I heard that the time to plant garlic is in the fall. If that’s true, how do I plant it?
I planted a number of different garlic cultivars last fall. It was quite a thrill to harvest three different kinds of garlic, and know that I would be eating my own homegrown garlic all year. Garlic is usually planted in the fall, and harvested the following summer around mid-July. Spring-planted garlic will not be as big. In Western North Carolina, garlic is best planted from about mid-October to mid-November. Plant in well-drained, fertile soil that has plenty of organic matter. Locally-grown garlic makes the best seed because it will be regionally adapted, but you can even plant the garlic found in the grocery store.
To plant: Pull the garlic bulb apart into individual cloves. Ideally, use only the largest cloves for planting (the smaller cloves can be eaten, or planted thickly to produce an early harvest of garlic greens.) Eliminate any cloves that look moldy, damaged or diseased. Plant individual cloves point side up, about 4” apart, with 30” between rows. You can also plant in double rows that are 6” apart, with 30” between rows. Avoid planting garlic in areas where onions have been planted during the last few years.
Growing on: Little or no top growth will be seen over the winter. Usually you begin to see top growth in early March. Mulch generously over winter to suppress weeds and maintain moisture levels in the soil. When leaf growth becomes evident in spring, you can start fertilizing (with something like Neptune’s Harvest Fish/Seaweed Blend) every two weeks. Keep your eye on moisture levels; they should remain even. As the days become shorter following the summer solstice, the bulb begins to form. During the last stage of growth, garlic can quickly double in size.
To harvest: Harvest when ½ of the leaves have turned brown. If you dig it too early, the garlic will not have achieved its full size potential. If you dig it too late, the outer skin starts to disintegrate and the bulbs begin to break apart. It is best to dig down in the soil and check the bulbs progress. The outer skin should be tight and the bulbs should be plump and fully developed. Loosen the soil with a garden fork and the bulbs will easily release for harvest. Leave the tops on, bunch the bulbs together and hang to dry. After about a month you can cut the greens off. Leave the tops on if you plan to make garlic braids (use softneck garlic for braids). If you rinse the soil from bulbs, be sure they are completely dry before storage.
Next year’s seed: Save the biggest, fattest bulbs for next year’s seed, and leave them unwashed. Next year plant the biggest cloves from the bulbs you saved.
Three types of garlic:
- Softneck Garlic ~ The necks of this garlic are soft when mature. Softneck garlic is the type that is braided. It is widely adaptable, makes the best storage garlic, and has the strongest flavor.
- Hardneck Garlic ~ This garlic sends up a scape (flower) that is edible and makes a decorative dried flower. To harvest bigger bulbs, it is best to remove the scapes. This garlic is very cold hardy, it has a milder flavor than softneck, and the cloves are easier to peel. Doesn’t store as well as softneck.
- Elephant Garlic ~ More closely related to leeks, elephant garlic has a mild flavor and produces very large cloves that are easy to peel. Mulch heavily, as it is not quite as winter hardy. Stores about one year.
Garlic is a great crop. As long as you keep it weeded, it requires very little attention. It is renowned for its healing properties, and can be used as a bug repellant in the garden Industrious gardeners can make garlic braids for Christmas presents (you need a least 10 garlic bulbs per braid which means planting a good bit of garlic). Worst-case scenario, you will enjoy eating it all year long!
Best of luck,
Ask Ruth © 2013 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School
Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She serves on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors, and in her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.