How to Grow Garlic
Garlic has been used as both food and medecine for more than 7,000 years. It is easy to grow and stores for months. When you harvest your garlic, save the largest cloves to plant for next year.
What Is Garlic?
Garlic (Allium sativum) is a member of the allium family which includes onions, leeks, shallots, chives and the ornamental onions that we grow in our flower gardens for their spectacular flowers. It is native to central Asia and Iran but has spread and is now grown all over the world.
All parts of the plant are eaten except the roots. The leaves have a mild garlic flavor and can be substituted for chives. The flower, also known as the scape, is considered a delicacy. Appearing in the spring, they are removed from the plants to encourage them to direct their energy into the bulbs. The scapes are eaten either raw or cooked.
The most commonly used part of the garlic is the bulb which is covered with layers of paper skin. Each bulb is divided into sections known as cloves. Each clove is also covered with layers of paper skin. The skins should be left intact until you are ready to use the cloves.
What is the Difference Between Hard Neck Garlic and Soft Neck Garlic?
The two most common types of garlic are soft neck garlic and hard neck garlic.
Soft neck garlic refers to the fact that the central stalks of the foliage are soft and can be braided for storage. Soft necks best grown in warmer climates. They are not as hardy as hard neck varieties. The flavor is stronger and more intense than hard neck. Each bulb yields more cloves than hard necks. The plants also do not produce scapes. Soft neck garlic can be stored for up to 8 months.
Hard neck garlic, as its name implies, has a hard central stalk around which the cloves grow. The central stalk produces the scapes. The bulbs have fewer cloves than the soft necks, but the cloves are larger. The flavor is milder than soft neck varieties. Professional chefs prefer hard neck garlic because the cloves are easier to peel and the plants produce scapes which can be used in many different dishes such as pesto or cooked and enjoyed on their own. Hard neck garlic grows best in colder, northern areas. It stores for up to 6 months.
What is Elephant Garlic?
Elephant garlic is not a true garlic. It is a type of leek. The flavor is closer to onion than garlic. Each bulb has 4 to 6 large cloves. The bulbs will store for up to eight months like their cousins the soft neck garlics.
How to Prepare Your Garden to Plant Garlic
Garlic is planted in the fall, 6 weeks before the ground freezes. Depending on your growing zone, this will be sometime between September and November. I plant my garlic at the end of October in my zone 6 New Jersey garden. The idea is to plant it early enough that the cloves will have a chance to develop roots before the ground freezes but late enough so that they will not produce foliage before the frost.
In your sunny garden, prepare a bed by loosening the soil to a depth of one foot. You may add up to 1 inch of compost. If your soil is acidic, a layer of ash is recommended.
Can Garlic be Planted in the Spring?
Garlic is usually planted in the fall so that the cloves will have a chance to develop roots before winter. As soon as the soil warms in the spring, the cloves will immediately be able to send up foliage and then a few weeks later, begin growing their bulbs.
Planting garlic in the spring will result in smaller bulbs and milder flavor because the cloves will not have had a chance to develop roots the previous fall. Without roots, the cloves will not be able to grow the foliage and then the bulbs immediately in the spring. The plants will have a later start in the spring because they will need time to grow roots. They will not have as much time to develop their bulbs as fall planted garlic.
How to Plant Garlic
Break apart your bulbs into individual cloves a few days before you plant it. Do not disturb the paper covering to avoid rot. Plant the cloves with the point upwards. The roots will grow from the flat end. Plant them 4 inches deep and 8 inches apart. Then cover with a thick layer of mulch at least 4 inches deep to protect the bulbs during the winter. If green shoots appear, cover them with mulch to prevent freezing.
In warmer climates, garlic can be planted in the late winter or very early spring, February to March. Plant them the same way and mulch heavily to protect from sudden cold snaps.
How to Grow Garlic
Make sure that your garlic is protected by that thick layer of mulch all winter but in the spring, as green shoots appear, you may move the mulch away from them leaving the mulch between the plants. Leaving the mulch is important because it suppresses the growth of weeds which will compete with the garlic for water and nutrients. Garlic does not grow well when it has to compete for resources with other plants so it is important to keep your garlic patch well weeded.
Garlic will need at least an inch of water each week until June when the bulbs start to form. After that you can cut back on your watering. If watered too much while the bulbs are growing, the paper covering will begin to rot. The paper skins protect the bulbs and cloves so without them, your bulbs will also rot.
The shoots that appear from your hard neck garlic are called scapes and are a culinary delight on their own. Harvesting and eating them helps your garlic by forcing the plants to concentrate their energy in growing the bulbs rather than the foliage. You may begin harvesting your scapes when they reach a height of 4 to 6 inches. You can eat them raw or cooked.
How to Harvest Garlic
Although related to onions, garlic is not harvested when its foliage has completely died back. Rather, it is best harvested when about a third of the foliage is brown. This is especially important when harvesting soft neck garlic if you intend to braid it. The foliage needs to be soft to braid it. Foliage that is completely dead is too brittle to braid. Harvest is usually July through August depending on the variety and the climate.
Garlic bulbs should be carefully “lifted” from the soil to avoid damage. Using a garden fork, gently loosen the soil around the bulbs, then carefully pull them out of the soil. Try not to damage the paper coverings which protect the cloves.
The bulbs must be cured before you can store and use them. Cure them by hanging them in a cool, dark place that is not humid. Curing will take about two weeks. Your garlic is ready when the wrappers are dry like paper and the roots are dry. Brush off excess soil, but do not clean completely until you are ready to use the cloves.
Be sure to save your biggest and best cloves to plant in the fall for next year’s crop.
How to Store Garlic
After you have cured your garlic, cut off the roots and the stems. If you are storing soft-neck garlic, you may want to leave the foliage so that you can braid it and hang your bulbs. Alternatively, you can store your bulbs in baskets or hanging in mesh bags. Storage should be in a cool, dry place that is 50°F to 60°F. Do not store your garlic in your refrigerator which is too cold.
© 2014 Caren White