Growing Garlic: Selecting Varieties, Planting, Harvesting, & Storing Garlic

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Have tasted homegrown garlic? Unless you have your own garden, you probably do not realize how exceptional it is. Besides quality, there is also flavor. Almost 600 varieties of garlic exist world-wide. Probably you have experienced 2 or 3. Each variety has its own bit of flavor uniqueness. Your best bet to experience any of these garlics is to grow your own.

Add to that fact that over 60% of garlic sold commercially in the US is grown in China — growing your own garlic is a good option not only for eating local but even for “buying American.”

Besides being able to eat locally grown garlic, you can manage your organic garden and be certain that you have top quality, nutrient dense garlic in your cuisine. Garlic is a rising star because of its antibiotic and anti-fungal properties, among other benefits. You want to be certain that the health benefits of garlic are not eclipsed by what was fed to it or sprayed on it.

Considering that garlic is easy to grow and requires relatively little work, garlic is a great candidate for every garden — even if your garden in a half wine barrel. That’s how John from Growing Your Greens grows his 45 garlic plants each year. (Check out his video.)

How To Grow Garlic

Here is a quick little video to prime your gardening pump for growing garlic. If you decide to get pretty serious about this garlic endeavor, then invest in a good garlic how-to book like this one: The Complete Book of Garlic: A Guide for Gardeners, Growers, and Serious Cooks [Hardcover]

Garlic Seed

Seed for growing garlic is actually the cloves produced in last season’s crop. Those same cloves that you peel and mince for garlic butter are also garlic seeds. If you like the garlic you purchase at the grocery, then save some of those garlic cloves to start a garden. You want to save the largest, most tightly wrapped cloves as your garlic seed.

If your interest is to try a few of the many varieties of garlic available, then search out the garlic seed suppliers. Comb through the catalogs checking the flavor descriptions as well as indicators of what climate conditions those particular varieties like best. Choose garlic that sounds intriguing and that you believe will grow well in your neighborhood.

Until you are ready to plant, keep your garlic seed in a cool, dark place – not in the refrigerator. An open box, net bag, or paper bag make good containers for your garlic seed. The seeds need to be able to breathe.

Varieties of Garlic

Softneck garlic is the garlic you are most familiar with. Softneck garlic is what is grown and sold commercially because it is easy to grow and easy to handle. Softneck garlics have numerous cloves and are protected by several layers of papery skin.

Dried stalks of the softneck garlics remain soft and pliant. This allows the softnecks to be braided for storage if that is your goal. A few names of popular garlic among the softnecks are Silverskin, California Early, and Italian Purple.

Softneck garlic is the best choice for northern gardeners because it matures much more quickly than the hardneck garlic.

With hardneck garlic you get larger, but fewer, cloves and little or no skin. Lack of the layers of papery skin make this garlic one that is hard to keep. The hardneck or core of this garlic is the center of the plant leaving no room for small inner bulbs that the softneck garlic produces. Outer cloves are large and easy to peel.

Names you will see among the hardnecks are Spanish Roja, Germand Red, and Continental.

Hardneck garlic produces scapes which resemble flower stalks. The softneck variety of garlic does not have scapes. Scapes are delicious, intensely garlic, so if it is scapes you are looking for, plant hardneck garlic.

For a good selection of garlic, check out Garlic Farm and Filaree Farm

When To Plant Garlic

For the absolute best results, plant garlic in the late summer or early fall. Garlic should be in the ground six weeks before the first expected frost. This gives time for the garlic clove to develop a good root system before the cold weather sets in. You may get a green shoot to come through in that 6-week span. If so, pull mulch up around the shoot for protection. If you plant in the early spring, as some do, the garlic will grow but the bulbs will be much smaller than if you planted in the Fall.

How To Plant Garlic

These are the basic steps in planting garlic:

  1. Add finished compost or well-rotted manure to your garden bed. Loosen the soil down several inches.

  2. Separate the cloves from the bulb. Work carefully to not break the skin or cause bruising.
  3. Sink the cloves about 4 inches below the soil surface. Space the cloves about 4 inches apart. The pointy end needs to be up, the flatter end down. Smooth the soil surface and apply a few inches of mulch.
  4. Stay on weed-watch. Garlic grows slowly and cannot compete with weeds for nutrients and space. For a good harvest, you must stay in front of the weeds. Add more mulch if necessary. Mulch helps nicely in weed control.
  5. Keep the garlic bed watered consistently. If you let it dry out, the garlic quality suffers.
  6. If you are short on space, grow your garlic in containers. Here is a helpful video on the topic.

Harvesting Garlic

GarlicGarlic planted in the fall will be ready anytime from mid-June to mid-July. Watch the garlic tops. Paul Pospisil of Boundary Garlic Farm gives the best information I’ve found on anything garlic in this resource. He says to watch the garlic tops. They die from the bottom up. When about half of the top has died, dig the garlic to check for maturity. The garlic bulb should be plump and covered with tight skin. If the skin has burst, you are late on the job. This garlic will not keep as long. If the skin is tight but the bulb has not plumped out, it needs a little more time in the ground. Use the dug garlic bulb in the kitchen and keep check every few days.

