Do you grow your own garlic? Garlic (Allium sativum) is one of the simplest vegetables to grow and the best part is, you can plant your crop in the fall and literally forget about it until spring.
However, many people don’t grow garlic or think to add it to their gardening plans. If you have grown it, you know that homegrown has a fresh flavour unlike anything sold at the grocery store. The cloves have a strong, pungent aroma and an almost translucent colour.
Store-bought garlic is often sprayed to inhibit sprouting, thereby allowing for an extremely long shelf life. Old garlic changes colour and texture as it ages. As the colour changes from translucent to white, the flavour changes from pungent to flat. Over 90% of garlic sold in stores is imported from China and only a small percentage is grown and shipped from California.
Do you want to eat garlic that comes from the other side of the globe and was sprayed with unknown chemicals? Why buy store-bought, when you can easily grow enough garlic of your own and fill your coffers for the winter?
In this post, I will go over the simplicity of growing garlic, so you may consider adding it to your gardening plans.
Why Should You Grow Garlic?
Garlic is one of the easiest vegetables to grow and has a multitude of health benefits. Plant it in the fall and it will reward you with multiple stage harvests throughout its life cycle. Very few pests will attack your garlic plants and animal predators typically shy away from its pungent aroma.
As it grows, it goes through many stages of development. In the very early spring, tender green leaves may pop up before the snow melts. These leaves are delicious and known as young or green garlic. In late spring, a firm stem will emerge from the centre of the garlic plant, called a scape. It is recommended to remove this scape, in order to redirect growing energy back to producing a larger garlic bulb. Try this edible scape in stir-fry or pesto. After removing the scape (see my video showing how I quickly and easily harvest garlic scapes), your garlic will continue to grow and split into a many clove garlic bulb. Once harvested and properly cured, these bulbs will reward you for many months in the winter. With so many delicious uses, it’s hard to imagine a reason not to add garlic to your garden.
What is a Garlic Scape?
A garlic scape is a firm stem that emerges from the centre of the garlic plant.
This stem is tender at first and curls as it begins to grow. Towards the tip of the central stem, you will find a swollen area, that tapers to a tender long point.
If the scape is left on the garlic plant, it will straighten out and harden and the swelling at the top will become a false-flower.
This false-flower is unlike a typical flower. Rather than petals, the flower is filled with garlic bulbils, or tiny garlic cloves.
These mini cloves may be planted, but it will take at least 2 years to grow a bulbil into a full size garlic bulb.
Therefore, it is important to remove the scape early on (after the first curl) in order to redirect growing energy back to the development of the garlic bulb.
For more information on growing garlic from bulbils, check out my post “How to Increase your Garlic Supply by Planting Bulbils“.
How to Plant Garlic:
Garlic is divided into two categories, hardneck and softneck. A tough central stem immediately identifies the garlic bulb as hardneck garlic. The absence of a tough central stem concludes that the plant is a softneck garlic. Hardneck garlic is better suited for colder and more severe winter conditions, while softneck garlic is better suited for a milder winter. (For more information on the differences between hardneck and softneck garlic, see my post, How to Increase your Garlic Supply by Planting Bulbils“.
Hardneck garlic is best planted in early fall, before the first frost. It requires at least 2 months of temperatures at 4 degrees celsius (40 degrees fahrenheit) to stimulate plants into bulb production. Plant your garlic cloves at least 2 to 4 weeks before the ground freezes hard. In my zone 5a garden, I plant out my garlic cloves around November 1st. I tend to watch the weather closely at that time of year and select the first nice, dry day. If November 1st looks to be a rainy day, I plant my cloves just before the 1st or immediately after, whichever day is best. If that first week doesn’t work out, then the following week is fine too. Over the years, I have tried planting my garlic cloves from September to November and I have found that November 1st works best for me. This date is not a hard and fast rule, but the later you plant them, the less likely they will sprout and emerge from the soil before a hard winter. Just be sure to give them a few weeks to establish roots.
Fall planted garlic is ready for harvest in early to mid-summer, depending on the year and weather conditions. If you wait to plant your garlic in the spring, be sure to do so as early as you can in the season. They still require enough cold days to induce the bulbs to produce cloves. If they don’t experience this cold, you will end up with one solid bulb, or an extra large single clove.
If you live where the winters are mild, consider planting softneck garlic. It can be planted as late as December or January.
Directions for Planting your Garlic Cloves:
- Before planting, prepare your garlic by separating the bulbs into individual cloves. Try not to peel or damage the papery skin, but do remove any loose exterior skin and the hard central stem.
- Draw out long rows in your planting bed with a rake or spade, approximately 6-inches apart. Then, use a long handled dibber to create planting holes. Push the dibber into the soil up to a depth of 4 to 5 inches and 4-inches apart. Plant your garlic cloves pointy side up and flat side down. Then cover the holes with soil and level out the surface of the bed with the back side of a rack.
- Mulch your beds with straw, shredded leaves, grass clippings, burlap or row covers. If winter is warmer than normal, a mulch will prevent any early sprouted garlic from being damaged by a sudden freeze. In addition, a mulch will protect the soil from erosion due to weather conditions.
- When the ground defrosts in the spring, green shoots will emerge from freshly thawing soil.
After removing the scapes, the garlic cloves will continue to develop until they attain their maximum size.
Harvest your garlic when the plants begin to yellow and die back from the outer leaves. Once the third outer leaf turns yellow, I know my garlic is ready for harvest. This is usually 4 weeks after scape removal. If you wait too long and the majority of the plant has withered and dried, the papery skin covering the bulbs will have broken down, exposing the young cloves. Think of each leaf as a layer of papery covering over your bulbs. The more leaves that turn yellow and dry, the more layers of papery skin that have broken down and disappeared. A few layers are ok, but too many and you will be left with naked bulbs. This papery protection is important for long-term garlic storage.
To harvest your garlic, use a garden fork or spade to carefully lift the garlic out of the ground. The ground may be firm, but you don’t want to damage your garlic. Position your garden fork approximately 3 inches from the base of the garlic and push your fork into the ground, lifting it.
If your garlic gets damaged it won’t store well. Use these bulbs first and store the rest.
Curing Garlic for Storage:
After your garlic is harvested, carefully lay it out to dry in a dry, shady, and well-ventilated location for a minimum of 4 weeks.
Don’t overlap or stack your garlic, because they need air circulation to dry completely. If you store it before it is completely dry, it will retain moisture causing it to mold quickly.
Alternatively, I like to tie my garlic into bundles of 10 to 12, and hang it bulb-side up to dry in my shed. The shed has good air circulation when the windows are left open, it is shady inside and conditions are dry. I leave my garlic like this for at least 4 to 6 weeks, then check for any moisture. To do so, I like to cut one clove off at the stem and touch the centre of the hard stem. If it feels moist, I leave the remainder of the bulbs to continue drying. If it feels fully dry, then I test a few more. If they all show signs of being fully dry, they are ready for the next step.
After all your garlic is cured and dry and the skins are papery, cut the stems, leaving the bottom 2 inches intact and trim the roots.
Store your garlic in a cool, dry location, like a cold room, cool closet, or in an insulated and unheated garage. Use mesh or paper bags or mesh or wire baskets. If properly cured, they will keep for most of the winter.
If you love garlic, I highly recommend growing it in your own garden. It is one of the easiest vegetables to grow and once planted, will reward you with continuous harvests throughout its growth cycle. If you’re short on space, pop a few cloves into your perennial borders. They will grow just about anywhere.
Here are the tools that I mentioned in the post.