. I tend to go over to the bed a few times through the season to check for pests, or just count plants and get excited.
Eventually(around mid summer), each plant will send up a central shoot that will start to curl over on itself. These are the prized garlic scapes! They would be where the flower would grow, but since we want the bulb to grow, cut them off. The scapes are lightly garlicky and wonderfully delicious. Add them to pesto, roasted veggies, salads, burgers, pretty much everything. They can also be frozen.
Once the scapes have been cut off, the plant can now put all of it’s energy into growing the bulb. And so once again, you can let the plants just keep going.
As the summer comes to an end, and autumn starts, the leaves and stalks of the garlic will begin to die back. When most of the plant is looking pretty beige and wilty, you can gently dig up each bulb. If you want to eat the garlic earlier, you can pull it up anytime, the flavours will be more delicate and they won’t store well. But early garlic pulled up like that is known as green garlic, and it’s still very tasty.
Now that you have your garlic all pulled up it’s time to dry it. The drying process is important to preserve the bulbs through the winter. During the process the skins will harden up and thicken, and the flavours will intensify. To dry your garlic, dust off any excess soil (don’t wash it, since you want to be drying the bulbs). Hang each bulb by it’s long stem in a warm dry place. This can be outside as long as it’s protected from rain. Under a porch awning, or in a garage is a good place. I hang mine under a large umbrella that’s meant to stand in an outdoor dining table. After a few weeks, the bulbs will feel much harder, the skins will be very dry and all the stems and foliage will have fully dried out.
Once your garlic is dry, cut off the long stems and trim the roots. It can now be kept somewhere warm and dry for the whole winter. If you want to plant cloves from any of your bulbs, choose the biggest ones. Those will then produce big bulbs next year. At this point it should be pretty close to garlic planting season again! You can now start the process over again for perpetual garlic growth!