Growing garlic is a pleasingly easy and low maintenance process. Thriving in cooler climates garlic plants do not require lots of space or attention. This means that practically anybody can try growing their own garlic plant. And there are lots of reasons why you would want to.
A useful culinary ingredient garlic has a range of health benefits and is known for its immune system boosting abilities. It may even be able to reduce your susceptibility to the common cold and influenza viruses. It is also a useful addition to the garden because it is a natural pest deterrent.
Interestingly garlic is a cultigen. This term is used for plants that have evolved only in human cultivation. In the case of garlic it has been cultivated by humans for over 7000 years. This means that the familiar plant that we use in the kitchen is not found in the wild. Its closest relative is native to Asia.
Classified as a bulbous perennial, garlic belongs to the Allium family along with onions, chives, leeks and shallots. Reaching a height of 18 to 24 inches, most varieties are hardy in USDA Zones 4 to 9. Usually planted in the fall, in the coldest climates it is best started undercover or planted in the spring.
Commonly used as a culinary ingredient, growing garlic is pleasingly simple and low maintenance. Anyone with a pot and a little time can grow their own plant.
If you want to start growing your own garlic plant, here is everything that you need to know.
Different Garlic Varieties
Take the time to select a cultivar that is suitable for growing in your garden. If space is at a premium, the plants will also thrive in pots or raised beds. Just make sure to select a more compact variety that won’t outgrow its container.
There are two main garlic varieties: hardneck and softneck. There is also the larger Elephant Garlic plant if you have lots of room to spare.
In USDA Zones 8 and higher, you can try growing garlic all year round. In these climates, softneck varieties are ideal. In USDA Zones 7 and lower, select cold hardy hardneck varieties.
Hardneck varieties require a period of exposure to cold weather, vernalization, either before or after sowing. Planting in the fall allows this to occur naturally. Softneck varieties can grow without this cold exposure, but often do better if allowed to enjoy a frost. In mild climates, where frosts rarely occur, you can purchase pre-chilled bulbs from the nursery or garden center.
Hardneck cultivars are known for their mild flavor.
Hardneck cultivars produce hard flowering spikes and a central stem around which a ring of edible cloves form. The flower stem, or scape, is also edible. It can be used in stir fries and salads. Hardneck bulbs do not store well over extended periods of time.
- Spanish Roja, known for its rich, flavorsome cloves that are easy to peel.
- Red Duke, produces spicy, intense cloves. This cultivar is best planted in the fall.
- Siberian is a more subtle cultivar, it is best used in dips.
- Purple Stripes is an old variety that produces purple striped bulbs with a delicate, papery skin. A cold tolerant cultivar, it also does well in warmer climates.
- Chesnok Red cultivars, such as German Red, are known for their medium flavor. Thin skinned Chesnoks are easy to peel.
Hardneck cultivars, as the name suggests, have a hard, stiff neck or stem.
Unlike hardneck varieties, softneck flower stems are not edible. They are also less cold hardy, doing better in warmer climates. The name softneck refers to the neck of the plant, which remains soft after harvesting.
- Silverskin, a commonly grown variety. This is a reliable, heavy cropping plant that also keeps well.
- Picardy Wight is a fall or spring planted cultivar which has a distinctive strong flavor. If properly stored it keeps for an extended period.
- Germidour is another reliable cultivar. Grown for its mild, pleasant flavor it can be planted in the fall or the spring.
- Artichokes are another reliable cultivar, producing bulbs with lots of layers and thick skins.
Whichever variety you choose to grow, you will find bulbs and young plants for sale in garden stores and nurseries.
While growing garlic from seed is possible it can be a difficult and time-consuming process. Instead most growers prefer to purchase young plants or bulbs. Bulbs are also known as cloves.
You can, in theory, plant garlic bulbs purchased in the vegetable aisle of the supermarket. But this is not recommended. The bulbs may not be suitable for growing in your climate and may struggle. Many bulbs are also treated with chemicals to prolong their shelf life. This can make propagation difficult. Instead, always purchase bulbs from a reliable supplier. They will have a range of plants suitable for your garden.
The bulbs or cloves of store purchased plants can also be planted, but germination can be difficult.
Bulbs are usually sold when they are ready for planting, so spring planting bulbs will be available in winter and early spring. Fall planting bulbs are usually available from mid summer onwards.
Planting Garlic Bulbs
Bulbs can be planted from November to April, depending on the variety.