If you are growing hardneck garlic you will see “scapes” form before the bulbs are ready for harvest. The scapes actually offer you the opportunity for an extra special harvest. Scapes look like flower heads beginning to form. Snap them off and use them in cooking. If you allow the scapes to mature, they will take energy from your developing garlic head, reducing the quality of your final harvest.

When you know the garlic bulbs are mature, choose a dry day for harvest and follow these basic steps:

  1. Using a spade or garden fork, dig in and carefully lift the garlic bulb from the bed. Paul advises to handle garlic gently as if you were gathering eggs from the hen house. Garlic bruises easily and the bruises reduce the garlic quality. This is avoidable, so work slowly and mindfully.

  2. Holding the garlic tops, gently brush the soil from the bulbs. If your soil is clingy, use a gentle spray of water to remove the soil.
  3. Lay out the garlic plants in a warm airy location, free from direct sun. Good circulation is critical. This curing time takes about 2 weeks.

If you plan to braid the softneck garlic, you can start the process about half way into the curing process. The tops are more pliable at this point than they will be later. Hang the braids in an optimum curing location.

How To Store Garlic

When the curing time is past, sort through the garlic. Pull out any garlic cloves that have split skin and send them to the kitchen for immediate use. These cloves will not store well. If there is any sign of rot or molding, consign those garlic bulbs to the compost. Rot and mold spread faster than you would believe.

Now is a fine time for setting your best garlic aside for next season’s planting. You will want to take especially good care of this garlic. As you plant the largest cloves each season, your garlic harvest will get larger and larger. This is part of what makes gardening so much fun.

Garlic stores well at a room temperature of 60-70 degrees with low humidity. Another alternative is a cold-storage of 32-35 degrees. If you pop your garlic into the refrigerator which runs between 40 and 50 degrees, the garlic will believe it is early spring and start to sprout.

Every few weeks check your stored garlic for deterioration. If any bulbs look less than prime, pull them out of storage. Either use them immediately or send them to the compost.

Check out this video with some visual info on storing garlic.

More Garlic Topics of Interest

Elephant Garlic

Elephant garlic is actually a type of leek rather than a true garlic. The flavor is mildly garlic and complex. Because elephant garlic lacks the biting heat of true garlic, it is a good candidate to be eaten raw. It can be cooked but it quickly turns bitter if it is over-cooked.

Gardeners are intrigued with the size of this vegetable. Elephant garlic grows 3-5 inches across and has weighed in at up to 1 pound. The plant culture is the same as for true garlic and the two can be planted at the same time. Elephant garlic may take a little longer to reach maturity than the true garlic. Check out this video demonstration for growing elephant garlic.

Green Garlic

Green GarlicYou may have come across “green garlic” in a recipe and wondered what it was. Green garlic is extravagance available only to those who grow their own garlic. In the spring when the garlic is growing but not yet bulbed up with individual cloves, it looks like a small onion. This is green garlic. Plant plenty of garlic in the fall so you can harvest green garlic to enjoy in your spring cooking. Do not pull it or dig it until you are ready to use the green garlic so the flavor will be bright and fresh. This is an experience you get only with your own garden.

Google green garlic recipes and find special ones like this one from Recipes to Nourish. Explore the possibilities. You will be so glad you are growing garlic!

Garlic Scapes

Hardneck garlic produces something that looks like a flower stalk. This is the garlic scape. Most garlic growers snap off the scapes so they will not drain energy from the developing garlic head. How many times have I clipped the scapes and thrown them in the compost before realizing their value? Garlic scapes are delicious. Use them in any of your cooking where you want a fresh garlic flavor, especially in stir fry dishes. Not only do the scapes add wonderful flavor, but the scape’s shape lends a drama you will not get anywhere else.

If you left the scapes to their own plans, they would develop a head of small garlic bulbs called bubils. These bubils will grow into garlic in two seasons — patience required.

If you are not sure what garlic scapes look like, check out this video for a garlic scape identification.

Garlic Chives

If you feel you don’t have room to grow garlic, try growing garlic chives. This is a perennial very similar to regular chives. The plant grows in a grass-like mound producing countless numbers of flat green spikes. Garlic chives do well in container gardens and may grow well by your kitchen door.

The flavor of these chives is garlic, but more mild than regular garlic. Garlic chives are often using in Chinese cooking. Try garlic chives in salad, salad dressings, and soups – anywhere you would like a mild garlic flavor along with some green color. The white and purplish flowers of garlic chives are edible and make great garnish for composed salad plates.

Society Garlic

Society GarlicSociety garlic is a clump-forming perennial similar to garlic chives. However, the plant is a bit more robust and produces sweet-smelling pink flowers that has made society garlic a popular landscaping plant. Some gardeners have planted hedges of society garlic to deter moles. (This plan comes with no guarantees.)

Both the bulbs and the green foliage of society garlic are edible.

Garlic Festivals

If you love garlic and you love festivals, you are in luck. Gilroy, California has been enlarging and perfecting the Gilroy Garlic Festival for several decades now. Check out their website to see if you can work it into your vacation plans.

In a slightly cooler climate, you can attend the Elephant Garlic Festival in Oregon. These folks are online too, so you can check out their schedule.

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