Skip Store-Bought and Grow Your Own Garlic at Home
Pop this onion relative into the ground in fall. Then harvest delicious cloves the following year.
A little fresh garlic goes a long way in the kitchen, lending a big flavor boost to just about any savory recipe. Plus, eating plenty of this pungent vegetable has several proven health benefits, including boosting the immune system and lowering blood pressure. Garlic is also one of the easiest vegetables to grow in your garden, even in a small space. And growing this onion family member yourself allows you to choose more richly flavored varieties than store-bought options, ranging from strong and spicy to mild and sweet. Here's what you need to know to successfully grow garlic at home.
When to Plant Garlic
Garlic is best planted in the fall and harvested the following summer. Ideally, get the cloves in the ground around the same time you would be planting spring-blooming bulbs such as tulips and daffodils. The ideal time to plant garlic is right after your area's first frost, which may happen anywhere from late September to late October in northern regions and as late as December or January in southern areas).
After planting, each clove of garlic will begin developing a healthy root system in the cool soil. Then they'll go dormant for the winter once the soil freezes, waiting to send up their green shoots once the weather warms in the spring.
How to Plant Garlic from Cloves
First, you'll need to purchase some seed garlic cloves ($16, Etsy), which are heads that have been produced for growing rather than eating. While you can plant garlic cloves from a grocery store, most store-bought garlic is treated to prevent it from sprouting so look for organic garlic if you want to grow it.
Pick a planting spot in full sun that has moist but well-drained soil. If your soil leans more to the soggy side, a raised bed is your best option. For the garlic heads to develop properly, they need loose soil, so make sure to add lots of organic matter such as compost or aged manure to your garden beds.
Heads of garlic are made up of individual bulbs or cloves attached at the base. Separate the cloves from the head at planting time. Set individual garlic cloves about 3-4 inches deep and about 6 inches apart, and space rows 6-12 inches apart. Place cloves in the ground pointy end up.
After planting your garlic, spread a couple of inches of mulch over the soil. This will help prevent damage to the plants from sudden cold spells in fall or spring. Mulch will also deter weeds in spring and help the soil conserve moisture. A loose straw mulch works well.
How to Grow Garlic
Garlic has a small, shallow root system, so it's essential to keep yours well watered in spring, especially in May and June when the cloves are developing. For best harvests, feed your garlic a balanced fertilizer in early spring and again in mid-spring. Then stop watering in July to allow the foliage to die back before harvest. Garlic's small root system means it has a tough time competing with weeds, so make sure to remove any weeds that pop up near them.
If your garlic starts to bloom, remove the scapes (flower stems) before the buds have a chance to open. This causes the plant put more energy into the clove so you have better harvests. Plus, the scapes are also edible and have a mild garlic flavor. Try using the scapes in your favorite pesto recipe for a taste of what's to come.
Harvesting and Storing Homegrown Garlic
Around July, your garlic's leaves should start to turn yellow and die back. This tells you they're reaching maturity. Wait 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 harvest your garlic, carefully dig up one of the bulbs and see if the cloves are filling up the papery skin. If not, wait another week and check again.
When it's time to harvest, carefully dig up the bulbs, roots and all (don't yank them out of the ground by the leaves like you would a carrot). Leave the stems attached and brush off as much soil as possible. Then leave your garlic in a dark, warm, airy spot to cure (which means the papery skin around the cloves and any cut surfaces dry out to discourage rot). You can either spread the heads out on a flat surface, or hang them up by the stems. You can even get fancy and braid your garlic to cure and store it. To do this, weave 10 or 12 stems together immediately after harvest, then hang your braids in a warm, dry spot for several weeks to cure.
Once the garlic stems have completely dried in 3-6 weeks, cut stems back to about an inch and trim off roots. Leave your garlic heads intact (don't separate into cloves) and store them in a cool, dry place (not the fridge). Properly cured and stored garlic will usually keep for about 6 months.
Types of Garlic You Can Grow
You'll see two general categories of garlic for sale in catalogs or at your local garden center or farmers' market: hardneck and softneck.
Hardneck types produce stiff stalks can make them difficult to braid. They often produce fewer but larger cloves than softneck types, and are easier to peel to use in recipes. Hardneck types are hardier, making them good choices to grow in Northern gardens.
Softneck types typically do best in Southern gardens. They usually don't produce a flowering scape. Their cloves tend to be smaller but more numerous than those of hardneck types.
Dozens of varieties of these garlic types offer different flavors, sizes, colors, and harvest times. Burpee recommends growing several varieties at once so you can "find out which ones perform and taste best in your own climate and conditions." It even has a handy chart of popular varieties to try, complete with descriptions of their different flavors.