How to Grow Garlic

Garlic is one of the easiest crops you can grow. In most regions of the country, garlic is planted in the fall. By that time, many summer crops have already been harvested, leaving some free garden space. Just remember that the garlic bed won't be available for another type of crop until late next summer, when it's time to harvest the garlic you planted the previous fall.

Choosing What Kind of Garlic to Plant

If you're replanting garlic from your own stock, choose the biggest and best heads from the summer's harvest. If purchasing, look for garlic sold specifically for planting. Garlic from the produce section at the supermarket may have been treated with a sprout inhibitor to prevent it from growing.

There are several types of garlic.

Hardneck garlic varieties produce a stiff stem that grows up through the center of the bulb. Compared to softneck varieties, then tend to have a sharper flavor, with more variation in flavor among the varieties. They're hardier, too, making them a good choice for regions with very cold winters. Once harvested, the bulbs have a somewhat shorter shelf life than softneck varieties.

Softneck garlic varieties don't produce a stiff central stem. This list the type of garlic you'll find at most supermarkets. It has a relatively mild flavor. Softneck garlic is the best choice for regions with mild winters, and it's the type to grow if you want to make garlic braids.

Elephant garlic resembles a giant head of garlic and, indeed, it does belong to the same genus, Allium. However, it isn't a "true" garlic but rather is more closely related to the leek.

Planting Garlic

  1. Plan to plant garlic in fall about four to six weeks before the ground freezes.
  2. Prepare the soil by loosening it to a depth of at least 8" and mix in some slow-release, granular organic fertilizer.
  3. Just prior to planting, break up the garlic heads into individual cloves, leaving as much of the papery covering on each clove intact as possible.
  4. Plant cloves 3" to 4" deep, orienting them so the pointy ends face up.
  5. Water gently to settle the soil, and then cover the bed with a 4" to 6" layer of straw. Even as air temperatures drop, the soil will stay warm enough for the newly planted cloves to establish roots before the ground freezes. Sometimes you'll see some green shoots form in fall; that's fine and won't harm plants. They'll begin growing in earnest in spring.
  6. Next spring and summer, keep the bed weeded and watered.
fall leaves
Here in Vermont it's easy to tell when the garlic should be planted. Look up at the hillsides. If they're a blaze of red, orange and yellow, it's time.
garlic scapes
If you planted hardneck varieties, they'll probably form curly scapes. It's best to cut these off so the plants will direct their energy to producing large underground bulbs. The tender stalks can be used in stir-fries or sautéed with vegetables.

Harvesting Garlic

DETERMINING when garlic is ready to harvest is one of the trickiest parts about growing it. If you harvest too soon the cloves will be small and underdeveloped (certainly usable but not as big and plump as possible). If you wait too long, as the heads dry the cloves will begin to separate and the head won't be tight and firm (also not a disaster, but the cloves will be more vulnerable to decay and drying out so they won't store as long).

Though it depends somewhat on the growing season and where you live, garlic is usually ready to harvest in late July. The slideshow below, with photos from my own garden, shows what to watch for. Properly curing the heads is also important and you'll see that as well.