If you want to grow garlic, start by thinking of it like a bulb. Unlike most vegetables, the best time to plant garlic is in the fall (even though many seed catalogs will sell it in spring). Ideally, get it in the ground right after your area's first killing frost (this may be from late September to November or even December, depending on where you live). After you plant it, garlic will develop a healthy root system in the cool soil. It goes dormant over winter and waits to send up leafy shoots in the spring.
Like most vegetables, garlic prefers a spot in full sun and moist but well-drained soil. The plant likes lots of organic matter, so it's really helpful to amend your ground each year with lots of compost. Plant individual garlic cloves about 1 inch deep and about 6 inches apart. Plant them with the pointy side facing up.
Editors' Tip: For best results, separate the cloves from the bulb at planting time. Don't separate them beforehand.
After planting your garlic, spread a couple of inches of mulch over this soil. This will help prevent injury to the plants from sudden cold spells in fall or spring. Mulch will also deter weeds in spring and help the soil conserve moisture.
Garlic has a small, shallow root system, so keep yours well watered in spring, especially in May and June when the cloves are developing. Then stop watering in July to allow the foliage to die back before harvest. Garlic's small root system also gives it a tough time competing with weeds, so keep it mulched throughout the growing season and pull out any weeds as they pop up.
For best harvests, feed your garlic a balanced, supplemental fertilizer in early spring and again in mid-spring.
If your garlic starts to bloom, remove the scapes before the buds have a chance to open. This makes the plant put more energy into the clove (so you have better harvests). Plus, the scapes have a mild garlic flavor. Saute them in a little butter or olive oil for a taste of what's to come.
Around July, your garlic's leaves should start to turn yellow and die back. This tells you they're getting ready for harvest. Many gardeners wait to harvest until about half of the leafy growth has turned brown -- usually sometime in August or September. If you're not sure if it's time to gather your garlic, carefully dig one of the bulbs and see if the cloves are filling up the skin or wrapper.
When it's time to harvest, carefully dig up the bulbs, being careful not to separate the cloves. (Don't yank them out of the ground by the leaves like you would a carrot.) Cut the leaves back to an inch tall, and brush off the soil to clean them. Leave your garlic to dry in a warm spot for about four weeks so it can cure.
Many growers like to braid their garlic. To do this, braid the foliage together immediately after harvest, and hang the braided bulbs in a warm, dry spot for several weeks to cure.
Store garlic in a cool spot (less than 40 degrees F.) until you can use it. Properly cured garlic will usually hold for about 6 months.
You'll see two general categories of garlic for sale in catalogs or at your local garden center or farmers' market.
Hardneck types produce a flower stalk that will often produce small cloves instead of flowers. Their flower stalk can make them difficult to braid and they may not store as well. Many hardneck varieties are better suited to Northern gardens and often produce larger cloves.
Softneck types are generally easier to grow and more productive than hardneck varieties. They also tend to store better. They typically do best in Southern gardens.