Most varieties, if they are robust enough to survive the winter climate, produce larger, better crops if planted in the fall for a summer harvest. Fall planting gives the bulb growing time to develop a root system before the winter begins and growth ceases. Once spring arrives, with a root system already established, the bulbs are ready to produce lots of foliage and quickly develop.
Planting in the fall is recommended even if your garden enjoys a hard frost. Try to plant 6 to 8 weeks before the first predicted frost date. This gives the bulb time to establish a root system but not enough time to produce top growth before the frosts hit.
In colder climates, softneck or non-hardy varieties are best planted in the spring, as soon after the last frost as possible. Alternatively, start the bulbs off in module trays in the fall ready for transplanting in the spring.
Where to Plant
Plant your bulbs in a sunny, bright position in light, well draining soil. A pH of 6.0 to 7.5 is ideal. You may need to amend your soil before growing. A soil test kit tells you exactly what you need to do to improve your soil.
If you are growing in the ground or a raised bed don’t plant in an area that has recently held other members of the allium family. A simple crop rotation system can help to avoid this issue.
If you have poor soil, you can also plant in raised beds or pots filled with a well draining compost.
You can also plant in pots. The pots should be large enough to hold the growing bulb. They should also have lots of drainage holes in the bottom and be filled with a light, well draining multi purpose compost or potting soil.
A pot 6 inches wide and deep will hold up to 3 cloves. An 8 inch pot can hold up to 8 bulbs while a 10 inch pot can hold no more than 10 bulbs.
How to Plant
Before planting, prepare the soil by digging in a 5-10-10 complete fertilizer. This helps to enrich the soil and encourage root production. Alternatively, work in organic matter such as well-rotted manure or compost.
When the soil is ready, split the garlic bulb into cloves. Plant each clove, pointed end facing up, to a depth of around 1 to 2 inches.
If you are growing more than one bulb, space the cloves 4 to 6 inches apart in rows. Each row should be spaced 11 to 12 inches apart. This gives the bulbs plenty of space to develop. If you are growing in a climate that experiences heavy frost or rain, plant slightly deeper. In heavy soils you can plant to a depth of about half an inch and cover with a thick layer of mulch.
Cover the cloves and water well.
If you are growing in pots, don’t plant the bulbs too close to the edge of the pot. Planting more centrally, gives the bulb lots of space to grow into.
Caring for Growing Garlic Bulbs
Once planted care is basic and minimal. Weed regularly around the bulbs, particularly in the spring when new growth is emerging. If allowed to, fast growing weeds can smother and stunt other plants.
When to Water
Knowing how frequently to water growing bulbs can be difficult. Never allow the soil to completely dry out. At the same time you must be careful not to overwater. Garlic dislikes sitting in waterlogged soil, it can even lead to the bulbs rotting.
If you struggle to know exactly when to water your plants, the Gouven Soil Moisture Meter is a very handy device. Easy to use it quickly and accurately tells you how much moisture is in the soil, so you know exactly when to water.
From late spring, around mid-May, until late June or early July, water once every 3 to 5 days. This can be reduced further in wet periods. Reduce watering further in early summer when new growth ceases to emerge.
Fertilizing Growing Bulbs
Begin fertilizing as soon as new growth emerges. Apply small doses, never more than 2 teaspoons, of a nitrogen rich fertilizer to help sustain growing plants. You can also apply a natural equivalent such as blood meal to the soil. This decomposes slowly, helping to sustain the plants’ growth.
A fresh, organic mulch can also be applied. This enriches the soil and improves moisture retention. Mulch can also be used to deter weed growth.
Protecting your Bulbs
Birds can target freshly planted bulbs, pulling them from the ground and destroying your growing crop. Cover your bulbs with a net or fleece to protect them. Vivosun Heavy Duty Bird Netting offers robust protection against birds and other pests.
A horticultural fleece can also be used to protect bulbs from frost damage in colder climates. The Kupton Plant Cover protects plants from frosts and cold weather whilst still allowing light and moisture to permeate down to the soil. It is also reusable.
Applying a thick layer of mulch around the bulbs is another useful way to protect them from frost damage. In cold climates apply a layer about 4 inches thick. In milder climates the layer can be lighter than this, about 2 inches. Remove the mulch in the spring as the bulbs resume growing.
Weeding and Pruning
As well as regularly weeding the plants you may also need to prune. Some varieties produce flower stalks in late spring or early summer. While garlic flowers don’t harm the plant, allowing the stalk to remain in place may result in smaller bulbs. Cut the flower stalk away to encourage the bulb to place more energy into developing a large bulb.
