Guide to Growing Garlic
There are many spices that we can’t grow well or sometimes at all in our zone 6b garden. Cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and pepper, some of our favorites are simply out of reach. Thankfully, one of our most-used flavorful ingredients is one of our homestead’s problem-free crops. This guide to growing garlic will help you select garlic for your homestead and grow, harvest, and store it successfully.
Types of Garlic
If you’ve only ever had garlic from the grocery store, you’re in for a treat! There’s so much more variety out there. For growing instructions and the purposes of this post, we’ll divide garlic into three basic categories; hardneck, softneck, and elephant garlic. They’re all good but a bit different.
Also called rocambole garlic, hardneck garlic is named for its stiff flower stalk, which grows upward from the center of the bulb. Hardneck garlic is a favorite of northern growers as it does best in cooler climates from Virginia northward on the east coast. It’s an excellent choice for those living in hardiness zones 1 through 7, but some varieties can be grown a little farther south.
The flower stalk of hardneck garlic produces a secondary crop called garlic scapes. The flower stalks shoot up in early summer and curl around. Harvest these flower shoots before they bloom to encourage bulb production. They’ve become something of a delicacy in some areas. We love chopping them up and using them similarly to green onions.
Bulb size and yield of hardneck garlic varies with garden conditions. As the cloves grow around a central stem, they produce fewer but larger cloves than softneck garlic. Bulbs will typically store for 3 to 6 months.
Hardneck is my favorite type of garlic; we grow tons of it each year. It’s an heirloom variety called ‘Music,’ something I first started growing years ago in New Hampshire and carefully carried south with us. We have been fine with storing it long enough to have garlic year-round.
Don’t have garlic to plant yet? You can buy some of our ‘Music’ garlic here.
Softneck or braiding garlic is believed to have been bred from hardneck garlic. Unlike hardneck, it doesn’t produce a stiff flower stalk meaning that the stems are soft and braidable. Of course, this also means they don’t produce scapes.
Braiding garlic is much more heat tolerant than hardneck garlic and can be grown in zones 3 through 9. While they aren’t as cold-hardy, they are widely adapted, productive, and have excellent storage capabilities.
Softneck garlic is the choice for many commercial options and is what you typically find in the grocery store but don’t worry; there are plenty of great heirloom softnecks available! They usually have more cloves per bulb than hardnecks, tbut the interior cloves are often smaller. Bulbs may store for 9 to 12 months.
This garlic gets its name from its enormous cloves. However, it is not a “true” garlic. Although it is grown similarly, elephant garlic is more closely related to leeks than hardneck or softneck garlic.
Its flavor also tends to be much milder. Elephant garlic is often chosen for recipes that require raw garlic. It can also be steamed and eaten with other vegetables.
Elephant garlic bulbs may last for up to 12 months in storage.
Planting garlic is fun because you get to do it in the cool fall weather. Plus, there’s no fussing with tiny seeds. It’s an excellent task for young kids to be able to help with.
Choosing a Site & Preparing a Bed
The first step is to choose an appropriate site for planting your garlic. In an ideal world, a garlic bed has full sun, well-drained, loose, neutral soil with good fertility. We learned before moving up the hill that garlic doesn’t like wet feet! Bulbs were consistently smaller in our waterlogged beds down by the creek.
The most important thing is to find a place that’s relatively well-drained and receives full sun. The rest we can work on. Once you’ve selected a site, use a broad fork or garden fork to lift and loosen the soil. If available, spread a couple of inches of finished compost to the bed. If you’re dealing with a hillside you can find tips to build terraced beds here.
It’s a good idea to have your soil tested if you haven’t already. Amend your soil as needed to get a relatively neutral pH. Our soil is acidic, so we spread wood ashes from the wood stove or lime over beds at least once a year. If your soil is too alkaline, you can amend it with pine needles, sphagnum peat, moss, and compost.
When to Plant Garlic
No matter what type of garlic you decide to grow, you’ll want to plant it in the fall. In West Virginia (zone 6b), we typically plant our garlic in October, but when we lived in New Hampshire in zone 5, we planted in September. Our friends at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in Virginia plant their garlic in October or November. Adjust to your zone accordingly.
Is this a hard rule? No, almost nothing in gardening is. I planted our hardneck garlic in December and even January in a couple of fun experiments. It did just fine. The bulbs weren’t quite as big as the garlic we planted earlier but we still got a full bed of delicious garlic.
How to Plant Garlic
Using a hoe, create troughs in your loosened soil to plant your garlic about 1.5 inches deep and 6 inches apart. In cold climates where the ground freezes hard, plant a bit deeper. Planting too closely may result in smaller bulbs.
Separate your bulbs into cloves but don’t peel them. Place them in the troughs 6 inches apart with the root end down and the pointy tip up. Cover the garlic cloves with soil and gently tamp it down. Cover the bed with a thick layer of mulch like old hay, straw, or autumn leaves.
Caring for Garlic
Garlic doesn’t need much tending to for most of its life. We almost never water our garlic here but you may need to give it a bit of water in the fall, spring, and summer during dry spells. Don’t overwater; remember, garlic likes well-drained soil. Moist is excellent and will encourage bulb production, but you don’t want it soggy.
Mulch, mulch, mulch! Mulch helps prevent weeds and keeps the soil cool and moist. Organic matter breaks down surprisingly quickly during the summer, so be sure to add more mulch to your garlic bed if you notice it’s getting thin.
Due to the amount of mulch we use on our garlic, weeding generally isn’t a huge chore, but you should keep up with them. Garlic competing with weeds for light, space, water, and nutrients will produce much smaller bulbs.
Across much of the United States, garlic is ready to harvest in June or July. You can harvest garlic for fresh use before this. However, you should harvest the majority of your garlic around this time when about 1/3 of the lower leaves have turned brown and dry. Garlic harvested at this time will store best.
Even if you live in a dry climate, stop watering for one to two weeks before harvesting. If you live in a rainy area, try to pull your garlic during a period of a few dry days.
Cure your garlic somewhere warm, dry, and well-ventilated for 1 to 2 months after harvesting. Hang garlic to dry, or use wire, mesh tables, or racks to lay it out. You can braid softneck garlic during this time. We tie bundles of our hardneck garlic together with twine and hand them on our back porch. Properly cured garlic will store well.
After curing, garlic can be stored anywhere warm and dry. You can also trim your hardneck garlic stems off at this time. We keep ours in large baskets in our kitchen.
Select your best bulbs to save for seed for the next season. It’s a good idea to set them aside immediately so that you don’t eat all the best ones.
While I could never pick a favorite crop, garlic has earned its keep on our homestead time and time again. It’s relatively low-maintenance, provides tons of flavors to our meals, and is a great medicinal herb. Follow this guide and get a garlic crop of your own growing!