If allowed to flower the head, or umbel, opens to reveal showy star shaped flowers in pink or white shades. These attract pollinators and useful insects such as bees and ladybugs.
If allowed to flower, garlic blooms will attract scores of pollinators to your garden.
Companion planting is a great way to keep plants healthy. It can also help to increase flowering or productivity. A natural pest deterrent, garlic is a good companion plant
Good garlic companions include:
Herbs such as Dill and Yarrow can also improve growth. Planting alongside Rue can help to deter maggots while planting near Chamomile can improve the flavor of the cloves.
Plants to Avoid
Some plants can struggle when planted near garlic. These include:
Early Summer Care
In early summer your plant will stop producing new foliage. Instead it begins pushing its energy into developing the bulb. At this point, remove any remaining mulch from around the plant and cease watering. If you want to store the bulb allow it to dry out completely before harvesting.
Common Problems and How to Solve Them
A low maintenance plant, if planted and cared for correctly then it is unlikely to develop any problems. Don’t overwater your plants. If allowed to sit in overly wet soil the bulbs can rot.
Yellowing foliage may mean that the bulb requires more nitrogen. When actively growing these are heavy feeding plants. An application of a nitrogen rich fertilizer should correct this issue.
Garlic and Leek Rust are fungal infections that are common in wet soil. Presenting initially as rust colored spots on the foliage of the plant, rust can be difficult to cure.
Harvest affected plants as quickly as possible to prevent the disease from spreading. While unsightly the affected plants are still edible. Avoid growing alliums in that part of the garden for a few years.
If cared for correctly growing garlic foliage will be green and lush.
First appearing as a white fungal growth with small black dots, White Rot is a stubborn fungus that can destroy bulbs and roots, turning the plant into dust. Like rust there is no cure for white rot. Additionally the spores can live in the soil for years. Destroy affected plants and avoid growing alliums in that area for at least 15 years.
Onion fly is only noticeable once the plant has ceased growing. But by then it is too late to save the plant. Caring correctly for your bulbs and weeding the soil, particularly during the spring, helps to deter this issue.
Finally, stem and bulb eelworm is a soil-dwelling nematode that can be difficult to spot. The signs of infestation are often mistaken for white rot or onion fly. You can try to prevent infestations by planting in fresh or sterilized soil.
Harvesting and Storage
If planted in the fall your cloves will be ready for harvest in June or July. Allow bulbs planted in the spring to continue growing for a late summer harvest.
The most clear sign that your bulbs are almost ready to harvest is the foliage beginning to wither. The tops may also yellow. Once you notice either of these signs you can carefully lift a bulb to see if the crop is ready.
A mature head should easily be seen to divide into distinct plump cloves. The skin will also feel papery and dry. Thin skin that disintegrates easily is a sign that the plant has been lifted too early. Allow the crop to sit in the ground for a few more weeks before harvesting.
Don’t allow the bulbs to sit in the ground for too long after the foliage begins to wither. This can lead to bulbs re-sprouting or the skin splitting. Bulbs allowed to sit in the ground for too long can also rot during storage.
How to Harvest
To harvest, gently loosen the soil around the bulb with a trowel. Take care not to damage or cut the bulb as you do this. Bruising and damage can impact on the storage of the bulb. Once the soil is loose, use the trowel to carefully lift the bulb.
Gently brush soil from the bulb and place in a warm, dry location to dry out. To air dry, tie a number of garlic plants into small bunches and hang them upside-down. This allows the air to circulate around the plants. Softneck varieties can be braided together with their foliage and stems. Alternatively, place the bulbs in net bags, such as these Hanging Mesh Storage Bags, to dry. Again this allows air to circulate around the plant, fully drying the bulb.
The bulbs should take about 2 weeks to dry out fully.
How to Store
Knowing how to store garlic correctly helps to increase its lifespan.
Once dry gently remove any dirty skin and trim away the remaining roots and foliage. Be careful not to damage the bulbs. Damaged bulbs won’t store for as long as undamaged ones.
Bulbs can be stored in a cool, dry place, the temperature should average around 40 °F, for up to 3 months. The longer the bulb is stored the more intense the flavor.
Nicely formed bulbs can be kept and planted in the fall for harvesting the following year.
Allow the bulbs to dry before storing.
Easy to grow and care for anyone can enjoy success growing garlic plants. With just a little space and time you too will be able to produce flavor packed bulbs.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.